Weed Whacker: How to Level Pesky Plants Organically

You don't always have to break out the pesticides to tackle those trespassing dandelions.
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Rid your lawn of dandelions organically.

Unwelcome vegetation is a simple—but unwanted—fact of any healthy growing environment. Weeds are especially irksome to home gardeners because they compete for nutrients, water and sunlight, stealing those resources away from the plants you want to grow. Conventional gardening makes use of chemical herbicides to prevent weed overrun, significantly reducing the need for sustained weed management. However, concerns regarding health and environmental sustainability have led many gardeners to seek other options. 

Organic gardening uses earth-friendly and crop-healthy options to manage weeds and keep plants thriving. 

For the organic gardener, a thoughtful approach and diligent maintenance are the tools of the trade. Close consideration to detail when planning a garden and continuing and consistent management to the planting environment can make the difference between enjoying a productive crop and watching plants wither. 

“Growing organically, you’re pretty much using brains and brawn.” says Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm, a certified organic grower in Montague, MA. Red Fire operates through farmers markets and their consumer supported agriculture (CSA) program and have been providing organically grown produce since 2001.

“A lot of it is just about planning,” Voiland continues. “You’ve got to think about what crops are weed sensitive and make sure they’re going into a field that doesn’t have high weed pressure. That’s done by rotating where you plant particular crops. For example, winter squash is fairly easy to keep “clean” (weed free). Because a field where the squash was grown finishes pretty clean, we can follow it with something like carrots, which are a huge job for weeding. That way the carrots won’t face as much weed pressure.”

The practice of crop rotation is important for the home gardener as well. Keeping a journal of where different plant families were sown each year and changing crop placements each year will reduce environmental pressures and ease the burden weed-intensive crops can bring.

Cultivating the plot before planting by disturbing just the top layer of soil will destroy weeds that are beginning to sprout, allowing crops a head start. Mulch is also a valuable tool in keeping weeds down, especially early in the season. But even with thorough planning and plot preparation, weeds are a fact of gardening. Healthy soil will always draw hungry weeds. 

As with many things, the answer lies in a little hard work. 

As plants begin to sprout, so do weeds. Because weeds are frequently more aggressive growers than the crop itself, plants are at their most vulnerable in these early stages.  Once plants reach a size where they are able to “shade out” their competitors, dangers are reduced. Germinating seeds in containers and transplanting them into the ground once they have reached two inches or more eases the process.

Regular inspection and diligence in keeping the plot weed-free manually are the best tools of the organic gardener for protecting crops. This strategy applies to a garden of any size.

“One of the biggest things I learned when I got into farming is that the best time to kill weeds is when you can barely see them. That takes the least amount of energy. We will even get out there with butter knives,” Voiland laughs. 

Removing weeds before they become a problem is the solution. 

Attending to weed management early and often will keep the well-planned organic garden thriving all season long. “Get out there with a hoe and disturb that top layer. Do that at least once a week and you’ll keep them down instead of having to deal with them when they’re a foot tall. Get them when they are little and it makes the job a lot easier.”

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