Learning the ways of weeds

Around this time of year, I start getting really excited to get my hands dirty. I look forward to the tedious and sometimes strenuous work of gardening. Having a personal organic vegetable garden and being in the Student Organic Farm class, has doubled my enthusiasm. Pre-season is filled with all the hope in the world; hope that everything will grow successfully, hope that you chose the most delicious variety of tomatoes, and hope that there will never be a weed that could bring you down.
Sadly, as most gardeners and farmers come to find out, it is always the weeds that give you a reality check.  
One way to approach the daunting task of keeping your weed population lower than your crop population is to plan for hand weeding. This is the mindset that you, the almighty enthusiastic gardener, can remain on top of any such weed that threatens your much more beautiful vegetable crop. As romantic as it seems, our three-acre farm at the University will most likely not be free of weeds by using this method.
In our case, we have talked extensively about these relentless antagonists, and have come up with a few potential solutions. Obviously, this being an organic farm, we have nixed the use of herbicides, sprays, and other chemical concoctions. So, we will dig them, cover them, or keep them in the dark.
First, an easy way to clean up any row of veggies is with the use of tools. This involves much attention, but a lot less time than weeding by hand. We have hoes, spades, rakes and tillers for use whenever we see fit. Using tools is always a good place to start.
Second, we can cover up the weeds. This involves applying mulch. The mulch should be deep enough so that germinated weed seeds can’t push up through it. Also, it is important get weed seed-free mulch that will not just perpetuate the problem even further. There are many types of mulch that one can use including straw, grasses, needles, rocks, and many others.
Our third plan of action is to keep the weeds in the dark. This means we will lay down a landscaping fabric before planting anything.  These can come as paper, plastic or a tough fabric that lasts years. The idea is to block out light with these black surfaces and not allow the weed seeds to germinate under there. In previous years on the farm, these have worked wonders. Due to their success and storability, we will more than likely continue this approach for many years to come.
So, whether you are just a beginning gardener or a lifelong connoisseur, the challenge of weeds will never go away. With more modern additions to the weed-killing market, we will continue to find creative ways to suppress them; but in the end, we will probably never win.
Samantha Dvorak
University of Minnesota
College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences

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