According to Dr. William C. Welch, Texas AgriLife Extension Service Horticulturist, controlling weeds can be one of the most troublesome jobs associated with producing vegetables in a home garden.
When selecting a new garden site, weed problems should be an important consideration. Experienced gardeners have found that where certain weeds occur, it is best to forget about planting a garden. Areas that are infested with perennial weeds such as Bermuda grass, Johnson grass and nutsedge (nut grass) are not suited to vegetable gardening.
There is no one herbicide that can be used to selectively control these pests in home gardens, and controlling them by hand, hoe and plow is difficult and labor-intensive.
Today, when most gardeners think about weed control, they usually think about chemical weed control. Indeed, herbicides are essential tools in the production of most crops, including certain vegetables. But for the home gardener, “older,” traditional methods are still important. Herbicides may be used under certain conditions to control some weeds in some vegetables grown in the home garden. But there is no herbicide that can be used on all vegetable crops that will control all weeds. The use of herbicides in a home garden requires careful planning and application. For most home gardeners who grow a number of vegetables on a small area, the use of herbicides is not practical.
The first step in controlling weeds for the home garden should be to prepare a good seedbed in which to plant vegetables. All weed growth should be destroyed and the seedbed should be smooth, firm and free of clods. This allows vegetable seeds to be planted and covered to the correct depth so plants will emerge uniformly and grow rapidly to get ahead of the first crop of weeds.
Most annual weeds can be controlled by cultivation. Annual broad-leaf weeds are easily removed while they are in the seedling stage. Cultivations should be made to control each flush of weeds that emerge, usually within a few days after a rain. At this stage, weed seedlings are easily uprooted, even with hand-pushed garden plows, hoes and other hand tools. If the weeds are allowed to get very large before control measures are taken, their root systems will develop to such an extent that removal with a garden plow or hoe will be difficult, if not impossible.
The first few weeks after vegetables are planted, is the most important time to control weeds. After vegetables get well established and start shading the ground, they become competitive and do a good job of preventing the establishment of new weeds.
Mulches of plastic, grass clippings, straw, leaves and other such materials may also be used to aid in the control of weeds. In addition, mulches help conserve soil moisture. Some gardeners have found old newspapers to be good mulching material.
For best results with mulches it is important to remove all weeds by cultivation, hoeing or hand-pulling before applying mulching materials. A good mulch prevents light from reaching the soil surface and prevents weed seedlings from becoming established. Porous mulches such as hay or straw should be several inches thick to accomplish this purpose.
By following good cultural practices and using mulches along with timely cultivation and hand-hoeing, most annual weeds can be controlled in home gardens without excessive “backbreaking” labor.
For more information about vegetable gardening, contact the AgriLife Extension office, Clay County at (940) 538-5042.