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Don’t Fear the Weeds

June 24, 2011

Ah yes, the all too familiar orangish-pink color of spring spraying…  Multnomah County, Oregon.

I guess it was a gradual transition that came about with a strong marketing campaign by the chemical companies.  But when did people get so scared of weeds?  Weeds annoy me, but they don’t scare  me.  It may be different where you live, but in my end of the county we have no more paved roads than we did in the 60’s and 70’s when I was a kid.  The road shoulders were mowed and not sprayed at that time.  The guy that actually did the mowing, was old( he seemed old at the time)  and the equipment was much simpler, a 35 or 40 horse tractor and a sickle bar mower.  No one died of weeds as he diligently made his way around, mowing the right-of-way.  He did actually die during a mowing stint, but it wasn’t weeds that got him,  it was his poor judgment thinking his tractor was out of gear when he hit the starter from the ground.  An awful thing that, in a small community, Sode was missed, he and my dad came up together and made the transition from sometimes cantankerous horses to gas-powered horse power.

But, anyway I can’t see that spraying is the answer, when simple mechanical means can do the same job.  If the grass along the road is cut it will continue growing and stay somewhat green and succulent.  However, now with the right-of- way sprayed you have dead, dry fuel for fires.  Hmmm, let’s see, tourist and fire season usually go hand in hand, cigarettes out the window and there you go.  How smart is that?  Selling chemicals and the spray equipment to municipalities is a huge money-maker, and there are plenty of drones out there that can’t wait to run the spray rig.

It makes even less sense in a home garden or even on a farm, when you can just kill the weeds with your bare hands or a simple hand tool, or make that pass in the field with a cultivator instead of a sprayer.  As soon as you till again you expose more weeds and the cycle begins again.


I have a lot to learn from weeds, in my pastures and in my gardens.  They tell a story if you care to listen, and look.  Weeds definitely have the unfair advantage over vegetables, it’s up to us to slow that down a little and give the vegetables a fighting chance.


If I can I like to tackle the weeds in garden at this stage.  After a rain, when my soil turns light brown in a day or two, I try to cultivate the top layer shallowly.  Usually I can accomplish this with a garden rake.  I only want to disturb the top inch or so to expose the germinating weed’s tender stems.  If I go deeper I just bring up more weed seeds to germinate for the next go round.  Sometimes I hoe, but if I can get away with a rake (easiest) I don’t hoe (easy).  I could use a tiller, but it’s a little harder to finesse and not go as deep with a machine.  I prefer the handwork if I can manage it.  Of course, gardens with low organic matter aren’t easy to rake or hoe so building up organic matter and making a loose, friable soil is the goal.

I can actually cover quite a bit of ground with my rake if the conditions are right and the weeds are just babies.  My goal isn’t to get every last weed but to cultivate the garden between the rows and come back and do hand or hoe work close to the vegetables.


On a sunny day, these weeds don’t have a chance if I expose their tender, white shoots to the light.  The larger weeds become, the more work it is to remove them.

In the greenhouse, Ruthless is “weeding” out the buckwheat cover crop to make way for winter vegetables to come.  Not having grown in this space for two years, all the problem spots are coming back to us, hard pan here, symphylans there, compacted soil where pig nipples and chicken drink cups were in past seasons.  All in a day’s work.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 8:32 am

    My Dad was a commissioner and I can tell you that it’s cheaper to spray chemical than to mow. The spraying will also last longer than having to mow for several times. It also keeps seeds (from weeds) from re-germinating.
    We use chemicals in farming (as did my Dad did when we were growing up) and I’m scared of them as all people are. But, I’ve also been told that the chemicals are safer than some people with a sharp blade (in the mower) Go figure.

    • Vatsula permalink
      June 26, 2011 6:05 am

      It may be cheaper up front to spray with cheap deadly toxins, but we are paying a huge, unspoken price for our love affair with chemicals…

  2. June 24, 2011 9:02 am

    One of my favorite sights in Sisters was seeing the guy herd his goats next to the road for brush removal. What a fantastic synchronicity.

  3. June 24, 2011 9:09 am

    I wished my soil looked as good as yours….but it’s getting better. I hate weeds but we don’t spray. We’re thinking of spraying some poison ivy that we found though. Dang stuff. Love your green house. If all goes well this year we’ll buy a smaller one as a Christmas present for each other 😉 Slowly but surely we’re improving the old farm. Have a wonderful weekend!
    Maura 🙂

  4. June 24, 2011 9:23 am

    The only weed I get aggressive about is grass. (‘course, I’m in a ‘burb and don’t have poison ivy in the yard…) If a weed is encroaching on a veg plant, sure, I’ll pull it up, but mostly everybody grows happily together.

  5. June 24, 2011 10:52 am

    We avoid chemicals on our small farm and we are thankful they still mow in our area. That makes you think about the dried dead debris and the half smoked cigarett.
    I’m currently fighting the weed population in our small garden. It seems they have the upper hand on me but it is good exercise! Have a great weekend!

  6. Sheila Z permalink
    June 24, 2011 4:27 pm

    They still mow where I live rather than spray herbicides. Last year it looks like they upgraded to some newer tractors and a heavy duty type mower. Before that they were using a sickle bar mower that looked like the one my grandfather used in 1960.

  7. June 24, 2011 6:57 pm

    I spent over 2 hours weeding in the garden today, I soaked up wonderful sun, earned 12 weight watcher exercise points, fed my chickens and turkeys more pesticide free chickweed than they could eat, and made my garden happy. I really don’t mind weeding. Your greenhouse looks wonderful!

  8. June 24, 2011 11:23 pm

    Thankfully they still mow here, although with cut backs, it doesn’t seem to happen as often.
    One of our neighbours sprays the shoulder all along the front of his property, and it looks like a barren wasteland:(

  9. Chris permalink
    June 25, 2011 8:33 am

    I was just thinking about this yesterday as we drove home from the ocean through the Willapa area of Washington state. Miles and miles of sprayed roadside…and all those wetlands on either side of it! 😦 One commentor said…”safe chemicals”…should those two words be in the same sentence? And if one is afraid of something…why use it?

  10. June 25, 2011 5:23 pm

    I love weeds and grass. Instead of spraying them I use my hand shears and the lawn mower to make mulch. Some weeds are edible. I have loads of amaranth growing around my tomato plants. I wait until it’s the proper size then harvest it and sell it to my CSA members as well as eating loads of the stuff myself. When the amaranth gets to a certain size it always gets a fungus. Then I just cut it with the clippers and use it as mulch.

  11. Dawn permalink
    June 25, 2011 9:20 pm

    Its been mowing around here as long as I can remember, now with a huge blue Ford tractor with a big arm with a mower/brush cutter. All the roads get “done” about twice a year during the warm season – my road was mowed about 6 weeks ago – he does the hedges and the verge. The new driver is killer, and I mean that literally – maybe he thought he was supposed to be ploughing, but most of the verge is now dirt – it can’t have done the cutter much good. At least they’re not spraying though. A farm down the road grows green manure on 2/3 of a corn field each year, and before ploughing it under, he’ll spray it with herbicide – I never get the point of that, doesn’t he want the nutrients from the green plant material? I guess it makes the ploughing easier,as he lets it grow about 1 metre (3 ft). And a friend of mine commented the other day how pretty his field looks when it all turns yellow!!!! She had no idea it was due to pesticide, thought it was some mysterious crop.

  12. June 26, 2011 6:22 pm

    I kind of shake my head when I see the “dead strip”. Who cares if there are weeds on the side of the road??
    I know for a FACT that dead and dried up weeds catch fire MUCH quicker than the lush green weeds that are there naturally (with all of our rain, the ground doesn’t even get dry!) and all it takes is one careless smoker….
    It probably costs more to spray that it would to mow.

  13. Rebecca permalink
    June 29, 2011 1:55 pm

    How do you manage symphylans? Do you leave rows fallow/unwatered for a few years? My husband doesn’t believe me that they are such a big problem, but I am noticing them and their damage after a few years of using the same garden beds. I’m currently attempting to rotate with fallow beds, but my husband thinks we are the only ones with this problem (he doesn’t want to believe they exist) and that it is a waste of growing space. It is true that you do not hear much about them very often.

    Love your blog. 🙂

    • June 29, 2011 6:20 pm

      Rebecca, I believed they didn’t exist either, as my gardens didn’t seem to have the problem only this greenhouse space, and several friends CSA farmers were plagued. And when I had problems before in this greenhouse, I couldn’t figure them out, because at the time I was growing so many different types of tomatoes that I thought it was the variety of tomatoes. It didn’t occur to me that is was symphylans until my 3rd planting of squash, I had pulled out the first two that were weak and not thriving, drew no conclusions and replanted in the same spot, then I dug up the third planting with a shovel and they were plain as day scurrying off. They are tiny and very fast, without a shovel full of dirt with the plants in it you would never see them. Fallowing doesn’t seem to make any difference as this spot was fallow for 2 full years while we dismantled the collapsed greenhouse and rebuilt it. The only solution I can come up for me is to mark my locations and not plant susceptible plants there. I can’t move the greenhouse now, so I have to deal with it. They aren’t bothering everything – lettuce, spinach, misc greens, are growing right where the tomatoes, squash and melons were ruined. Sigh. Makes for an odd rotation. But I think I can work around it. Spring oats as a cover crop are supposed to help suppress them, whereas rye aids them.

      • Rebecca permalink
        June 30, 2011 9:51 am

        Thank you for your response. 🙂 I have seen the little guys after noticing damaged spinach, so I know for sure that we have them, and we must have lots if just digging a little in the soil can turn them up. Sections of our greenhouse are problem areas now too (some spots have more problems than others, like in yours). I noticed this year that some of my squash plants are looking stunted and have yellow leaves, while the squash I planted on ground I have not yet used in the greenhouse are thriving. Same soil amendment, and size of squash starts planted. My plan is to probably grow in containers for a few years (over ground I have not cultivated yet in the greenhouse and therefore ground that is compacted) . . . I am starting to think that slowly digging beds in the greenhouse has been a good thing (the decision was based on lack of time and lack of a clear plan on how I wanted my beds aligned in the greenhouse when it was first constructed). I left large aisles and now I think I will use them for container growing.

        Thank you for the info. I did some googling yesterday, as you jogged my memory that I should research symphylans more. I noticed that spring oats were recommended, but didn’t know that rye is favorable to them. That is good to know!

        I am going to try keeping beds fallow for three growing seasons, as that is what Steve Solomon recommends and I guess I will see how that goes. I am currently on year two of fallow rotation for half my kitchen garden. I was planning to plant a cover crop of Austrian field peas or rye when the rains return . . . so now I know it would be better to plant the peas, which I was leaning toward anyway due to their adding nitrogen back.

        • July 1, 2011 5:00 am

          Rebecca, my squash experiment was the same. I wanted a few early ones in the greenhouse, they have succumbed and the ones outside braving the cold nights are growing and very healthy. It funny about the rye oats and I use it and have over the years for a cover crop outside where I don’t see much evidence of symphylans, however I have only used it once in this greenhouse space. It’s always something 🙂

        • July 1, 2011 6:46 am

          Symphylans are incredibly frustrating and very hard to deal with in my experience. Mowing sudan cover crops is supposed to help. Aggressive tilling before planting sets them back, but only for a week or so. Even the “experts” I’ve talked to (PhD’s on the specific topic) don’t really know what to do about them. The one thing that’s seemed to work for us is potatoes. The season after potatoes they seem to have gone away. This is strange because a cut potato is used as a trap for monitoring. For us spinach is actually one of the things that is hit hardest by them (as well as squash). Lettuce and most other strong transplants seem to do better. Direct seeded crops are doomed. I’ve also noticed that they seem to come on stronger after a cool wet winter, maybe all the extra organic matter that gets tilled in?

          Right on with the timing suggestion on hoeing, Nita. Really hard for a lot of people to understand just how easy heavy flushes of weeds are to deal with if you hoe or rake them at the thread stage, but they understand how hard it is if they let them go until they can really see them clearly. Also a great point that you don’t have to get every last one on that first pass, and you wont even if you try so you might as well go a little faster and come back in a week or two.

        • July 1, 2011 7:30 am

          Josh, thanks for this, I think since I am dealing with such a small area in my greenhouse, I will put in some potatoes today! I have a few left over, and I have already pulled the squash and tomatoes in disgust. I was not wanting to put potatoes in there just because I am already heavy on solanums in the greenhouse, but if it’s worth a try. If only we could get the symphylans to eat down the road right of ways, instead of the county spraying them, we would be in business 😉

          I’ll be hoeing and raking again this weekend. It’s actually been kind of a dry June (Yes, I am really saying that) as far a timing seeding just before a rain, then getting enough dry time to cultivate a little, and plant more before the next rain. Many a June in my life I have waited weeks in June while the weeds grew and the soil was to wet to even walk in the garden.

  14. Rebecca permalink
    July 6, 2011 9:31 am

    (Responding to Josh) . . . I heard that about potatoes too, and also that potatoes are used as traps so I wasn’t sure what to believe. Thanks for sharing your experience! I’ll try it in years to come.

    “Direct seeded crops are doomed.” Oh yes. I had a year where the only carrots I could grow were the ones that had self seeded in my paths. I am pretty sure it was symphylans at work and that is what got me to take notice.

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