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Garden Weeds Win

July 1, 2014
Everything in this photo is considered a weed to someone

Everything in this photo is considered a weed to someone

More folks wanted a post on garden weeds than pasture…I was leaning towards pasture myself, but I asked, so here it is.   I do think weeds are a state of mind though, what bothers one person doesn’t bother the next.  You might think grass is a weed, whereas I think trees are/can be weeds.  Others think clover in the lawn is a weed.  You get the point.  That old saying that a weed is just a plant out of place is so true.  My weed expertise is limited to the wet part of the Pacific Northwest, each region will have their own set of weeds to deal with.  Mostly I’m more concerned about the how and why and what to change to bring about the desired effect.  Weeds can be teachers, and I am sure most of my readers completed school with an annoying teacher somewhere in that time… .  Let weeds be your annoying teacher.

Self-sown Goldberger purslane in the carrots.

Self-sown Goldberger purslane in the carrots.

I have the usual cast of characters in the garden weed department.  Lambsquarters, pigweed, smartweed, chickweed, shepherd’s purse, quackgrass, nightshade, blue grass, junglerice, & millet to name a few.  Most I’m kind of meh about, others drive me batty.  The problem weeds we have are usually problems because of what we the humans have done to the land.  They know nothing, and many times neither do we.  The weeds just exist to fix the earth, as in cover the soil and make it green.   Who knew decades ago not to bury a draft horse where the greenhouse now is built?  Not to beat a dead horse, but really humans as a whole are pretty short-sighted.  An event occurs you react, you don’t go through the master plan in your head when something like digging a grave for a ton of horse confronts you.  You don’t want a Horsegate, you just dig the hole.

Or you buy your new farm and you have no idea what went on there in the olden days.  A thistle patch or dog fennel patch kennel is probably going to tell you where the barnyard,or high traffic areas used to be, or still are.  Anywhere we have thistles or dog fennel/chamomile is where either livestock spent a lot of time, or historically that area is a high traffic area leading to compacted soil.  Too much manure and too much traffic, hoof or tire, is a sure plan for future weedy patches of Canadian thistle, dog fennel, pineapple weed, yellow dock, burdock, and bull thistle to a lesser extent.

weedy gardens

weedy gardens

Since we’re concerned about annual gardening in this post, I’ll state the obvious.  Be careful where you site your garden.  Too shady, you might have buttercup as your problem weed.  Close to a barn, or old barn site, you probably will have Canadian thistle or dog fennel.  Poorly drained, yellow dock, and dog fennel.  We have all those, this is an old farm.  This garden above to my knowledge was cultivated for many decades, then pastured for many decades, and now it’s cultivated again going on two decades of me cultivating it.  There are a couple of thistle patches, and a few spots with a persistent hardpan that defies mechanical subsoiling, so quackgrass favors that spot.

main garden

main garden

The main garden is a predictable friend, old as dirt, and with predictable weeds.  It’s relaxing to weed there, and the only “problem” is at the keyline where the soil changes, there is always quackgrass there, the soil is “funny” and I suspect there is something going on there on that ridge.  It lines up with a ridge in the field that has wildlife trails and where the cows get goofy.  Cue the recorder music… . I feel the most grounded when in that spot.  Weeds or not.

Actually, the weeds don’t bother me, any more than a sink full of dirty dishes.  My main goal is to keep the weeds at bay so the annual vegetables I plant have less competition for fertilizer and water.  So weeds are another chore is all.  Along the way we try to learn what the weeds are telling us.  There doesn’t appear to be any easy answers to the weed conundrum, since the weeds growing all speak to the soil conditions from which they sprouted.  You need an arm full of weed field guides to first identify your weeds, and then you need a book like When Weeds Talk, by Jay McCaman.  Keeping plants from setting seed and balancing the soil can fix most weed problems.  Another good read is Weed the Soil, Not the Crop by Anne and Eric Nordell.  All that being said though, I’ve read all the books, am careful with my soil, and yes, we still have weeds in the garden.

let's play find the carrot rows

let’s play find the carrot rows

nightshade, lambsquarters, cilantro, oakleaf goosefoot, shepherd's purse, pigweed, and carrots

nightshade, lambsquarters, cilantro, oakleaf goosefoot, shepherd’s purse, pigweed, and carrots

I know this looks bad to weed fanatics, but what happens here is that the predictable, easy to weed spots get left until the last in the weeding order.  The most difficult areas always get weeded first.  The bigger any weed gets, the harder it is to pull, or cultivate.  This also isn’t my row to hoe, it’s my daughter’s.  She knows not to let these go to seed, and as much as it bugs me, I’m not weeding that row.  The soil is loose and friable the weeds pull easily.

Velour filet beans with cilantro and centaurea weeds

Velour filet beans with cilantro and bachelor button weeds

Self-sown Love Lies Bleeding

Self-sown Love Lies Bleeding  – a weed much like self-sown Calendula.


Parsnip seed row

Parsnip seed row

Leek seed row

Leek seed row

As I mentioned earlier, most weed problems are caused by us.  Each season my seed saving efforts cause me a little grief.  The leeks and parsnips have been here in the gardens spanning two seasons now, despite mulching for weed control, I have created a weed heaven inadvertently by going the no-till route around these plants.  However, I know that as soon as I harvest the seed, I will turn this area under.  In the meantime I will mow near the leeks and parsnips to keep the weeds from setting seed.

just dry enough to cultivate

just dry enough to cultivate

Remember when I mentioned man-made weed problems?  This photo above is the perfect example.  Seeds like a firm seedbed, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bean seed or a pigweed seed they like the soil firm.  The drier looking soil is the more loose and friable area where I have tilled and will plant, the dark, wet area, actually our path between rows, is the compacted area from our gardening efforts.  The weeds are much thicker in the path than the loose areas.

thread stage - perfect for weeding

thread stage – perfect for weeding

This is my favorite time to cultivate to mine those weed seeds out of the soil.  The soil is loose, and to avoid bringing more seeds to the surface I will lightly cultivate.  Sometimes I use a hoe or a rake.  The paths usually get the hoe treatment and the loose areas get the rake.  Those poor little weed plants don’t stand a chance with the rake exposing their tender stems to the heat of the sun.  It’s light easy work, and it goes fast.  Wheel hoes, or walk behind tillers also work well for this.  The key is to barely scratch surface instead of deep tillage.

Stuttgarter onions

Stuttgarter onions

Sweet corn

Sweet corn

Plant spacing also helps with weeding chores.  Onions, corn and squash are planted in hills or stations to make it easier to cultivate or weed around the plants.



Usually my weeding plan of attack is to cultivate between the rows, then weed and thin in row by hand.

potatoes -weeding and hilling are the same operation

potatoes -weeding and hilling are the same operation

Or in the case of a crop like potatoes, hilling is weeding as you pull the soil up around the plants.

These points sum up my thoughts about garden weeds:

♥  Take some time to site your garden.  Besides using soil maps, watch seasonal sunlight and rainfall patterns.  Our soil happens to be very well-drained so any of our poorly drained sites are due to our use of the land.  Remember use is not the same as abuse.  If the soil is wet we stay off of it, or pick sacrifice areas and use those only.  This advice applies to pasture as well.

♥  Take some time to site your garden…oh wait.  Did I already say that?  Obviously a spot with dock, plantain, dog fennel and thistle will not magically change into a garden spot with some tillage.  If anything tillage stimulates these weeds a bit and brings in a few more that you haven’t seen yet.

♥  Learn what the weeds want.  And then don’t give it to them.  Study up on how weeds propagate themselves, some are by seed, and some are by root or rhizome.  Quackgrass really loves hardpan, it just can’t get a foothold where the soil is deep.  Other weeds like lambsquarter while easy to weed, if let go, they put on thousands of viable seeds per plant.  Canadian thistle is a tenacious plant, but you can bleed it out by cutting just before bloom, and cutting again.  And true to weed form, Canadian thistle has a wonderful scent, it’s useful for something.

♥  Here is kind of a general rule of thumb to remember when planning your garden.  Grass type plants like little disturbance and a firm soil, annual weeds like a looser soil.  What that tells you that is if you use no-till methods your garden area will favor more grass type weeds.  More tillage/cultivation will favor more tender annual weeds, which are still a pain but a lot easier to manage than grassy type weeds.

♥  Bare fallow followed by cover cropping is your friend if you have your ducks in row and can prepare your soil a year in advance.  The summer bare fallow period allows you to weed the soil with timed cultivation and prepare your soil for a late summer/early fall cover crop.  If you live in an area that receives summer rains, (we don’t) buckwheat is a good substitution for bare fallow, it tolerates poor soil, does a good job of suppressing annual weeds and is easy to incorporate.  For those of you who suffer from quackgrass, cereal rye for winter cover crop suppresses the wily quackgrass.  Beware though, a wet spring can quickly give you a six-foot tall stand of rye, it’s not as easy to incorporate.  Sudan grass is also good for cover cropping and reliably winterkills so you don’t have to worry about working in a green cover crop in wet spring conditions.  What do I use?  I prefer bare fallow, and a fall cover crop of cereal rye, or spring oats.  Buckwheat attracts, well, bucks, and I have shied away from sudan grass because of possible prussic acid poisoning during frosts.  You can always count on livestock getting out once in a while.

♥  In areas that we don’t irrigate clean weed-free rows with widely spaced plants work the best.  In areas that we do irrigate (quick succession crops) we crowd the plants which does provide some shade and inhibits weed germination, however the no weeding approach can get you into trouble with one overlooked weed going to seed.

♥  And of course, you can avoid all this by building raised beds and bringing in soil, which is a great alternative, just not an option for me.

Weeds used to really give me fits until I began to understand how to read them to my advantage.  For me I can’t picture a life without weeds, but like everyone else if there were less of them I wouldn’t be sad.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2014 3:49 am

    Amazing! What a great post on the one thing that has been troubling me most this summer so far–weeds! Thank you Matron for your intelligent and thoughtful attention to this matter.

    • July 2, 2014 6:15 am

      This is a wonderful article! It should be in a textbook on gardening. I surely will save it for reference in the future too! Thank you so much for this article that will certainly help many, many serious gardeners! It also had a side effect for me! I planted 72 mini-greenhouses (re-cycled milk jugs) with seeds early this year. As I am now 79 years old, I just got all the seeds I had never seen growing that I had wanted so much to try, and thought…it may be now or never in my lifetime, so I had many kinds of veggies and herbs I had not seen in our part of the country before to experiment with. Then the sun and rain washed off my “Permanent Marker” name tags! These were new plants to me so I could not identiful them, but I planted them out and they are growing well, but I constantly am looking for ways to identify them. You had a picture of parsnips in with your weeds and I recognized it as something I have planted in my garden, but didn’t know what it was! Thank you! Alabama Grandma Gardener, Sarah Corson

    • Karen permalink
      July 2, 2014 6:47 pm

      True story… Paper clipped to the outside of my gardening journal is a packet of calendula seeds. First foxgloves, now self sowing calendula?! 🙂 This was great information, Matron. It’s obvious that there was a lot of thought and effort put into this post. This one was particularly helpful. Seems there is always something new to learn when it comes to gardening…like who has “better weeds!” 🙂

  2. July 2, 2014 7:13 am

    Do you know where I can find a copy of Weed the Soil, Not the Crop?

    • July 2, 2014 7:39 am

      It’s written by market gardeners for market gardeners, but the procedures and information apply to all size gardens. Cover crops, tillage, fallow, crop rotation, and fertilization are all included. Anne and Eric write the column Cultivating Questions in the Small Farmer’s Journal. They are my vegetable heros 🙂

      Snail mail:

      Anne & Eric Nordell
      3410 Rt. 184
      Trout Run, PA 17771

      Booklet – $10.00 + $3.00 s&h
      DVD – $15.00 + $3.00 s&h

  3. Jane permalink
    July 2, 2014 8:32 am

    Love this. We were using Back to Eden garden methods before with amazing weed-free results (no boxes) but are now renting and are gardening in the soil. The rental has great soil but I’m dealing with pigsweed and purslane mostly, a bit of lambsquarters. I’d love to find out what those weeds are telling me.

  4. Karen permalink
    July 2, 2014 10:01 am

    I was hoping for a more in depth post about how to get rid of weeds 😦

    • July 5, 2014 8:24 pm

      That would be about giving weight loss tips. Everyone knows the drill, but it takes some effort. Pretty much I just weed, and try to learn something along the way.

  5. wondering permalink
    July 2, 2014 11:18 am

    Curly dock is my current bane. We’ve improved drainage but not enough. And those bloody roots go deep and not in a straight line either!

    Having some luck with a really thick mulch – there’s a lot less dock where the mulch is, and it’s easier to pull and have the root come too. On the other hand, we’re moving in August, so I’m looking forward to leaving the dock horror behind.

  6. July 2, 2014 2:07 pm

    A good read about tolerating weeds. They’re actually friends to the plants we want to grow, we just have to learn how to use them to our advantage. I actually gave up the battle with weeds and decided to view them as part of the gardening cycle.

    I would recommend an experiment and see what results you get in your garden, because we have different climates and conditions. When you pull up the weeds on the patch, lay them around the plants you want to grow, so they act like a mulch. It will help deter other weeds from growing. Weeds don’t like to grow in their own residue, or at least they will struggle to. By continually placing the pulled weeds on the soil every growing season, the soil builds up a residue that signals the weeds they can’t grow there any more.

    Another small experiment you can try is reducing the spacing between your plants, and see if it reduces the weeds which come up. By planting your regular row and trying a portion at closer spacing, you should really see the difference.

    Planting your crops closer together means they will have to compete with each other for the nutrients available and the weeds shouldn’t get a toehold – or at least, fewer of them will.

    We have really poor soil here and hot summers too, so I have to concede to weeds. They have their place. I could never win against their numbers, so I use them to help me garden the plants I want to grow, and improve the soil at the same time. This strategy does work for me in the Southern Hemisphere. I had a patch of ground constantly overrun with weeds, and every year they get fewer and fewer. It’s gradual, but I should eventually turn the tide.

    • July 4, 2014 10:43 am

      That made me smile. This is exactly what I do and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It works well when it’s hot, but it does not work so well if it is wet. A few type of plants are more prone to rooting themselves back in the soil too and the worse is “Gallant soldier” ( That one is the real bane of my life in the vegetable patch. It just does not care if you pull it, if there is a hint of moisture it will happily root itself back in. Some say its edible, but it isn’t a treat to eat

  7. July 2, 2014 11:27 pm

    ” Lambsquarters, pigweed, smartweed, chickweed, shepherd’s purse, quackgrass, nightshade, blue grass, junglerice, & millet”

    Most of these are edible and very nutritious. Some of them are remnants of the agricultural systems that existed in North America before colonization.

    • July 3, 2014 5:13 am

      Ms. Pris, and medicinal too if you care to go that route. Most of these weeds though end up feeding the garden as we weed. Except the lambsquarters, I save that for my chickens 🙂

  8. Rich permalink
    July 3, 2014 11:16 am

    If you’re worried about the possibility of prussic acid poisoning from sudangrass, you could always try planting something like pearl millet as a cover crop.

    Millet doesn’t produce prussic acid, grows relatively fast, and has more leaves than stem (so it’s easier to incorporate), but it doesn’t grow as tall as sudangrass.

    • July 3, 2014 11:45 am

      Good tip Rich, I’m happy with my rye but folks who like sudan grass often times get into livestock later after veggies and it’s one of those things that can surprise you. Thanks again.

  9. A.A. permalink
    July 4, 2014 11:32 am

    My favourite weeds this year are potatoes and the regular parsnips. Neither are supposed to overwinter in the ground, but the parsnips in particular have really taken a liking to living here and are self-seeding. As far as the potatoes, last winter was mild.

    I wonder, do you get stinging nettles over there? Anywhere you put down compost or manure over here (or pee yourself a few times) they show up. Rumor has it the Finnish word for flax originally meant nettles several thousand years ago, so in many ways it’s another weed that’s also a sort of a companion species to settled humans.

    • July 5, 2014 4:20 am

      For as weak as parsnip seed is when you buy it, most likely old…I’ve seen the same thing as you with our own seed, I have parsnips coming up in sod where seed has fallen off the dry stalk from the previous year. We’re not near as cold as you so potatoes do come up here from missed tubers the previous years. Wreaks havoc with the rotation for sure.

      Lots of nettles here, mostly under the trees that the cows used to get to for shade and near any alder. They like the rich soil. Delicious weeds they are, and a quick cash crop too for market gardeners.

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