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Gardening 101.8

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What a summer!

June wasn’t pretty. At all. I had tomato seedlings in cell packs on my deck, awaiting transplanting, that got brown spots on their leaves and eventually looked sad enough that I had to euthanize them and buy more. I had zucchini plants in cell packs that just withered and died. I don’t know if it was lack of sunlight, or the cold. I wrote ‘Despair’ on the death certificate.

The kind of June we had gives cause to reflect on our forebears. Many of us can think back a generation or two to a time when the harvest from the family garden was their winter’s food. Imagine the state you’d be in living through five or six weeks of rain, drizzle, and fog, like we all did, knowing every such day was further reducing your chances of filling the root cellar.

Honestly, we don’t know how good we have it.

If any of you decided to try gardening this summer for the first time, you’ve learned some important lessons already. Patience. Perseverance. Pragmatism. All the ‘P’ virtues. Like most things in life, the important ones especially, gardening is not as easy as one might think. There is no gardening app you can download to bring gardening success just a click away. But if fall doesn’t come early, there’s still time to raise most of what you want. Especially since early July, at least, has been really good growing weather. If this keeps up, we might pull it out of the fire yet.

Weeding

There are likely weeds popping up in earnest now in your garden. I haven’t named any of them. And won’t, because I don’t know the names of most. A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to. Grass in your lawn is good, while dandelions are weeds. But in your veggie garden, grass is an undesirable weed. You want grass on your lawn, but not in your garden. So a weed is in the eye of the beholder. If you were growing dandelions commercially to make dandelion wine (I think there’s such a thing), you’d be cursing like mad about all the grass cropping up among the dandelions – a complete 180 on the perspective of the average lawn owner.

Once your vegetable plants are up high enough off the ground that shorter weeds don’t keep them from getting sunlight, weeds are not a killer as such, except that they compete with your plants for water and nutrition, and provide tiny little stepladders for creepy-crawlies to get up to the lower leaves of your vegetable plants. To eat them. Although your vegetables will not perish in a garden gone to weed, they will do better and yield more food in weed-free soil.

Weeding 101

Weed whenever you can. As often as you can. Begin by removing all weeds and their roots when you prepare your soil in the spring. Be vigilant throughout the season, removing any weeds as soon as they appear. Don’t just yank out the top of the little plant; gently pull up to coax its root mass out of the soil too. Many weeds propagate through root spread underground, so remove as much root as possible as well as the little green plant. It’s easier to weed when the weather is dry because less soil comes up with the root mass, and shakes off more easily. I use a three-claw cultivator when I’m weeding, to loosen the soil before I pull the weed up. That lessens the chance of it breaking off at soil level, allowing me to get more root up. It’s really helpful in dealing with dandelions – to get that long tap root to come up instead of breaking of.

A physical barrier will help keep weeds from encroaching into your garden. I have raised garden beds made out of 2×10 planks, and the wooden plank is a veritable Berlin Wall for encroaching weeds.

Having said all this, any weeding, however haphazard and inexpert, is better than no weeding. And the key to weed control is diligence. Start early and keep up with it, even if it’s just 10 or 20 minutes here and there. The biggest problem with weeding is not doing any for too long, and then the garden gets overrun, and it seems a bigger job than you can face. Many a garden has been abandoned; allowed to go to ruin because it seems like the weeds have already won the war. Don’t let that happen to you.

Preempting weeds

Some good news for you now. You can avoid the problem of weeds altogether in either of two ways.

First, you can grow everything in containers, because nothing can insinuate itself through the side of a plastic pot, and the potting soil you buy in bags is free of weed seeds. Sweet.

Secondly, if you ARE growing in the ground, you can use mulch to discourage weed growth.

Thank you very mulch

Mulch (rhymes with gulch) is any material that can be spread on the ground around plants to act as a barrier against weed growth. It does this by denying sunlight to any little sprouting weed seedling. Nothing grows in permanent darkness. It’s that simple.

In addition, mulch prevents the hot sun from beating down on your bare garden soil, evaporating moisture out of it. Under mulch, the soil is cool and moist, which plants prefer. In periods of hot, dry weather, mulched plants do better. And you don’t have to be watering so much.

You’ve seen mulch around town, spread in a circle under trees or covering the ground under a bed of shrubs. Much of the time, it’s just shredded trees and branches. That’s where the Christmas trees go, and where all the Igor slash went. You can buy various mulches in bags at garden centres. There’s cedar bark, pine bark, lots of them. But beware. Whatever you use as mulch in your garden (as opposed to under trees and shrubs) has to decompose and integrate into the soil. Otherwise, when you turn over your beds next spring in preparation for planting, you’ll have to first remove the big chunky pine bark or broken brick or whatever. You don’t want pine bark or broken brick mixed in with your garden soil. And whatever you paid for that last summer, you’ll have to spend again, unless you strip it off, set it aside, and reuse it. Not a good idea. Too much work.

WooHoo – a use for grass clippings

I find grass clippings a good mulch for vegetables. I have a bagger on my lawnmower, and one mowing of the lawns gives me enough mulch to do the entire garden. It breaks down over the winter and just seems to disappear. Perfect. It’s easily spread straight out of the mower’s bag and onto the soil around my plants. It blocks light, which is its job, but it allows water to pass through, which is a must.

Some people advise using newspaper for mulch, but around here, you’d have to weigh it down with rocks to keep the jeezly wind from blowing it all around the yard. And I’m not sure it will pass water well enough. Having said that, anything that comes to hand is worth a try, as long as it will block light, pass water, and disappear over the winter. See what you come up with.

If you use grass clippings, by the way, try to ensure there are no weed seeds in there. If you mow your lawn, and there are Forget Me Nots gone to seed, for example, well obviously you’re sowing trillions of FMN seeds into your vegetable garden. Not such a good idea. Immature plants that are not yet gone to seed, obviously, are okay. If you mow your lawn with any regularity, chances are nothing ever gets a chance to go to seed. But forewarned is forearmed.

Okay. Weeding. Check.

Don’t forget to water your plants. Religiously. On days when the temp is mid-20’s, I have to water my hanging baskets every single day. Containers dry out quickly.

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