Weedless Gardening

By Lee Reich

No doubt about it: weeds are a major garden bugaboo, as I learned when I first started gardening and reading about gardening thirty years ago. Drawing on my subsequent work as a soil researcher for the USDA and Cornell University, the experiences of other gardeners, what was going on in my own “back forty,” and Mother Nature herself, I managed to come up with a way of essentially eliminating weed problems. This “weedless gardening” system (detailed in my book Weedless Gardening) takes care of the soil beneath trees and shrubs as well as in flower and vegetable gardens and has four components. Happily, each component also brings its own benefits beyond weed control.

The essence of “weedless gardening” is as follows:

  • Minimize soil disturbance. In other words, do not till or otherwise turn over the soil and disturb its natural layering. Buried within every soil are myriad weed seeds, lying dormant but ready to awaken as soon as exposed to light and/or air. Tilling, although it kills growing weeds, sows new ones.
  • Designate permanent areas for planting and permanent areas for your feet, wheelbarrows, or other traffic. Tilling does aerate the soil, so you can’t just stop tilling and garden as usual. But soils need aeration because they become compacted from being walked and rolled upon. I direct “traffic” in my vegetable garden with beds and paths, in my flowerbeds with stepping stones.
  • Keep the soil covered. Not all weeds come from below. Some hitchhike in by wind and bird. A thin, annual mulch of some weed-free, organic material snuffs out young seedlings. Taking into account availability, appearance, and plants being grown, I give my vegetable garden’s hungry plants an annual, one inch deep mulch of compost, the paths get wood chips, and my flowerbeds get shredded or decomposed leaves.
  • Where regular watering is needed, use drip irrigation. Drip irrigation pinpoints water to plants rather than wasting it watering paths, weeds, or bare space between widely spaced plants.

Beginning a “weedless garden” is quick and easy. Just mow or knock down existing vegetation, lay out planting and walking areas, and smother vegetation with whatever mulches are to be used. For new gardens only, four layers of newsprint (which eventually decomposes) laid down before the mulch ensures that existing vegetation is smothered.

That’s the bare bones of “weedless gardening.” Among the benefits, besides weed control, are better use of water in the soil because capillary pores, which can carry water down, sideways, even up, remain intact. Also, water more easily percolates into and does not evaporate from a mulched soil surface. The efficiency of drip irrigation saves about fifty percent of the water. Because the soil is not tilled, drip lines can be left in place and valuable organic matter is conserved rather than burned up.

What I like best, of course, is the elimination of weed problems. Not all weeds, but weed problems. I now spend perhaps five minutes — five pleasant minutes — every couple of weeks keeping a couple of thousand square feet of vegetable and flower garden free of weed problems. This system works so effectively because it emulates rather than fights Mother Nature’s way of caring for the soil from the top down.