Easy Weeding Techniques for the Organic Garden

Allowing nature to nurture the garden and doing less instead of more are good gardening goals.

Credit: Barbara Rayment

Designing your garden for easy weeding and mulching

Designing your garden for easy weeding and mulching

Allowing nature to nurture the garden and doing less instead of more are good gardening goals

It wasn’t until two loaded wheelbarrows passed at the entrance to the garden that the proverbial light went on in my head. We are hauling organic matter (garden waste) out of the garden to the compost pile, and then, on the return trip, hauling organic matter (mulch and finished compost) back into the garden. What is wrong with this picture?

Nature, always my best teacher, provides at least part of the answer. In nature, plant debris turns into compost right where it falls, and that seems to work out fairly well for the forest, even if, in our gardens, it isn’t always quite as tidy as we would like. From fallen leaves to whole downed trees, the decaying matter provides a wide range of habitats for beasts large and small, who in turn contribute to the health of the forest in one way or another, even if the benefit is not immediately obvious to our eye.

The trick is finding the balance between a natural system of letting everything rot where it lands, and the human tendency to want to make everything tidy. Putting the new system into place in the garden here turned out to be a challenge. The hard part was convincing those doing the weeding that it’s all right to let pulled weeds lie on the surface of the mulch. It just seems messy, almost slothful, to not haul them away.

The Fastest Way of Dealing with Weeds

Different types of debris require slightly different approaches. The average weed, if pulled out while still young (before it blooms and sets seed) will rot and disappear within a few days if simply plucked from the ground and left on the surface. This is not only the fastest way of dealing with young green weeds, but it also allows all of the nutrients and organic matter to be recycled into the soil, building it up and nourishing everything that grows and lives in it, including—eventually—the plants.

Design Your Garden with Easy Weeding in Mind

Larger weeds (minus any seedheads, of course) along with bits and pieces of woody material produced in the course of pruning can, with a flick of the wrist, be added to the middle or back of flowerbeds, where taller plants will hide them. In the garden here, each bed tends to have a feature tree, several shrubs and a variety of perennials, with lower plants around the edges and taller and coarser ones toward the centre. This design lends itself well to the technique of tossing organic matter into the bed throughout the growing season. Even finicky gardeners shouldn’t be bothered by a mess they cannot see.

Leaves from the trees and shrubs are an added bonus in the fall. Because there is no lawn in this garden, there’s no raking, and the leaves just add to the organic layer where they drop. Trees tend to create the conditions that they like—and if they like a soft, cool layer of decaying leaves over their roots, who am I to argue? Growing a mixed perennial and shrub bed under a tree instead of a lawn means less work for the gardener and healthier plants overall.

We like to leave as many plants as possible standing to create winter interest and feed the birds. This also helps to insulate and protect the crowns of the plants, so the bulk of our garden waste is created during spring cleanup. By the end of March, most of the nutrients have leached out of leaves and stems, and what is left is a fibrous mass. Hosta leaves have turned to mush that quickly disappears into the soil. The dry leaves of the massed Siberian irises are not so cooperative, and they get hauled off to our compost. A small chipper-shredder would allow the in-place recycling of even the coarsest material, but that would mean one more motor creating noise and maintenance, so for now the compost pile still has a purpose in life.

Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, in Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space (2005), suggest using a lightweight brushcutter or hedge trimmer, cutting from the top of the stems down, creating a mulch in place. I am going to try this in the spring on an area of irises and rough grass behind the pond, as it may be the easiest and fastest way to deal with large patches of perennials not subject to close-up public inspection.

All the composting guidelines suggest you shouldn’t add diseased or pest-infected plant material to your compost, and that applies to in-place composting as well. The truth of the matter is, it really isn’t too much of an issue in this garden, because plants that aren’t healthy and happy get ripped out anyway. A case in point is the old ‘Pacific Giants’ series of delphiniums. They were lovely but aphids attacked them every year. They are now gone, replaced by the glorious, cobalt-blue flowers and natural form of the Delphinium cashmerianum and the recently introduced New Millennium Series, which so far are showing signs of greater pest resistance as well as incredible colour and strength.

As this garden becomes in tune with nature, and ecologically balanced, we will be able to spend more time appreciating it and less time working in it. And really, that’s the way it should be.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:

Delphinium cashmerianum – zone 3

Delphinium new millennium – zone 3

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.