Posted by Daniel Gasteiger | Under Courtesy with Small kitchen garden dot net
Monday Jun 20, 2011
Can you spot the vegetable plant in this photo? Do you know its Latin name? Then you’re probably a landscape architect or some other type of trained horticulturist… and that’s OK.
I’m neither a landscaper nor a landscape designer, and there’s no hardscaping in my small kitchen garden. What I do have is a diverse and resilient weedscape.
My job as a weedscaper is easy: I don’t have to learn the Latin names of any plants. I don’t even have to learn the common names of most of what grows in my weedscapes. In fact, to succeed at weedscaping, I merely plant vegetables. In a matter of weeks a robust understory of undesirable and only vaguely familiar plants establishes itself around my vegetable plants.
How to Manage a Weedscape
It is a bit more work to manage a weedscape than it is to create one. While you don’t need special tools for the job, you might consider using a hoe or at least a cultivator hand tool that has a flat blade and a forked scraping tool on its business end. Also, there’s no more useful product for managing a weedscape than mulch. Oh! Gloves can be pretty useful as well.
A healthy weedscape is a cornucopia of biodiversity. Frames in the illustration above show various plants in one of my more successful weedscapes: Purslane in the top-left is actually food as you can read in the post, Purslane: Eat Weeds from Your Small Kitchen Garden provided by my brother in August of last year. Front-and-center in the top-middle, top-right, and bottom-left are plants I can identify only as weeds. The broadleaf weed in the bottom-center is plantain about to go to seed. On the bottom-right is woodland strawberry which spreads quickly and can form a dense mat of green. The berries of this plant are edible, but they are dry and flavorless; perfect for nearly any weedscape.
Basic maintenance of a weedscape goes something like this: Wearing gloves, grasp each weed in turn and pull it roots-and-all from the soil; toss the weed in a compost heap, bin, or tumbler. In a truly healthy weedscape, hand-pulling weeds may be a formidable prospect. That’s when you might turn to a cultivator or hoe.
Hoeing in a Weedscape
Hoeing seems simple enough: scrape the flat edge of a hoe or a hand cultivator along the surface of the soil, pulling weeds or cutting them off at the soil line. This works fairly well when the soil is damp and soft. However, as the soil dries and hardens, weeds become hoe lubricant; the blade of a hoe can slip and slide on the weeds. Hoeing might bend the weeds and stress them, but it will likely leave them whole.
So, to care for your weedscape properly, you may need to chop the blade of the hoe into hardened soil. This may cut through the roots or stems of the weeds and even lift the soil, releasing entire root balls from the ground (or, it may bend the hoe).
If you can identify the vegetable plants (the ones you planted originally when you created the weedscape) in your garden, try not to remove them along with the weeds… I mean, what’s the rush? Insects, rodents, microbes, excess rain, drought, or an early frost will remove your vegetable plants in good time.
Ideally, you care for a weedscape by removing each weed plant along with its roots. Realistically, you might employ a tool to pull the weeds from the ground. In the middle photo above, you see the hoe lubricant effect of weeds growing in hard soil: even a sharpened hoe blade can slide right over well-rooted weeds doing very little damage. The photo on the right shows a properly tended patch of a weedscape. I had to pound the hoe’s blade into the soil and hack away at weed roots to break them out. In the bottom-right corner of the photo you can see that the hoe removed nearly as much soil as it did weeds.
Mulching your Weedscape
If you have a lot of mulch available, you can altogether forget pulling or hoeing in your weedscape. Rather, if you bury the lovely display four-to-six inches in mulch, it may take many weeks for new weeds to start—though some of the more tenacious original weeds will find their ways up through the mulch layer. As with pulling and hoeing in your weedscape be sure to leave your vegetable plants out of the mulching strategy: keep a clearing around the stem of each vegetable plant; if mulch touches the stems, the vegetables may rot.
A classic weedscape maintenance error: While a hoe bent this weed to the ground, stripped it of foliage, and cut away most of its stem, the weed didn’t notice. In two to three weeks, the weed will show no sign of the abuse it received. Covering it with mulch now may buy another week or two. Interestingly, were you to mildly nick the stem of a vegetable plant leaving a scratch on its skin without actually bending it or breaking through, the vegetable plant would die before tomorrow’s sunrise. Still, if you don’t plant vegetables, you aren’t really weedscaping; you’re just growing a meadow.
In a vegetable garden weedscape, mulch with lightweight plant material that will break down quickly (lawn clippings are amazing this way), or with mature compost. Later, these will mix into the soil easily whereas pine bark or wood chip mulches might not break down adequately in one growing season and you’ll have chunky soil for next season’s weedscape (which won’t bother the weeds even a tad).
Decrease the amount of mulch you use in your weedscape by pulling or hoeing the weeds out of your garden. Then mulch with two inches of material—though if you can spare six inches, it will take just a bit longer for your weedscape to reemerge and provide you with another weedscape management opportunity.