How to turn your Garden of Weedin' into a Garden of Eden

The Daily Ardmoreite
Pat Neasbitt
Master Gardener

The good news is we've gotten lots of rain this spring to make the plants grow and thrive. The bad news is, weeds are plants, and they are definitely growing and thriving right now. I know I have weeds this spring that I have never seen before, and they are all bigger and healthier from all the rain. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum; therefore, any bare soil will be filled. Unfortunately, it is never ever filled with our favorite flowers. It will almost always be filled with noxious weeds that will grow prolifically and spread throughout the landscape if not eliminated.

The three things plants need to survive are water, sunlight, and nutrition. Hopefully your planting beds contain soil that is high in nutrition provided by compost and other organic matter in order for your plants to do well. That leaves sunlight, and we don't usually have a shortage of that in Oklahoma.

Since plants need three things to survive, if they are deprived of any of those things, they will die. The only logical thing we can deprive weeds of in order to kill them is sunlight. First, start by eliminating as many weeds as possible by simply pulling, hoeing, or digging them up. Keep at it - even the most persistent weeds will eventually die if you keep cutting or mowing them down consistently and frequently. A plus for growing lots of plants is that the more plants you have in a bed, the less sunlight will reach the soil because the plants actually help shade out the weeds, also. The soil is loaded with weed seeds, and just pulling up weeds can expose new soil and new weed seeds that can germinate. The easiest way to eliminate weeds is to cover the soil with organic mulch that will block the sunlight from getting to the weed seeds. Most seeds need sunlight to germinate, and all plants need sunlight to live. Shredded bark mulch is a good way to smother weeds and it will compost itself and eventually become super rich soil that plants love. Earthworms thrive in rich loose soil and are like nature’s roto tillers as they take the improved soil to lower levels and mix it with subsoil to improve it. Three to four inches of mulch is the perfect amount to provide maximum benefits. After you initially get down a good cover of mulch, you will only need to top it off to replenish in following years.

If you're thinking that the black fabric landscape material sold to control weeds or black plastic might be an easy answer, think again. Neither of those things works for very long, and they are not organic. If you make a hole in them to plant through, that leaves an opening for weeds to grow. If you put soil on top of them, wind and birds plant weed seeds on top. Since they aren't organic and don't break down, they leave a horrible mess that will haunt you forever. They are so ugly you have to cover them with mulch anyway to hide them so your beds look natural. The mulch you put on top of the weed barrier material will break down and turn into fantastic topsoil that will grow lots of weeds. It's almost impossible to add plants to your beds once the so-called weed barrier is in place. You have to pull back the mulch and try to cut holes in the fabric large enough to dig a hole to insert plants, and then you have to add soil back into the hole and cover the ugly fabric up with mulch. Meanwhile, you have exposed weed seeds that will germinate and have to be pulled repeatedly. I have found it much harder to try to pull weeds and Bermuda Grass in areas with weed barriers, because the roots are so entangled in the mesh fabric, and you wind up pulling up the fabric and dislocating the fabric, the mulch, and other plants growing nearby. It's so much easier to pull weeds that are only growing in loose organic soil rather than entangled in a mesh that won't let go of the imprisoned roots and runners. The weed fabric prevents mulch from breaking down and mixing with lower soil layers in order to improve the texture. If you have heavy clay soils, they will never improve, and the plants will struggle to send out roots. Plants will remain small and often die because they need loose healthy soil to thrive. Perhaps the weed barrier fabric would help in a pathway covered with mulch or gravel with no plantings; but you will still need to be vigilant to keep weeds and grass from getting a foothold. Even if you don't have any weeds in your entire landscape - I know, that's a dream - you will still get weeds. As long as the wind blows and birds fly, there will always be weeds.

Mulch is the answer to most of our major gardening problems. Make life simple and work with nature by only using organic material to begin with. Remember, mulch kills weeds by blocking sunlight. It breaks down to improve the soil more each year, no matter what kind of soil you are blessed with. It provides nutrients to feed the plants. It regulates the soil temperature and keeps it from getting too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter, and it keeps moisture from evaporating so quickly in our Oklahoma heat and drying winds. Don't buy the super cheap dyed mulches. Not only are they ugly (there is nothing natural about bright red mulch), but they fade and get even uglier the longer they are in place. Seriously, our poor plants have a hard enough time surviving the Oklahoma heat without adding dyed black mulch around them to absorb even more heat and add to their stress. A lot of the dyed mulches are made from ground up pallets that could come from anywhere and be made from diseased wood or have chemicals added to the wood. Arsenic from treated wood may be an organic substance, but it is not an environmentally friendly substance you want to add to your landscape.

The best thing you can do to have a safe, healthy garden without a lot of work is to add compost. You can shovel several inches of compost or shredded leaves on your beds at any time. It will act as a mulch to control weeds and you can add 3 or 4 inches of shredded bark mulch on top of the compost to break down slowly and give you the best soil ever for your plants to thrive in with the least amount of work on your part. The whole secret to having the proverbial “Green Thumb” is to have rich organic soil that plants can be their best in. Happy Gardening and Happy Weeding!