Weed Control Options

As some of you know, I  grew up on a 120 acre family farm. We milked 20 cows,  2 times a day, 7 days of the week, 365 days a year from the time I was about 12 years old until I graduated high school and got the heck out of Dodge.    We also did all of the  other things that went with it.  Seemed like we  constantly ground feed, pitched manure by hand, baled hay, filled the silo, bla bla bla.   I say that because, a couple of years ago, a woman who had a CSA came across this blog on the recommendation of a friend, read several entries and commented to my friend , “He could really use some help.”    When I approached her a few days later wanting to get the dialog rolling and tap into her wealth of  knowledge, she didn’t seem to have time.  I did not grow up helping mom with a garden. I’m not even 100% sure we had a garden.  So dear reader, if you happen to be reading along and see something I’m doing and have suggestions, I want to hear from you.  Just try not to speak down to me like my friend’s friend. ;-)  I mentor people all the time in the construction trades and you don’t have to be a twit when you’re working with someone in an area of life that is new to them.

Now that I got that off my chest…

This will be our 2nd official year of doing the “heavy mulch”/ Ruth Stout approach to gardening.

Can’t say enough good things about it!  I love it.


I don’t need a worm farm,  don’t need a tiller, don’t need a compost pile, there is very little weeding, what else…?  The mulch helps regulate the moisture level in the soil so when the dry spells come along, plants do a lot better.

Here are a couple of fundamental gardening issues no one ever told me about, guess the old timers think everybody knows this stuff… ;-)

#1  Every time we work up the soil, we bring a new crop of weed seeds to the surface.  Period.   You do it, I do it,  we all do it.  It doesn’t matter where you live. The earth is full of weed seeds.  It is a fact of life.  Weed seeds stay dormant in the soil for decades.

You only have so many options.

You can try to not stir up the weed seeds.  You can grow plants in raised beds full of sterile potting soil or some variation of it. You can physically pull the weeds,  knock them back with chemicals,  cut them down with a tiller or hoe (but if you don’t get the root, it’s just a matter of time before you’re dealing with the same plant, only this time with a deeper root system)  use a flame, or cover the ground with mulch to suppress their growth.   It can be made out of plastic, (row covers) or organic matter.

#2 Whenever you use a conventional tiller, you will naturally kill one of your gardens most important friends…the humble earth worm.  Worms in the soil are a good thing.  They aerate  the soil,  they help break down plant matter and turn it into humus. Their castings are fertile. (that’s why some people have worm farms).  Now why would I want to kill all of those little  creatures and then stir up a new crop of weeds every growing season?

I’m not sure how practical this model of gardening and weed control is on a larger scale but as Leonard Cohen put it :

“I just focus on doing the best job I can tending my little corner of the earth.”



Growing up on the farm.  The seeds were already being planted in my soul.

(I would really love to hear from Bill or any of you growing crops on a larger scale on this one! DM)


Update 5/28/14 If you have a minute, 17 minutes actually, here is a great TED talk by Dan Phillips on thinking outside the box in  home building with recycled items ideas :



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sitting on my grandpa's farm porch with Feedie
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7 Responses to Weed Control Options

  1. Heck yeah brother! Mulch mulch mulch away. Leave no soil bare, nature will cover it with whatever is handy (weeds) if she sees the need to. There is a Ruth Stout book in our house now thanks to you. Thanks for the tip. BTW, one of my daughter’s chores is peeling plasticy bits from cardboard boxes we collect for that very purpose. Grass, cardboard, 100% cotton or wool scraps, wood chips, leaves, it all works man.
    Sweet! That makes me feel good :-) (you were exposed to Ruth Stout via my humble little blog) Always good to hear from you Michael. DM

  2. shoreacres says:

    Well, this isn’t my area of expertise — as you know. However. I do have a true tale about weeds that’s pretty funny, and that you might enjoy.

    A friend in Kansas came home from one of her photographic forays with a tumbleweed. But the funny part isn’t that there’s someone else out there toting around a tumbleweed. The funny part is that while I stowed mine atop a bathroom cabinet, she put her’s in a spot near her flower garden, for decoration.

    After a time, she discovered a truth about tumbleweeds. While they’re tumbling about, they not only disperse their seeds, they pick up other seeds. After the wind caught her tumbleweed and rolled it all around her garden, the weeds started to sprout — things she never had seen.

    So — no tumbleweeds in the garden!
    That was a great weed story! Got a chuckle out of me. :-)

  3. micey says:

    Wait. Wait. Wait. Tumbleweeds are actually living!? I think my mind is officially blown. Again. Haha!
    Not to worry, no tumble weeds in Iowa Micey… Can’t wait to see if you have any other “farming myths” when you visit! DM

  4. hey DM – I think you are a step ahead of most using the heavy mulch system. Not only does tilling the soil kill worms, it kills off mycorrhizae and all kinds of beneficial soil organisms and destroys the soil structure. Two videos worth watching on this



    Laurie, thanks for the links! I will definitely check them out. It was just a couple of years ago that I began to understand the intricate mystery and beauty of the interplay of the soil with microbes, etc. Here in Iowa 99% of the original virgin prairie and land has been lost…but just last year, someone donated about 40 acres of that virgin ground to our local county conservation department. I remember reading about that soil and how even if we replant prairie flowers and grass, it still does not hold a candle to the ground that has been farmed and how the stuff we call soil today is almost “sterile” by comparison, which is why farmers have to inject the stuff with even more chemicals to get it to grow crops. Made me sad, and lit a fire under me to begin nurturing the micro-organisms in the soil under my charge. When I dug up the potatoes in the heavy mulched ground, it was literally teeming with earth worms, making me think I am on to something ;-) DM

  5. Thanks for the food for thought! With this being our 3rd garden year here we are still trying to figure things out. At our prior location we were using black plastic mulch and grass clippings. With the lawn mower being broken down that collected the clippings we have been improvising. We are going to try the mulching method with the potatoes this year (we are behind with our other projects that we finally got finished up). In the past we have had problems with blights and bugs on the plants/fruit/vegetables so trying to keep those out of our plots too.
    One of the things about mulching potatoes Nicole I’ve discovered is you need to keep an eye on the depth of mulch over the summer..the potatoes will “sunburn” (get green) if there is not enough cover. DM

  6. Bill says:

    I’d really like to go to some sort of no-till system, for all the reasons you mention. But for now we’re still cultivating and tilling, partly because we’re working so much ground and partly because I’m an old dog who is resisting learning a new trick. For now my goal is to practice agriculture as sustainably and earth-friendly as I can, trusting that the permaculturists of the next generation of farmers take it all to a new even more sustainable level. I’m learning permaculture as best I can and will incorporate it into our practices as I’m able. Our untilled ground (such as the asparagus patch) is definitely healthier than our tilled ground. But even our tilled gardens are teeming with life not found in those saturated in poisons. Hopefully we’ll continue to improve.
    Thank you Bill for weighing in on this one~! That is cool you noticed a difference in the soil composition in your asparagus patch. By no means do I profess to have this all figured out..just enjoying the opportunity to think out loud and entertain some concepts that are not the ones I grew up with. DM

  7. Clara A says:

    After you mentioned Ruth Stout last year I checked a couple of her books out from the library and read them. I attempted to mulch with grass clippings. It did seem to help with weeds and water retention. I saw a lot of life in my small garden plots and tried to leave stuff alone. I didn’t chase away wasps and they seemed to ignore me and hunt for caterpillars under the leaves. The soil seemed nice and tender and worm filled under the mulch.

    I have found a few drawbacks to mulch.

    First, while it helps in the fall/winter to extend the season, the soil stays cold longer in the spring. I finally scraped mine off so the ground could thaw. I think it was a bit of a cold spring anyway.

    Second, my little seedlings seemed to get lost in it. I tried straw this spring in one garden. I sure couldn’t have done 8″ to 11″ like Ruth Stout suggests. Even leaving holes for my little pepper seedlings I started from seed they got lost in my few inches of straw. It took me longer to realize something was getting them – cutworms or bunnies probably. Out of 13 pepper plants I now have 6. I think most of it was bunnies b/c after the chicken wire went up on the lower part of the fencing I stopped losing them. Maybe a finer mulch to start with like grass clippings would have helped. My peppers are still growing only slowly, maybe they are too watered or not fertilized enough. Or just grow slow. I have never had good skill with peppers.

    Third, it doesn’t work as well with intensive planting in my opinion. I live in a city in an area with a lot of mature trees. I would love to grow a significant portion of my family’s food but find it difficult in such a small space. I have one strip in my garden with leaf lettuce mix in the middle surrounded by onions planted in an odd shaped blocks (matching the odd shaped terraced garden) about 3″ to 6″ apart from each other. In between the onions I broadcast carrots and radishes. Eventually, when the radishes are pulled and the carrots up and thinned (I hope), I may be able to mulch with a fine mulch, but right now I can’t tell what is a weed and what might be a carrot.

    Finally, I am paranoid my soil will not get replenished well if I haven’t added compost and manure to it. Eventually, I think I will get over this. I am trying to really learn about cover crops and growing things specifically for rich composting (which could be used a mulch that would eventually be composted into the soil), as well as crop rotation.

    Have you been using cottonseed meal or soybean meal as Ruth Stock did?

    But I do like the idea, just trying to figure out how it works with what I have to work with right now. I will definitely be using it in other areas of my garden. It may be ideal for your situation. Thanks for all you share.
    thank you Clara for your update! I’d read about the mulch holding in the cold as well, so a portion of our garden where I planted some of the potatoes I completely removed the mulch to let the ground warm up quicker..(I also left a portion of it covered and planted potatoes on that area as well/ so am doing a little experimenting on which works better) I noticed the area where I removed the mulch, did not suddenly burst forth with weeds..I think as long as you don’t disturb the soil, if the weeds have all been smothered, then things stayed pretty quiet..ie no new weeds). Really appreciate you taking the time to share your notes from your garden! DM

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