Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
June, 2006
Regional Report

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This garden bed went from weedy to attractive in a short time thanks to newspapers covered with mulch.


When summer arrives, a curious transition takes place in many gardens. What was once the perfect flower or vegetable bed in spring slowly, or rather not so slowly, becomes a weed patch. In spring everyone's a gardener. Then summer arrives in the south and temperatures climb past the "I wanna be outside" range. We spend less time out in the garden, which gives weeds just what they needed. A chance to invade.

Many a gardener has mused over the fact that our preferred flowers and vegetables seem at times to require coaxing, pampering, and even speaking kind words in gentle tones to make them thrive. Weeds on the other hand persist despite neglect, abuse, and epithets hurled at them that would make a sailor blush.

One cynical gardener put it this way, "There's only one sure way to tell the weeds from the vegetables. If you see anything growing, pull it up. If it grows again, it was a weed."

Well despite our hyperbole, weeds are not invincible, and fighting them need not mean slaving away in the summer sun. If you are dealing with summer weeds, here is a technique for managing them that I find makes the task much easier and more effective.

Leave No Soil Bare
First of all be assured that prevention is much easier than control. Wherever the soil is bare, nature will plant a weed. As soon as possible, place a covering of mulch over the soil surface and maintain it all summer long. This has many other beneficial effects but perhaps it's most helpful in deterring weeds that sprout from seed.

Keeping Weeds Under Cover of Darkness
My favorite weed prevention strategy is the newspaper and mulch technique. This works for new garden beds to prevent weed seeds from taking over, and also for already-invaded beds. The basic technique for recapturing lost ground is to cut the weeds down close to the soil with a mower or WeedEater. If desirable plants are present, you may need to do just a little hand pulling around the plants to avoid the temptation to get too close with the power tools.

Then wet the soil thoroughly and cover the surface with newspaper, six to eight sheets thick. Overlap the newspaper as you lay it, making sure the soil surface is completely covered so no light reaches the ground. Wet the newspaper as you lay the sections to help it "stick" down. Then cover with a mulch of leaves, pine straw, grass clippings, or compost.

This light-excluding cover will kill all annual weeds beneath it. If you see weeds peeking through, it's likely there's a hole or gap in the newspaper. Just pull the top off the plant and patch the hole with a section of newspaper, wet it, and cover with the mulch. You can set transplants through the paper.

Persistent weeds, such as Bermuda grass and nutsedge, are another matter and perhaps the topic of a future article. While nutsedge will poke through the newspaper, Bermuda grass must find an opening, so while not eradicated by the paper and mulch technique, it can be kept at bay.

I just recently came back from a couple of weeks away and found my old bush bean patch had been taken over by weeds. Rather than spending a few hours weeding, I got out the mower. Then I brought out the newspapers and some leaves, and in less than an hour the entire bed looked nicely mulched, with no trace of the horticultural horror that had been on display an hour earlier.

After waiting a couple of weeks for the paper to do its trick, I'll be ready to either punch some holes for transplants or gently tear a line in the paper with a flat-edge shovel for rows of seeds.

I've shared this technique with many gardeners who simply love it. Give it a try this year.

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