This is a good time to address that old saying about a weed being just a plant in the wrong place. Nope. Very few plants behave like true weeds; you won't see corn or zinnias or even wildflowers taking over your garden!
What is a weed then? Garden weeds are plants that fill a specific niche--areas disturbed by humans--with a specific kind of behavior--fast growth and wildly prolific self-seeding. (Or in the case of perennial weeds, fast-spreading by other means.) Aggressiveness is the hallmark of true weeds, even when they have other traits we love and encourage. Most of the weeds that spring up in our gardens are not wild plants that live in the forest or prairie. They are imports, just like our crop plants, and in most cases they evolved alongside crop plants, perfecting over the centuries their ability to thrive where humans have plowed and planted.
Some other invasive weeds are wild plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate but different pests and diseases. They become aggressive when no longer controlled by those elements of their native habitat.
It's not just your imagination; weeds really are super-plants. Many of our common weeds are tetraploids—mutant plants with extra chromosomes that make them bigger, faster, deeper-rooted, and more aggressive than normal. Certainly more aggressive than our vegetables, which have lost many of their natural defenses in order to be more succulent, more sweet, more tender, and more easily harvested for our tables. If cultivated plants are like our pets, weeds are coyotes.
With that in mind, I just treated myself to a good sharp precision hoe. Skimming a sharp hoe across the beds to cut off tiny weeds takes just a few minutes, and this year I started early.
Then, I put down a lot of mulch to keep them from coming back. Minimizing tillage, using mulches of compost and organic matter instead, is an effective way to decrease weeds over time--the seeds in the soil need light to germinate.
Straw is a classic standby for mulching—readily available, cheap, easy to handle, and quickly breaking down into nutrients for next year. You don't need to get your straw from a bale, either. If you're cutting grass and weeds on your property, the easiest, cheapest, and safest thing to do with it is use it as mulch. (Don't pile it up and leave it—the center of a big pile can get so hot it catches fire. Spread in a thin layer, it's safe.)
Another problem-solving mulch is ramial chips. I'll write about them in more detail in another post, but here's the gist: The branches of hardwood trees and shrubs (less than 3” diameter) have more nutrients than wood from the trunk. When chipped, this branch wood (called ramial) makes a good, soil-building mulch.
All over the country, downed trees, dying shrubs, and too-dense saplings are presenting a fire danger. Turned into chips and spread under garden plants (CalFire suggests a layer less than 4” thick) the problem can become a solution, keeping moisture in the soil and plants better hydrated, besides smothering weeds. When you can turn a problem into a solution, you're doing something right.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.