Working in the garden in summer heat can be brutal, so it's easy for things get out of hand. I have found that people get the most satisfaction from their gardens―and the most vegetables too―when they figure out how to make the garden work with their own schedule, goals, and limitations. And when they find a weed-control routine that works.
Most well-publicized gardening "methods" are based around maximizing one or another element. Intensive systems seek the highest yield per square foot, and use lots of labor and nutrients to achieve that goal. No-til systems avoid turning the soil by using a thick layer of compost to make a seedbed. The challenge there is making or finding enough compost. Each system can work. But each has a cost in time, exertion, space, water, material, and money. A method is only as good as the real world, and your real life, permit it to be.
For many people, the limiting factor is time, fitting gardening between other commitments. To save time, we have to trade other things—money, materials, garden size. Drip irrigation is an example, saving both hand-watering time and some weeding at the cost of money, materials, and some flexibility in layout. For many, a limiting factor is physical strength and range of motion; a solution could be tall beds that put the soil at waist level. The trick is to find a system, and a schedule, that uses what you do have and minimizes what you don't. (Few inputs can be reduced to zero.)
Here's an example: Last year I converted from beds planted in space-saving hexagons to regular rows for some crops, notably bush beans, which yield poorly if they aren't kept well-weeded. I found that the limiting factor for me was not space, but time and joint pain. The result was that I got a better yield of bush beans from the rows: I was able to hoe standing up, and to lay down mulch easily between straight rows. The cost of straw for mulching, and the extra space the rows took, were more affordable for me than time on my knees hand-weeding.
Three changes made for better,easier yields in my garden last year.
For weed control and much else, mulch makes a big difference this time of year. It conserves moisture, prevents compaction from watering, and prevents weeds. It also adds nutrients. How? Partly the increased moisture at the surface means more biological activity, which means more nitrogen. You get both the nutrients contained in the mulch, and the earthworm castings from the worms that multiply there. Myriad creatures aerate the soil. Mulch also prevents mud (and soil-borne diseases) from getting on the plants. I mulch between plants and on paths with straw. In the past, I've also used paper, cotton cloth, seaweed, and fallen leaves.
A mulch of stones (fist-size and larger) is an effective technique for areas with hot days and cool nights. The rock prevents the surface from drying out, so earthworms and roots can use the top layer of soil. At night, moist air condenses on the stones, and drips down to the soil. I use this strategy in areas with perennial plantings, where I don't have to move the stones each spring. For some drought-tolerant plants like lavender and cistus, the rock mulch enables me to irrigate them only 1-3 times per summer. This in a climate where my vegetables have to be watered every day.
Cover crops can be a living mulch―a big enough topic that it needs it's own post.
If something isn't producing and the area has gotten so weedy that it's hopeless, bring on the cardboard! Just water well, cover completely with cardboard, and weight it down. In a month, it will be composted, worm-tilled, and ready to plant with fall carrots and kale.
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.