How and Why We Use Weed Block & Mulch

Let’s talk about the ugly truth. Even though we strive to see and make beauty all around us, some things are just still ugly.

Weedblock is one if those things. We’ve found a use for these types in our garden.

  1. Wood chips: Composted wood chips are ideal because they don’t steal nutrients from your soil in order to break down. In fact, they add nutrients as they continue to decompose and add to your soil. Obviously this the most esthetically pleasing and natural choice. Although I think moist, weed-free soil is an even more beautiful sight to behold. (Dream on!) We’ve learned to only use this in well established beds in which the weeds are already under control. This is mostly because we fight 90% quack grass and I have NEVER, even in my most extravagant moments, put on an amount of wood chips that would stop it from coming back.
  2. Landscape fabric: Many commercial growers use this on all of their beds, lifting it after each harvest of an annual crop. So far, we’re trying to use it to establish perennial beds (read: block out quack grass). It’s more expensive but much more durable and won’t decompose super quick like…
  3. Black plastic: To me, this is the ugliest ugly of them all. I hate seeing it in all of our photos and I always feel like I need to make excuses to people when they see it. But to get our garden beds established, it has been SUPER helpful. Black plastic was a compromise I didn’t want to make; but the practical side of me (cough – Nic) won out over paper for our annual beds simply because it’s easier to lift and cheaper to buy.
  4. Paper mulch. I do however like to use paper sometimes for perennial beds In areas where the quack grass isn’t so vengeful. This is by far my favorite choice of commercial weed block. I lay it out after amending and preparing the bed. Then I can cut it and plant straight into it. By covering it in a thick layer of wood chips, the paper will decompose over time leaving a weed free, well mulched bed. Just make sure to keep up on wood chips and feeding your plants!

Here’s a tutorial on how to get started with weed block.

How To Use Weed Block In The Garden:

Why:

Weed suppression & time. Obviously, right. No one likes weeds and everybody’s busy.

But here’s my whole story. I have a 3,000+ sq ft market garden. I’d love to say tending it is a family affair, but here’s the reality:

My husband has a full time job and he’s building me a gorgeous Scandinavian farmhouse. My children are 6 & under which means 2 out if three are usually doing more hindering (plucking heads off flowers) than helping. Also, I homeschool them; which is wonderful but it also means they don’t disappear for several hours a day and give me time alone to work.

Finally, the area in which I live has a fairly low population of shoppers who are aware/care about knowing their farmer and their growing practices. And even less are motivated to support the local flower movement vs shipping them from Central & South America. This means that I sell my bouquets much cheaper, sometimes 50% less, than they’d be worth other places. The chances of me affording paid help anytime soon are slim.

The only way I could grow the quantity of flowers I do is with some kind of mulch.

How:

We go over a row or bed lightly with a tiller or weed flamer or both in succession. If this is a brand new bed, you may want to double dig or till a tadbit deeper.

If this is an established bed, we add compost and other amendments as needed and rake it. If this is a new bed we skip to laying plastic. We have pretty darn nice soul though, so do test and add amendments if needed.

We like to get this done and let the bed sit for a week or more before planting. This way it’s obvious which weeds haven’t been killed yet, but they haven’t had the opportunity to completely bounce back. We can give many of those a quick tug or hit with a weed flamer and do them in.

Then we rake, roll out the plastic and weight it with rocks.

We have experimented with several ways to cut and plant. Ideally, one would use a drip system under your plastic. Because we bought this farm last year with no infrastructure, it hasn’t been possible for us to set up a drip system and keep it running. (My first months I watered by hand and then with a gravity fed tank & hose system. It was lame & exhausting; the plants and I both suffered until the well was dug!.)

Obviously cutting individual holes based on each plants spacing requirements seems tidy and ideal. But really, it’s a huge pain. Add to the fact that I have to have a little extra soil exposed (for water absorption from sprinklers) and there just had to be a better way!

Here’s what I came up with. Slits. I cut slits down the plastic that are the length of my reach. This way if I center myself in front of them, I can weed that entire section from where I kneel without scooting left or right. Then I can just grab my tools and move down to the next set.

The number of slits depends on spacing. My rows are three feet wide. If a plant needs 12″ spacing I make three slits down the plastic. For 9″ and 6″ spacing I make four cuts. For 6″ spacing, I would obviously place the plants closer together within the opening.

*Tip – get to know your plants! We only bought one color of plastic. This means plants that aren’t heat lovers require some relief from the extra degrees. We place a shallow layer of dirt on top of the plastic around the plants that are easily scorched.

With sweet peas I’ve ended up cutting the plastic way open, the plastic just holds too much heat! The extra exposed soil means more weeding, but it’s better than no sweet peas at all. And the small border of plastic around the outside of the wide row still helps to keep the sweet clover from my walking paths at bay. Eventually the sweet pea roots are so deep and the plants so tall that these weeds go to the bottom of my priority list.

After your slits are cut, you can sow or transplant into your bed. You will have to weed a little until your plants are established. It’s really easy pulling though and once your plants at establish you won’t see anymore, even if they are trying to come up under that jungle!

If you are following these instructions for paper, it isn’t super hard to cut as you plant. This is especially true if you’re working with a perennial bed.

So all around: especially on freshly broken ground, plastic is the cheapest and most effective way to manage weeds. Over time, we will continue to invest (and scavenge) for better landscape fabric.

Be sure to make sure your plants are appropriately watered and fed with organic fertilizer. Occasionally I like to top dress my perennial beds with a natural source of nitrogen. I feel like it protects my plants from losing nitrogen to wood chips should they not be adequately broken down. Maybe I’m just being over protective, but I really like my plants.

Be sure to check out our other gardening posts!

Peace!

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