How to mulch troublesome weeds out of existence

A recent Gallup survey commissioned by the Vermont-based Gardens for All organization shows that weeds remain a major concern for some 7 million American gardeners. That's a shame, because they don't have to be.

A newspaper mulch topped by leaves, straw, pine bark, or even gravel can virtually eliminate the weed problem. You won't even need to remove those weeds that are already established. Just bend them over and cover them up; your garden favorites can take it from there. Like so many things that work well in a garden , it's a pretty simple undertaking.

I've adopted this cover-up-the-weeds approach somewhat more than usual this year because a cottage-building program in Maine has eaten drastically into the time I normally spend on gardening.

I did some enthusiastic, early-season planting, of course, but then turned to the construction project. When I looked back again, there were the weeds, knee-high and thriving. We ate some of them (in my book, lamb's-quarters are a whole lot better than spinach), but there's a limit to how far one can go in this direction.

It was important, too, that I rescue the struggling vegetables quickly. I turned to mulching - a lot quicker and more pleasant than conventional weeding. There are many garden pluses to this method besides merely getting rid of an eyesore. But first, here's how to go about it:

* Soak a batch of newspapers in a tub or pail of water for several hours. I like to leave them soaking for a full day. This way, when they are applied to the bed, they bind together to form a solid mat.

* Thoroughly water the bed you are about to mulch if you have not had sufficient rain in your region. Never mulch over a dry soil.

* Bend over all the weeds and unwanted grasses, being careful to leave flowers and vegetables standing tall and free. After bending over the weeds, I even walked on them to flatten really well. The root system of a vigorous patch of weeds is substantial enough to support your weight so that a little walking over the beds does not compact the soil at all.

* Carefully surround each vegetable or flower with several sheets of wet newspaper. I take a square of wet newspapers and tear it to the center. This way the paper fits neatly around the stem of each plant. Now, cover the rest of the bed with newspapers until no weed still shows. The more dense the weed cover, the thicker the newspaper mulch will have to be.

* At this stage, I take a sharp stick and poke a few holes through the paper around the remaining plants to allow rainwater (or liquid fertilizer or both) to readily get through to the plants in the brief period before the paper breaks down enough for water to pass quickly through.

* Now, cover the paper with leaves, hay straw, grass clippings, and the like - whatever you have on hand. This not only hides the paper (not the most attractive sight in your garden) with a more natural cover, but it also helps speed up the breakdown of the paper.

You can also use more expensive mulches, such as bark chunks, which can be gathered up at the end of the season and used repeatedly, or coarse gravel, which can be reused indefinitely.

The Romans were among the first to use stone mulches, which are very effective, although not recommended in regions where summer temperatures soar regularly above the 90 degrees F. mark.

Having done all this and effectively eliminated a weedy eyesore, there will be a few weeks when direct seed sowing will be impossible. My approach has always been to start new plants in peat pots or soil blocks and then simply dig holes in the mulch to accept the new transplants.

Within a few weeks, however, the weeds will be dead. Then all you need do is cut a slit in the mulch for direct seed sowing, particularly if the seeds are large (beans, for example).

This is what happens when you apply this method of paper-leaf mulch to control weeds:

The weeds, deprived of light, stop growing. In the moist, warm environment between the soil and the paper, the green material decays rapidly. Earthworms move in to feast on this decaying vegetation.

In my yard I have seen them slithering every which way within a week or so of applying the mulch. Their castings, in turn, enrich the surrounding soil. The worms eventually eat the paper as well, deriving nourishment from the decay bacteria that also feed on the paper.

The roots of the weeds, when no longer fed (through photosynthesis) by the leaves above, immediately stop functioning. They, too, begin to decay and enrich the soil for those plants that remain. Soil microbes, on which the soil depends for its vitality, are most abundant in the immediate vicinity of plant roots. By not uprooting the weeds, these colonies of microbes are left largely undisturbed to continue their good work among the spreading roots of those flowers and vegetables we want in our gardens.

I first stumbled across this mulching approach many years ago when I allowed weeds to grow out of control in the vicinity of an apple tree. At the time I had more leaves on hand than I needed for making compost, so dressing up the wet newspaper once it was placed over the trampled weeds was a simple matter.

The ''weeding'' was quickly done and I was almost suprised at how attractive the area looked. More important, the paper-leaf mulch effectively excluded weeds until late the following summer. I also noticed that the following year the soil looked considerably richer because of the mulch treatment.

Since then, I have always tackled out-of-control weeds this way. I have even grown green manure crops (winter rye is an example) and, rather than dig them in , simply mulched them out of existence.

By the way, you can use this as a quick way to establish new gardens where lawn now grows.

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