Make plans to cultivate your garden even before you see weeds

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News
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You never know what the weather will be like in the spring.  Spring rains can delay tilling of our gardens for days or even weeks in some cases, causing a loss in valuable growing time.

Tilling soil when it is too wet will damage soil structure so it’s rarely productive to rush into tilling even if the calendar says it’s time.

Often there are times when you can get into the garden to plant if the soil has already been tilled when it is too wet to till.

In a previous blog post I mentioned I tilled some of my garden areas extra early in an attempt to get the garden ready for planting on time, just in case it turned out to be another rainy spring.

So far this spring has been fairly dry but the weather can change quickly.

My early tilling killed most overwintering weeds but left a nice seed bed for new weeds to grow.

Fortunately, perennial weeds are not much a problem anymore in those spots so there were no root parts in the soil to sprout.

Annual weeds, on the other hand, are always waiting for the chance to sprout and take over an area quickly. A typical garden could have thousands of seeds per square foot of soil from potentially 20 to 50 different species of weeds. Annual weeds are those that sprout from seed each year, they include such plants as pigweed, lamb’s quarters, annual grasses and many others.

Early control is the key to battling weeds before they begin to compete with your garden crops.

In my case a flush of weed seeds were on the verge of growing. Because of the unusually warm weather we had earlier,I knew I had to be on the lookout for them.

By mid-April in our area we had already accumulated enough growing degree days (GDD) to stimulate weed seed germination.

The growing degree days methodology is a way to keep track of the amount of heat accumulated during the growing season. It allows farmers to estimate when certain events, such as insect emergence or weed germination, are likely to occur.

Just looking at the surface of the soil won’t necessarily tell you if it’s time to do pre-planting cultivation.

Weeds are easiest to kill when they have just germinated and haven’t developed their first true leaves.

Weed seedling can be growing just below the surface and getting ready to break through the surface without you knowing about it.

At that early stage of their lifecycle their stems are very brittle and easily broken. Also they have expended most of their energy growing their first root and sending a shoot up toward the surface. If they are disturbed at that point, they are not likely to recover from the damage. Either their stems will be broken or they will be pulled out by the roots.

Here you can see weed seedlings in the white thread stage laying on the soil surface after I cultivated with a multi tine hand cultivator.

In the days before herbicides, farmers used to take advantage of young weeds weakness by using an implement called a rotary hoe, not to be confused with a rotary tiller. The rotary hoe consists of a series of axles with a number of metal wheels placed close together. Each of those metal wheels has 12-16 spokes protruding from the edge. Each spoke ends with a sort of spoon shape.

The rotary hoe is not powered, instead it is just pulled across the field behind a tractor. As the wheels turn, the spoon shaped spokes shallowly penetrate the soil and lift up the tiny weed seedlings. The seedlings are either broken apart or are left on the surface of the soil to dry out.

When used properly, rotary hoes are fairly efficient devices but are nowhere near as effective as herbicides in controlling weeds.

Nowadays it’s most often organic farmers who use rotary hoes since they cannot use herbicides.

So take your cue from farmers whose livelihood depends on good weed control to protect their crops.

I’ve started weed control very early but most gardeners won’t have to worry about weeds until the main planting days arrive which is usually in the middle to late May. No matter when you prepare your garden, the principles of weed control remain the same, cultivate when the weeds are small and cultivate often.

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