Monday, January 18, 2021

Keeping the Weeds at Bay - Landscaping Fabric

"A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows." -Doug Larson

Weeds and Veggies
 Weeds or Vegetables?  Both are there but the weeds are more noticeable in this throwback photo from the early days of the urban farm.

Your brand new, fancy urban farm or garden certainly comes with its own set of new challenges.  The biggest of which being those pesky weeds.  They grow fast and furious, crowding everything out around them.  Some weeds even emit toxins out of their roots to kill off any other plant that may be growing around them.  The plant world is nuts.

There are a few options when it comes to keeping these weeds under control.  Since we're all about helping the earth as well as being a good neighbor by not poisoning your neighborhood and town we're going to stay away from the chemical weed controllers.  They won't do you any good in the long run.

If I can't spray my beloved and cherished chemicals all over the place, whatever will I do?  How do I control weeds otherwise?

Great question, and I'm glad you asked!  The first option is to do nothing, plan on pulling the weeds as they grow alongside your vegetables and see how it goes.  I do not recommend this strategy.  This is what I did the first few years of the urban farm and it resulted in chest high weeds that I had to spend all of my free time pulling to get any sort of vegetable bounty, it sucked, plain and simple.

The second option is to use landscaping fabric, which is what I currently use and I would certainly recommend it.  This was basically the nuclear option.  The weeds in my urban farm had gotten a bit out of control and I was done with spending all of my free time pulling them.  I needed something that would control these weeds once and for all and I discovered the wonders of landscaping fabric.  I went with the Ultra Web 3000, 16 foot wide option, which appears to have almost doubled in price since I bought mine.  This is a light blocking barrier that still lets water in.  It keeps light from getting to your weeds, but since it's permeable it keeps the ground moist for your vegetables and keeping you from having to water as much.  To plant your vegetables you just burn rows or holes in it using a cool blow torch, which are just really fun to use anyways and if you're anything like me you're always looking for an excuse to use a blow torch!  This is likely not the best option though, since it is essentially a giant roll of plastic and it keeps organic matter from getting into the ground in-between the rows.  I constantly ponder the pros and cons of using this.  However it is highly effective, I've been using mine for several years and it is fantastic.  The first year I certainly had to do a lot of stomping and dancing on top of it because the relentless weeds were trying really hard to break through the fabric.  This stopped after one year of use though.  This last year I started putting wood chips underneath the landscaping fabric, in-between the rows to see if that helps improve the soil structure under the landscaping fabric (it seems to).

Landscaping Fabric
Landscaping Fabric in probably one of the best photos I've ever taken.  Can you tell I got sick of trying to snap a good photo of landscaping fabric?

The third option is to use something a whole lot more natural, wood chips or mulch!  This is likely the best option since it's a lot more natural and probably cheaper than landscaping fabric.  If you live in a cool town like I do, you can actually get wood chips, FOR FREE, from the city branch drop off.  The city puts the branches through a big wood chipper then the wood chips are free for any city resident to pickup and use, as much as you'd like!  All you do is you stack up the wood chips and/or mulch in-between your vegetable rows to keep light from getting to the weeds and thus keeping them from growing.  You will likely need a pretty thick layer of mulch or wood chips to have this be effective.  The extra bonus here is the bottom layer of this organic material is going to decompose into the ground, adding organic matter to your soil, boosting your soil health while also keeping the weeds under control, WOOHOO!!

As with most things in life, there probably isn't a black and white answer for what is the best option for controlling weeds.  You may live in an area that naturally doesn't have many weeds so not doing anything or a thin layer of mulch may work just fine.  Or you may live in a neglected suburban house that is chock full of weeds which may need landscaping fabric starting out then you may be able to transition over to mulch after a few years.  Get a plan in place, go for it, then adjust as needed depending on the results!

For my urban farm, I'm likely slowly going to transition over to a wood chip / mulch environment over time as the landscaping fabric wears out.  Now that the weeds are under control it should be an easy transition, but I'm certainly going to be trying it out in small chunks to see how it goes and to see what works best.

Just to point out what is likely pretty obvious.  In your urban farm the bottom layer is your newly tilled and broadforked soil, on top of that put your landscaping fabric and/or woodchips and mulch.  Burn rows or holes in the landscaping fabric (if using), then lay out your irrigation system.  Now you're ready to rock and grow some veggies!

Comment below if you have any questions on weed control, if you have any additional ideas that aren't mentioned here, or if you just want to say hi!

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