Plastic SheetingBlack plastic sheeting is the easiest choice for preventing weeds. Simply roll it out in your garden, stake it to the ground or weigh it down with rocks, cut holes to plant your vegetables and viola – no weeds all season! Another benefit of plastic sheeting is that it will help your soil retain moisture. However, plastic sheeting does have a few drawbacks.
The drawbacks of plastic sheeting:
- It isn’t exactly organic: While plastic sheeting shouldn’t leech dangerous chemicals into your soil, it is made of petroleum products. It’s also often difficult to recycle – many recycling companies simply won’t take it.
- It can be flimsy: Some plastic sheeting is perforated for water permeability, but it doesn’t take much to tear it. Small stones in your soil can work their way through, or your footsteps could stretch and tear it. Heavy-weight sheeting may last you two or three seasons, but you will need to cut larger holes for your plants since it isn’t water-permeable.
- It may be too hot in the summer: In the dead of summer, black sheeting can heat the soil as much as 12 inches below the surface. That increase in temperature along with the reflective heat from the plastic’s surface can wilt your plants.
- Sheeting isn’t very flexible: If you’re the type of gardener who likes to put plants in different places or move things around, plastic sheeting may not be the best choice. Once you cut holes for your plants, that’s it – you will either need to place a vegetable plant there or weed the empty holes.
Plastic sheeting is one of few products that will give you a truly weed-free vegetable garden. However, it does come with it’s share of drawbacks. If you are willing to take the extra steps to use sheeting the right way, it can pay off at harvest time.
Bark Mulch or Wood ChipsWhile wood-based mulches are traditionally used in landscape beds, some gardeners like to use it in their vegetable gardens as well. Bark mulch and wood chips make it difficult for weed seeds to sprout. The seeds that do sprout grow into weak, spindly plants that are easy to remove. Wood-based mulch will help enhance your soil to some extent, and it also does a great job of locking moisture into the soil. On the other hand, wood mulch does have some downsides. It can cause the nitrogen levels in your soil to drop. After a few years of repeated applications, it can make your soil too acidic for vegetables. Wood mulch is also susceptible to a few other problems, including:
- Soured mulch: When wood mulch is piled high, the deeper sections can become oxygen starved, which creates excess acetic acid. You will know if this happens because the mulch will smell like vinegar, ammonia, sulfur or alcohol. You will need to turn over the mulch bed to air it out – otherwise your vegetable plants could wilt and die.
- Artillery Fungus: If you notice small orange or cream-colored cup-shaped fungus, this is artillery fungus. While it isn’t necessarily dangerous, artillery fungus actually “shoots” it’s small black spores, which can leave stains on your plants, fences, siding or anything nearby.
- Slime Mold: Slime molds aren’t dangerous either, but they look gross. If you see what looks like bright yellow or orange jelly, you will want to remove it quickly. Slime molds can grow up to a foot in diameter in just a few days if left untended.
NewspaperIf you’ve saved up a stack of newspapers, the perfect way to recycle them is to use them as a weed barrier. Newspaper is biodegradable, so you won’t have a huge mess to clean up at the end of the year. Just make sure you avoid glossy paper or paper with colored inks, since these sometimes contain harmful chemicals. Just like plastic sheeting, weeds are unable to grow through layered newspaper.
To use newspaper effectively, put down a couple of layers over your soil. You will need to thoroughly wet it so that it doesn’t blow away. If you don’t like the look of a paper-covered garden, you can always put down a thin layer of wood mulch or straw on top.
StrawStraw is a great choice if you don’t have a huge weed problem. While it will slow weed growth, particularly aggressive weeds can still grow through it. Straw offers a number of advantages that most other mulches don’t have. In addition to conserving moisture, straw also helps to keep soil cool.
The light color reflects heat away, making it a perfect medium for cool-weather plants like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. It also makes a good insulator if you want to keep things like onions or garlic in the ground over the winter.
If you plan to use straw in your vegetable garden, keep two things in mind: first, make sure it stays damp, especially if high winds are forecasted. Dry straw blows away easily. The other thing is that you need to be certain that you haven’t accidentally purchased hay. Since hay is full of seeds, you could be adding to your weed problem instead of eliminating it.
CompostCompost is very rich, so by itself it doesn’t make a great mulch. If you spread several inches of compost on top of your garden bed, it will add too much nitrogen to your soil. The result will be sad, unhealthy vegetable plants.
The best way to use compost is in conjunction with another type of mulch. This way, you will get the nutrient-rich benefits of compost, a weed-free garden, and you are likely to save some money since you may not need to purchase as much mulch. To use compost properly, spread a thin layer over your garden bed. Once that is done, you can use a couple of inches of wood mulch, straw or two layers of newspaper to serve as the weed barrier.
Every gardener has different methods for keeping weeds down. Now that you have the facts about how different mulches work, you can make the right choice for your own vegetable garden. If you have gardening friends who have their own problems with weed control, share this page with them. Our goal is to help everyone have an abundant harvest while saving time, money and labor!
Do you know of any other chemical-free ways to control weeds? Post your tips in the comments section below to help out your fellow gardeners!