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Overcome by weeds? Save newspapers for weed-free garden next year

| Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, 8:55 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
Cucumber seedlings coming up through newspaper topped with straw as a mulch.

Question: I worked so hard on my vegetable garden, but it's disgusting. No sweet peppers. No squash. No beets. Only spindly tomatoes. Weeds are choking out everything. I always grow organically and use no poisons. Why do I see gardens full of veggies with no weeds, and I can grow only weeds? My garden is 15 feet by 30 feet. Please help. I get good sun and water, but the weeds always take over.

Answer: Weeds are the bane of many gardeners. They compete with our plants for water, sunlight and nutrients, and as a result, the presence of large numbers of weeds can affect plant health and reduce vegetable yields. I suspect your “weed invasion” has a lot to do with why your vegetable garden is doing so poorly. Here's the plan of action I propose.

First, be sure to mow or weed whack all the weeds currently in your garden before they go to flower and set more seed. It sounds like you already have a substantial bank of weed seeds sitting dormant in the soil, and adding more weed seeds to that bank would only make your problem worse. The old saying “If you let a weed go to seed, you'll soon have thousands where you once had one” is so very true. Never let a weed drop seed.

Then, this fall, when the garden is finished for the year, mow the weeds down one final time, as close to the ground as you can mow. Let the garden sit for the winter. As it rests, save as many newspapers as you can. Don't bother holding on to the glossy, colored inserts. Just start collecting the newsprint pages.

Come spring, till the garden as you usually do, either by hand or with a rototiller. Do not over-till the garden and do not till very deeply; a single pass with the tiller is enough. If you till deeply, you'll be bringing dormant, buried weed seeds to the surface where they'll quickly germinate and cause more problems. When you're done tilling, rake the garden smooth.

Within a day or two of tilling, add 2 or 3 inches of quality compost to the garden. I get a truckload of leaf compost delivered from my local landscape supply center every spring and spread it over the entire surface of my garden. Use a cultivator to lightly work it into the top few inches of the tilled soil. Rake it smooth.

Then, immediately cover the whole garden with newspapers. Lay them down about 10 to 15 sheets thick, wetting them down with the hose as you go to keep them from blowing away. As soon as the newspapers are down, cover them with either 2 more inches of compost, a few inches of chopped or shredded leaves, or a 2-inch layer of straw (not hay, which contains a lot of weed seeds).

Plant your garden right through the newspaper by using your hand to clear the compost or straw away from a small area and cutting an X through the newspaper with a knife. Put one plant per X.

For row crops, such as beans, carrots, beets, and the like, slice through the newspaper to make a row and plant the seeds through the slit. Do not disturb the mulch or the newspaper all season long. You will not have any weeds come up through the layer of newspaper and mulch.

At the end of the growing season, pull up the dead plants, but let the newspaper mulch in place through the winter. Try to disturb it as little as possible. Every spring thereafter, you can either till the garden (the newspaper will have decomposed long ago) and repeat the process again with a new layer of newspaper topped with straw or compost, or you can skip the tilling completely and just add a new layer of newspaper topped with straw or compost on top of the old one. This creates lasagna layers in the garden and eventually buries all the weed seeds very deep.

I've done this in my 25-foot by 35-foot vegetable garden for seven years now, and I wouldn't grow any other way. I love never having to weed!

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., Third Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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