John's advice after 25 years growing at Ashbrook allotments
Weeds have been defined as any plant growing out of place. In reality most weeds compete with our crops for moisture, light and nutrient, they make a plot look unkempt and if allowed to seed can be annoying to other plot holders, some also host pests, e.g. whitefly on thistle. On the plus side strong weed growth is often a sign of fertile soil. Weeds will grow irrespective of how a garden or allotment is cultivated and it does take time to keep them under control particularly during the main growing season. How they are controlled is up to the individual and the following are a few notes giving a number of options some of which might be helpful to your own style of gardening.
Weeds can be considered annual or perennial. Common annual weeds at Ashbrook include speedwell, groundsel and chickweed; these are easy to control by regular hoeing. Weeds such as docks and dandelion could be annual, biennial or perennial depending on how long you leave them in the ground; these form tap roots and are best dug out, if the top is sliced with a hoe and the root remains and they will regrow. Other common and persistent perennial weeds we encounter are couch grass and both strains of bindweed; these produce extensive sub soil roots and are far more difficult to deal with but can be beaten.
The main vegetable growing season (April to mid July) is very short, during this period crops should be growing well and need your attention, weeds will also be growing strongly but do you really want to spend that time of year on your knees hand weeding or wrestling with couch roots? That is the hard way.
How weeds are tackled depends on your style of gardening and current state of your plot. Let us consider a number of scenarios:-
Firstly let us assume that your plot has been winter dug or rotavated, is relatively weed free and in the spring is being planted, weeds will soon appear. By far the easiest way to keep such plots weed free is frequent use of a dutch hoe which is used to slice off any weeds just below ground level while they are still small and as the top soil surface dries. If the ground is drying out fine soil can be used to fill shrinkage cracks and reduce evaporation. The dutch hoe is intended for pushing to and fro on the soil surface to slice no more than the top 3mm of dry ground not for pushing into wet soil.
Another very useful tool that performs a similar job is the Wolf 2 in 1 cultivator, quite a number are now in regular use by plot holders at Ashbrook. This tool is cleverly designed, on one face the 2 in 1 cultivator has a dutch type hoe that slices off weeds as it is drawn towards you. The opposite face has three reflexing prongs that when pulled towards you are ideal for working winter dug ground into planting condition, for incorporating powdered fertiliser such as blood fish and bone also for disturbing the roots of weeds that have just been sliced off although don't use it too close to the roots of growing crops. This design of prongs is far superior and easier to use than the more traditional cultivator with three 90 degree prongs and which requires more effort. Being a multi tool the 2 in 1 is available with different lengths of handle to suit your own physique. For ground in active cultivation this tool allows large areas to be covered very quickly.
Provided the ground was dug during the previous winter and a dutch type hoe is then used regularly, say every fourteen days during the growing season, particularly as the ground dries after showers it is easy to keep annual weeds under control. When planting it is worth allowing adequate spacing so a hoe can be worked along the rows and between your crops.
A second method of growing might be raised beds which once set up requiring minimum digging. Then, at all opportunities, using well rotted compost or manure as a mulch to suppress weed growth, the few weeds that do emerge can be dealt with by hand. This is a very good method of growing providing the plot is thoroughly cleared of perennial weeds before setting up the beds, also provided there is a plentiful supply of well rotted material available and provided any perennial weeds that encroach are dealt with promptly.