Last year two of my best planting beds became overrun with weeds. While I was away helping my sick mother, crabgrass and several of its cronies shed so many seeds that the weed seed numbers in those beds are now sky high. Not that the rest of my garden lacks weeds. Even beds that have been closely managed for years would become weedy patches if I didn’t use various means to nurture crop plants while murdering weeds.
Hand-weeding and mulching are crucial, but one of the most effective weed control methods for organic gardeners is stale bed planting, also called false bed planting. When done well, stale bed planting can reduce weed numbers by half, which means less hand weeding for the gardener. This is especially important when you are growing vegetables that are poor weed competitors, for example onions and carrots. Without constant vigilance, faster-growing weeds will simply swallow them up.
Preparing Stale Planting Beds
Stale planting beds are created by coaxing weed seeds to germinate, killing them, and then doing it again before planting the vegetable crop. To conduct this process without losing too much planting time, I use tunnels covered with row covers (garden fleece) or plastic to pre-warm beds to be planted in spring. This warming effect also triggers the germination of thousands of weed seeds, which are quickly dispatched with a sharp, shallow hoe. A new crop of weed seedlings is ready to go down a week or two later, and the stale bed is ready to plant.
Now for the crucial details:
- Keep a calendar: Over time, you will discover exactly when you need to start setting up stale beds for various crops. You can’t work frozen or waterlogged soil, but the use of covered tunnels can get soil in workable condition sooner. I usually have a couple of stale beds set up by the end of February, though they won’t be planted with vegetables until early April.
- Get your planting bed in finished condition: Mix in soil amendments and fertilizers appropriate for the crop you are planting, and rake the bed or row smooth, as if you were going to plant it that day.
- Encourage weed seed germination: Water the prepared bed, and then use season-stretching devices (row covers, clear plastic) to provide warmth. When preparing stale planting beds, you want to see a lush green sea of weed seedlings!
- Shave down the seedlings: Weeds are easiest to kill when they are one inch tall. Organic farmers often use propane flamers or organic herbicides to take down the first flush of weed seedlings, which disturbs the soil not at all. However, you can get excellent results using a small, sharp hoe or even a knife to slice down the baby weeds just below the soil line, almost like shaving them. Don’t go deeper than an inch (3 cm), because you don’t want to drag buried weed seeds toward the surface.
- Stage a second sprouting cycle: If you can, take another 7 to 10 days to grow a second crop of weed seedlings. Don’t worry about slight planting delays, because a week spent waiting for weed seeds to germinate is more than justified by greatly reduced hand weeding later.
- Avoid disturbing the soil: As you sow seeds or set out seedlings, poke holes with your fingers or use a slender trowel to avoid stirring up the soil. The topmost layer of soil over the bed has now lost more than half of its weed seeds, and should be working like a dry mulch. If possible, limit watering to precisely where young plants are growing.
- Hand weed until the crop is ready to mulch: Stale planting beds will take care of thousands of potential weeds, but not all of them. You will still need to hand weed often until the crops are big enough to mulch, usually four to six weeks. But thanks to the stale bed technique, you will spend much less time pulling far fewer weeds.
Many organic farmers regard stale beds as their most practical method for reducing problems with weeds among onions, carrots, and other crops that are poor competitors. In my garden, it will help me reclaim neglected space gone weedy in only one season, fair penance for allowing weeds to shed seeds.
By Barbara Pleasant