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How I cut my garden weeding to less than 15 minutes per week

Many beginner gardeners start off with a bang and are excited and encouraged when their seeds germinate and their started plants take off and grow. But then the weeds begin to show more vigor than the desired veggies.

Weedy garden

Weeds are about to take this garden.

Even experienced gardeners, who know that you cannot let the weeds even get a couple day’s advantage, sometimes lose the garden to weeds, when there’s several days of rain and it becomes too muddy to get into the garden.

Another weedy garden

You would think a tractor would help - but each pass turns up more weed seeds.

It’s pretty dismaying when you have trouble finding your plants among all the weeds. You can wind up spending many hours of catch-up work, and still find that your plants were severely set back, both by the competition with weeds, and the damage you did to their roots when you pulled up the weeds.

It’s been several years now, since I basically solved the weed problem. Sure, there’s weeds in my garden, but they are few and far between, compared with what they used to be. I find that just a few minutes a week is sufficient to pull up the weeds, and keep my own veggies growing without competition.

There are three basic reasons why the weed problem mostly disappeared:

1. I no longer till my garden. Every time you turn over the earth, you expose new weed seeds to sunlight and air. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, then suddenly germinate when you’ve given them ideal conditions to grow.

I’ve been able to pretty much eliminate tilling because all my gardening now is in raised beds. I was forced to go to raised beds, because our land is as flat as it can be, and we are subject here in coastal South Carolina to occasional heavy rains. These rains would flood my garden and pretty much spoil it. Few of our garden veggies can stand in water without dying or getting riddled with disease.

The raised beds took a lot of work to set up, but once they are up and running, the work forever afterwards is minimal. I started with a mix of about 40% sandy loam topsoil, 40% well rotted compost, 10% crushed coquina (for lime and minerals), and 10% crushed charcoal (to help prevent leaching when those heavy rains come).

Raised bed garden

Raised beds keep the plants from flooding rains, save my back, and help control weeds. Note how near weed-free the tomatoes in the front are. The middle section has not been planted, while the back is onions from winter.

These raised beds are in production year around. As soon as one crop is finished, I start with another. About the only disturbance to the soil is when I pull a deep rooted plant like tomatoes, or a root veggie like carrots or turnips. With smaller plants like beans or peas, I just snip them at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground.

Ready to topdress

Asclepias (left) and Borage (right) are ready to topdress with fresh compost. Dwarf French Marigolds are in the cells of the blocks. These flowers among my veggies help to build up pollinator populations as well as other beneficial insects.

Load of compost

Compost is free from the town. It is screened to remove larger chunks that haven't rotted fully, and to separate any trash, which is put into the tin can on the trailer fender.

2. When planting or setting out a new crop, I topdress it with about an inch of fresh compost. This compost has very few weed seeds, as it reaches a high temperature during its formation.

Squash seedlings topdressed

As soon as the seedlings are big enough, I put an inch of compost around them. The compost pile heated up during formation and killed most weed seeds.

My soil remains soft; I can easily plunge my hand up to the wrist into the soil, just by wriggling my fingers and pushing. The soil smells sweet and it’s full of worms and insects, unlike most agricultural soils in the area, which are quite barren of life. I always figure that the worms are tilling the soil for me, as much as it needs and in a very natural way.

Growing squash is nearly weed free.

Growing squash is nearly weed free. The sparse weeds are well behind the squash, because they germinated in the soil and had to break through the compost/mulch.

Topdressed watermelon

Weed suppression is nearly complete around this young watermelon plant. All that's needed is an occasional pulling of a weed or two.

3. I don’t let the weeds go to seed. By having raised beds, I never walk directly on my garden. I have more-or-less permanent walkways between the beds. This means that I can always pull weeds, even if it’s very muddy. The weeds never get a chance to get ahead of me.

I can’t take very much credit for this system of weed supression. Actually it came as a pleasant surprise. And I had to study it a bit to come to an understanding of why there are so few weeds.

The misuse of a good cause

I recently received an e-mail from “Solutions from Science” that promotes a system of seed sprouting for emergencies.

Now the concept is good. We grow sprouts ourselves, and they are easy to do and highly nutritious.

But I get suspicious when I see that hype and misinformation are used to promote a high-priced product (and it is very high priced).

I have two questions for these folks – “Why can’t you tell the truth?” and “Why do your prices seem like a real rip-off?

A pollen-coated bumblebee

You are telling me that bumblebees aren't good pollinators?

I’ll leave the reader to judge further about the price. You can go to their site, if you want to see their comercial at:  http://www.survivalsproutbank.com/

But here’s what they said in their e-mail with reference to the pollinator crisis:
“If only it was [sic] the weather. Unfortunately, it’s something much more insidious and much less understood than climate changes. It’s called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

With Colony Collapse Disorder, you have entire hives of bees dying off, and no one has been able to ascertain why or pinpoint a cause.

You may wonder how this affects your garden.Look out the window. Do you have beautiful tomato plants… with no tomatoes? Are your squash plants leafy and vibrant… with no squash? Are you looking at a luscious green garden with little or no produce to show for it? That’s what a dearth of honey bees will do. You have to have bees to pollinate in order to make many vegetables and fruits.”

Tomatoes – honey bees?  Nope!  It’s true that honeybees will work tomato plants – when they reach a saturation point where little else is available and honey bees are desperate. And they may accomplish a little bit of pollination.

In all my years as a beekeeper and flower observer, I’ve seen honeybees on a tomato blossom maybe a half dozen times. Now I’ve seen bumblebees many thousands of times, and even seen sweat bees a whole lot more often than honeybees.

I love my honey bees and I maintain a few hives in my back yard. But it would be a phony argument for me to ascribe my tomato pollination to them. I have two species of bumblebees that consistently visit my tomato blossoms. And that’s the truth!

Squash? Again, it’s not a favored plant for honey bees. In a garden setting, which is what these folks refer to, honeybees aren’t likely to even visit squash blossoms. They are beat to the draw by squash bees, bumble bees and sweat bees.

Now in a large field, where there is little competition from other flowers (and there are few squash bees), honey bees are brought in to pollinate the squash. And they do a fine job, with a little help from bumble bees.

They go on to say: “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of our food comes from pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Larger bumblebees cannot pollinate as effectively (if at all) as the smaller honeybee. Today, wild populations of bees are nearly gone. Instead, the bee has become dependent on the human population to insure its survival, and beekeepers struggle to maintain vibrant bee colonies.”

Struggle?  I’m not struggling to keep my honey bees alive. They are doing fine, thank you – as long as my neighbors obey label directions in using pesticides, I’m confident they will continue to do fine!

Bumblebees not pollinators? HA!  A bumble bee is about three times more effective in pollinating cucumbers than a honey bee!

Bumblebee in cotton blossom

Tell me again that bumblebees aren't good pollinators!

And many flowers are almost exclusively pollinated by bumblebees. Now in an agricultural setting, honey bees are more important, partly because they have 30,000 hive members as opposed to around 100 for bumblebees, and honey bees are portable and manageable.

But to question bumble bees’ ability to pollinate? That’s the biggest one yet!

What bothers me (and I see this a lot, particularly when someone is selling something) is the mixture of fact and fiction. When that happens we wind up with “myth” or “hype.”

And I’m not going to buy anything from those who play fast and lose with the truth!

Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?

It’s time for a short course in cucumber pollination. On Internet gardening groups and mailing lists, this question keeps coming up, over and over: “Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?”

To answer the question, we have to go back to some basics, because many new gardeners don’t understand them.

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

First off, cucumbers have separate male and female flowers. They are produced on the same plant – and the plants are basically self-fertile, although there is evidence that pollination is improved when there is cross pollination between separate plants.

Pollen must be transferred from the male blossoms to the female blossoms. It’s amazing to me that many people assume that this heavy, sticky pollen will just jump from one to another all by itself.  Believe me, it does not jump – it would take a gale wind to move pollen from the male – and that kind of wind would destroy the plant.

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Some plants are wind pollinated – corn, grasses, pecan and hickory trees, ragweed – but these make light, fluffy pollen grains that are produced by the billions.

Bees are the workhorse pollinators for cukes - basically honey bees and bumble bees; with occasional minor help from other bee species. Some will also say some beetles, ants, and other insects can tranfer pollen – but these are negligible.

A brawny and fuzzy bee is the best possible pollinator. They are totally equipped with branched hairs and strong electrostatic charges to carry pollen. A bee pushes its way through the flower structures and picks up large quantities of pollen on its body.

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Now a bumble bee has been shown by studies, to transfer about three times as much pollen per flower visit than a honey bee. But honey bees make up in numbers what they cannot do in comparison to bumble bees. A typical bumble bee colony is about 100 workers, while a honey bee colony may have 20,000 to 30,000 workers.

Many gardeners assume that when a bee goes to a flower, that it is instantly pollinated. While this can be true for a fruit with a single seed (like a peach), it is not true of multi-seeded fruits like cucumbers. Many grains of pollen have to be delivered – and this takes numerous visits by bees.

If no or very little pollen is delvered, the fruit simply aborts. There may well be spoilage, starting from the blossom end. This is due to an opportunistic fungus, but no fungicide will fix poor pollination.

Cucumber aborting due to very poor pollination

This cucumber is aborting due to very poor pollination

Well suppose then, that a few more grains get delivered to the flower – and some seeds get fertilized by those pollen grains.

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

The fruit may grow, instead of abort, but it will be slow growing and can be highly deformed.

A poorly pollinated cucumber sliced to show seeds

Note that there are no seeds on the deeply curved part in the center, and few seeds on the top end. The development of the flesh of the fruit is governed by the fertilized seeds

The only portion of the cuke that developed was the portion where the seeds were – which is on the outer curve of the cucumber. On the inner curve there are NO seeds, so the flesh didn’t develop in this area at all. Also note that on the top end, there were very few seeds that formed, so the top end is also undersized.

Compare pickle cucumber pollination

The upper pickle cucumber is well pollinated; the lower has missing seeds on the right side

When a full complement of pollen is delivered and evenly distributed across the stickly stigma of the female flower, the finished cucumber will look like the top one. It will grow rapidly, and be crisp and good flavord.

If some pollen is missing – and some seeds do not get fertilized the deformation of the fruit in the area of the missing seeds will show up in the shape of the fruit, as in the lower example in the photo above. The fruit forms a “neck” on the right side, due to missing fertilized seeds.

Cucumbers need to grow fast to be of good quality. Lack of water, excessive heat or cold, fertility, or plant disease can slow down growth. This makes the flesh tougher and dryer – and it can be bitter as well.

Anything that slows growth can cause bitterness – and this includes inadequate pollination. A poorly pollinated cucumber of the same size as a well pollinated one will usually be a day or two older. It will be tougher, and is more apt to be bitter.

Comparison of slicer cucumber pollination

The upper slicer cucumber is poorly pollinated; the lower has good pollination

Another problem with poor pollination is that the deformed area is the first place that spoilage will occur, if the grower tries to store, or send to market his or her cukes.

All in all, we see that good bee populations are critical to obtaining the perfect cuke.

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

Now, it is possible to hand pollinate cukes – yes, we can do the bee’s job, and we’ll talk about that in future articles. But, if you have more than a few plants that you are trying to hand pollinate, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the tremendous service the bees do for us!

A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone

I have *almost* no insect pests in my garden.

I’m not bragging so much as wishing to share some wonderful principles that I have learned.

I like to browse the Internet garden groups, and am seeing large numbers of gardeners who are losing all or a major part of their garden crop to aphids, grasshoppers, tomato worms, flea beetles, squash bugs — you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a major problem with it.

If these are a problem year after year, something is wrong. We often treat our gardens as if we are fighting a fire. We stamp out a spot fire here, and another pops up there. We are in constant damage-control mode. A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone.

Here are some of the important principles to consider:

1. Learn to work alongside Nature instead of fighting her. Simply by tilling the soil, we are altering Nature a great deal. Then we plant monocultures, add herbicides, spray poisons for pests, add extremely concentrated nutrients, and generally totally disrupt Nature’s balance in multiple ways. How can we reduce our impact and get things back into balance?

My garden is no longer tilled. The only soil that’s disturbed is the spot where I put a seed or a plant. Minimal! I don’t pack it down either. All my gardening is in raised beds that I can reach without walking on it. I let the worms till it, the natural way. I can wiggle my fingers and easily dig six inches into the soil.

2. Feed the soil. Our southeastern soils are naturally heavily leached, so they are mineral poor. They tend to be higly acid. Organic matter is near zero because of burning of crop residues and scorching of the sun. I add about an inch of compost each spring on the top. The worms till it. Then I use lots of leaves and grass clipping for mulch around the growing plants. This cools the soil, preserves moisture, and promotes biological diversity in the life of the soil.

Yes, plants grow much better when the soil is teeming with life – much of it too small for you to see. These organisms feed the plants. Plants grow sturdy and resistant to pests. If used at all, fertilizer is used sparingly. We don’t want an artificial growth spurt, especially one from overuse of nitrogen, which actually makes plants more susceptible to insect pests and disease.

3. Aim for as much biodiversity as possible. Mix it up. Yes, plant your flowers intermixed with your veggies. If you choose your flowers well, you can have nectar and pollen sources that run continously through the garden season. Some folks do this for pollinators – and this is good – but most don’t realize that you also gain pest control. Many pollinators, soldier beetles for example, in their adult stages are voraceous predators in their younger life.

Marigolds add to the biodiversity of the garden

Tomatoes in raised bed, marigolds in the cells of the concrete blocks, asclepias and borage also planted alongside - result - not a single pest this season!

4. Don’t freak out when you see a pest, and go to battle to eradicate it! Identify it. Learn about its life cycle; its food preferences; its enemies. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with it.

A lot of folks dust their garden at the first sign of any insect. This is very bad policy; first the insect may well be a friend. And second, using a pesticide that’s not labeled for an identified pest is a violation of the label (pesticide misuse), and it may well be ineffective or add risks that you don’t need.

5. Learn to accept some damage and the sight of a few pest insects. Ten years ago, we had a plague of Japanese beetles. Today, I can count on my fingers the number I see each year. The reason – we are practically overrun by assassin bugs, who love to eat Japanese beetles.

Now when I see an occasional Japanese beetle here or there, I am glad. I don’t want a pest to die out completely – as its control may then also die or leave the area. I just want to keep them in balance.

Evaluating squash pollination

A critical, but often overlooked or misunderstood part of growing squash is pollination. Some folks have a vague notion that bees are good – that bees have to visit the squash blossoms – and they assume bees will come.

In these days of pollinator decline, this is not a valid assumption. To grow squash sucessfully, one must ensure good pollination. And pollination is not just an on/off switch, where a bee just visits the flower and pollination is accomplished.

Well pollinated squash

A perfect squash resulting from almost every incipient seed fertilized.

Pollination is a progressive thing with any multi-seeded fruit. You can have many stages, from no pollination at all, to full pollination. This is because many grains of pollen must be delivered to the sticky stigma of the female flower – two pollen grains for each incipient seed. And these pollen grains must be evenly spread across the surface of the stigma.

The perfect squash in the photo above results from almost every incipient seed being fertilized. The act of fertilization stimulates the development of the flesh of the fruit.

Female squash blossoms have an ovary – the incipient fruit – at the base of the flower. If no pollen grains are delivered, the ovary will simply shrivel and dry up. If you touch it, it will fall off.

But, if a few grains are delivered, the fruit may actually start to grow. This fools some people into thinking that it’s pollinated.

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

The fruit will stop growing, shrivel up and often rot at the blossom end. This is not blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is a calcium metabolism problem; it shows up in fully-formed fruit; and it is much more common in tomatoes than squash.

There is a fungus involved here, but it is opportunistic; no amount of fungicide will prevent this fruit from aborting.

Poorly pollinated zucchini

Poorly pollinated zucchini: the fruit starts to grow, then shrivels and aborts.

Zucchini (courgette) and other squashes all will exhibit the same kind of response to inadequate pollination.

Let’s suppose a few more incipient seeds are fertilized, but still nowhere near the full quota of seeds. This is what you get:

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

The fruit may actually size up somewhat, but it still will be wrinkled and poor quality. It will also grow much slower than a well pollinated fruit.

Partly and fully pollinated squash

Partly and fully pollinated squash: the upper one did not have enough pollen for fertilization of all the seeds.

The poorly pollinated squash on the top is actually 2 days older than the well pollinated one on the bottom.

When I was in the pollination business, a farmer called me. He was just about in tears. He had planted 75 acres of yellow squash for market. During the winter, he had given me an order for bees to place on the fields, and he gave me the date he expected to need them. But he planted his squash much earlier than planned – taking a risk with frost – but he figured he’d win big if he had the first on the market.

Unfortunately he forgot to call and tell me he needed the bees earlier.  Now his harvest crew was on the first picking, and they were throwing away almost the entire picking. They looked just like the upper squash in the above photo. I went straight to his farm that morning, and bees were notably absent from his fields.

The bees were delivered that night, and the rest of his harvest was very good. The problem: The day of the first picking, there was very little squash on the market – and it was bringing $18 a box. If he’d had a normal picking, it would have brought a small fortune. But the price dropped rapidly, and by the fourth picking only brought him $4 per box. There was no 5th picking, as the market price of $2 a box would not pay the picking cost.

The lesson is clear: we need to pay much more attention to the bees. Pollination is a critical part of growing squash, whether for the garden or the farm. And commercial growers cannot assume wild bees will do the job!

Pollination failure can occasionally happen from a rainy day. In small plantings, you sometimes have crazy plants that have all female and no male flowers. And extreme heat can kill squash pollen. So there are other possible reasons for pollination failure. But persistent pollination problems usually stem from a lack of bees.

In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about the kinds of bees that do squash pollination.

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