1. Weed-Block Fabric (but not the kind at Home Depot)
Over the course of many years tending a garden, I have tried a variety of weed-blocking fabrics to end the vile task of pulling weeds by hand. (And being an organic gardener, most chemicals are not allowed.) I tried fabrics from hardware stores, Walmart, discount stores, and local nurseries. Experimenting with all of those fabrics, despite the claims on the packages, always ended with me cursing and wondering why I wasted my money and time. They were flimsy, would tear as I laid them down, weeds grew right through the fabric, and they would literally disintegrate into shreds after one season. In addition, they are supposed to be completely covered with mulch because UV rays will cause damage.
When I inherited my farm, with large 1500 square foot garden, I knew I needed a better solution. The first year, I tried controlling the weeds with a hoe and rototiller, which was very time-consuming every week and still did not suppress the aggressive weeds well enough. Last year, I did a lot of internet searching to see if there was a better fabric. I found my solution! At GreenhouseMegastore.com, I found heavy-duty polypropylene ground cover (http://www.greenhousemegastore.com/product/polypropylene-ground-cover/ground-cover-fabric) and ordered enough for half the garden, to try it out. When I laid it out, I found it was thick, blocked light, and did not tear. It's UV-stabilized, so it will last many years even in sunlight. Since it's a woven plastic, it allows water to seep through. The rolls were easy to roll out into straight rows, even in a big space. I bought the 6' x 300' size for my vine plants (pumpkins, watermelons, etc.) and the 3' x 300' size for between corn rows. I just ordered another roll to fill the rest of the garden this year.
My recommendations for using this great product? Use the re-pins in addition to covering the edges with dirt; last spring a windy day allowed wind to get under the fabric and pulled it up along with the re-pins. This year, after I rototill and lay down the fabric, I will use my hoe to pull some dirt along the fabric edges.
Cost: Although covering a large space may seem expensive, the polypropylene groundcover comes out to about $0.06 per square foot and will save you both time and money over many years. You will be weeding much less and it can be reused year after year! (In comparison, Scotts 4' x 100' Landscape Fabric, at Home Depot, must be covered with mulch and costs more at $0.07 per square foot.)
2. Newspaper and Grass Clippings
I have to give my mom credit for this priceless, old-time gardening trick! For as far back into my childhood as I can remember, we laid down 2-3 layers of newspapers topped with grass clippings as
garden mulch. It's free, recycles materials, blocks weeds, conserves moisture in the soil, and is really easy to do. Plus, the next spring you can just rototill it into the soil and it becomes compost. (Just make sure not to use glossy paper; it will not allow water through.) When I was around 19, I remember us spending the day before a family trip to England mulching the garden; we knew it would keep the garden in good shape for the two weeks we would be away. This year, in my small raised beds and flower garden, I'm going to do the newspaper method with bedding (hay and wood shavings) from my sheep stall, which has the extra benefit of some manure mixed in.
3. Soaker Hoses
I know all gardeners and farmers out there will be magnificently jealous, but I am lucky enough to have my garden located over a natural, underground spring. Soil more than two or three inches deep remains evenly damp during the whole growing season, even during dry spells. Back when Ransom Farm was established, during the late 1700's, farmers probably scrutinized their plot carefully for the best location of a garden, and an underground spring would have been like finding gold!
Back in my previous gardens at other homes, however, I sometimes needed to water plants. Spraying with a hose wastes water (through evaporation and run-off) and hauling buckets, although great for the shoulder muscles, is a chore. One year, I purchased some soaker hoses (basically garden hoses with tiny holes that drip water directly into the soil), laid them down along my tomato plants, and covered with mulch. All I had to do was turn on the hose for 10 minutes, and my tomato plants were deeply and thoroughly watered without waste and without getting the foliage wet (which can lead to disease). The mulch conserved the moisture in the soil until my next watering.
4. Soil "Dams"
Even when I was a kid, I liked to putz around in the garden. At some point, I realized that watering with a hose, sprinkler, or bucket led to run-off when the soil couldn't absorb the water quickly enough. In turn, the soil around plants didn't get deeply watered, leading to a host of problems like shallow root systems and soil that dried out quickly. How could the water be held around each plant so that it would have a chance to soak in deeply? Well, the answer seems so simple... a soil "dam"! After planting, I would take a minute to build a dam out of dirt around each plant. For most plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, a round reservoir 12" across with a dam a few inches high worked great and would last all summer, especially if lightly covered in mulch. For "hills" or groups of plants, such as cucumbers and squash, one wider reservoir worked fine. Instead of the water running off away from the plants, I could simply fill each reservoir almost to the top with the garden hose or bucket and watch the little pond slowly sink in.
This method also works really well for perennials that are newly planted or split and have to be watered often until they acclimate. We rescued a huge, heirloom hosta from the yard of a mid-1800's house that was being torn down. I split it into dozens of small plants and relocated them to a shady slope at the back of my yard. After digging in compost and manure for each grouping, I planted them and made reservoirs. I was able to give them deep waterings without the water running down the slope.