Posted on Apr 9, 2017

thomasdesign2Horticulture tells us to cultivate the soil to control weeds; ecology tells us that the more the soil is disturbed the more weeds grow. Nevertheless, if gardening know-how is the product of observation over time, then this guideline for orthodoxy is long overdue: Pulling weeds always fails. Pulling weeds disturbs the soil, and disturbing the soil activates seed germination that typically results in weeds. So, when you pull a weed by the roots, you are initiating and perpetuating a never-ending cycle of weeding. Alternatively, cutting the weed creates no soil disturbance and generates far fewer replacement weeds.

But the weed will just come back, right? Yes, it will in a garden where open spaces between plants allow it to receive light the minute it resprouts. If, however, you cut it below the foliage of a dense ground cover, there will be little to no light available and the resprouting weed is not likely to break through. Intermingle that ground cover with vertical layers of plants and those weeds will have a hard time competing with the crowd. A vigorous weed might break through once or twice but it will not likely survive beyond that if you keep cutting it.

In an ecologically stable garden, the stability is made possible by low levels of disturbance, which provide few opportunities for outside plants to penetrate. This technique of frequently cutting weeds is called starving.

Starving weeds is also an effective alternative to using herbicides. It’s true that herbicides do not cause disturbance to the soil and so do not promote a subsequent flush of weeds but using herbicides commits us to a treadmill in which we have to use them over and over and over again in order to keep weeds at bay, creating “super weeds” and weakening soil health by disrupting the soil food web. Herbicides also have negative human and environmental health impacts, some of which still may have yet to be determined.