“Keep that up, Tino and you’ll be thinning beets all summer!” I’m reprimanded, again, for losing my cool and cursing out a patch of pesky nutsedge. The threat travels across the field into my ear, echoed by the bellowing laughs of my fellow farm crew. We have to be playful. We have to tease. We have to joke, despite the serious concentration cultivation requires. We have five more beds to hoe and a sense of humor makes the load a bit lighter. Sometimes when my neck is stuck after looking down for a whole row, I think I’d actually rather be thinning beets.
I had always thought weeding was, well, pulling clumps of weeds with your hands, hunched over among the plants; the definition of “getting your hands dirty.” While that might still be true for super small-scale production (like a home garden), and my fingernails are far from pristine, it’s not so on this organic farm. If you’ve got weeds in your beds at this production scale, then you’re already too late. The best way to prevent weed competition is by catching them before they appear.
“Since the best way of weeding
Is to prevent weeds from seeding,
The least procrastination
Of any operation
To prevent the semination
Of noxious vegetation
Is a source of tribulation.
And this, in truth, a fact is
Which gardeners ought to practice,
And tillers should remember,
From April to December.”
The New England farmer who wrote this poem in 1829 certainly understood the importance of proper cultivation. Organic farming guru Eliot Coleman writes in The New Organic Grower “Cultivation is the shallow stirring of the surface soil in order to cut off small weeds and prevent the appearance of new ones. Weeding takes place after the weeds are already established. Cultivation deals with weeds before they become a problem.”
Once the weed seed germination party goes down, the weeds only grow up; in between is the critical cultivation window. Once weeds are too big, not only will you break your back trying to eradicate them, but they also create competition for nutrients with your crops. Direct sown seeds (seeds planted directly into the bed as opposed to transplanted as seedlings) suffer lower germination rates as a result. Entire beds can be lost in the entanglement of chickweed. Your peas will even trellis themselves on nutsedge. Imagine hand weeding an entire bed of newly germinated dill among a milky way of weedlings (weed-seedling)!
But wait. Before I fly off the handle due to traumatic weeding flashbacks, let’s get back to proper cultivation technique to avoid such troubles.
Enter specialized hand tools. Forget herbicides. We use 100 percent vegetable-fueled manpower with the help of two tools: the collinear hoe and the scuffle hoe. We move swiftly and purposefully as a unit, delegated to different sections like honeybees locked into a formula.
Cultivation is the shallow stirring of the surface soil in order to cut off small weeds and prevent the appearance of new ones. Weeding takes place after the weeds are already established.
The collinear hoe (co-hoe) is a lightweight, long handled tool that features a sharp razor-like blade that comes in lengths of 3.5 to 7 inches. The farmer can comfortably stand upright, while dragging the narrow blade of the hoe through the soil’s top surface. A co-hoe’s size and shape makes for an agile tool that allows you to cultivate between tight rows and narrow spacing without decapitating too many plants. After a week or so of unfortunate casualties, my efficiency with the co-hoe improved; I now fleetly sweep between plants at the precise depth of no more than 2 inches — deep enough to take out newly germinated weeds, yet shallow enough to not cut crop roots or stir up dormant weed seed.
The only scuffling I’m getting into these days is with newly germinated weeds. (I’ve been waiting to tell that joke). The scuffle hoe, also known as stirrup hoe or hula hoe, has a thin, double-edged rounded blade that oscillates as you push the hoe back and forth. We use these for weed-prone walkways, compacted areas of soil, full grown weeds, and wider spaced rows. It’s easy to get carried away when scuffling once you get moving; remember to refrain from burying seedlings in excess soil or hoeing too deep.
Weed seed will always lay dormant in newly tilled soil. Don’t feel discouraged if your land explodes with weeds instead of carrots after spring’s first good rain. A properly managed cultivation plan will deter weeds and can even reduce weed pressure in the future.
Hours fly as weeds die. Some of my most hopeful thoughts arrive in the quiet moments of cultivating as I scuffle on, hoe in hand, head down, dreams high.
Peter Henderson writes in Gardening for Profit, “Another benefit of this early extirpitation of weeds is that, taken in this stage, they of course never seed, and in a few years they are almost entirely destroyed, making the clearing a much simpler task each succeeding year.” This preventative method is key in successful organic weed management. Though it requires patience and labor, I’d still rather be hoeing than spraying an herbicide.
All jokes aside once in a rhythm, the farmer can lose herself in the puzzle of cultivation. Hours fly as weeds die. The mindfulness of simple, repetitive movements lulls me into a deep, meditative state. Some of my most hopeful thoughts arrive in the quiet moments of cultivating as I scuffle on, hoe in hand, head down, dreams high.
Read more entries in Cristina’s diary.