School Gardens: Weeds, Mulching, and Volunteers

‘There is no right or wrong way to garden. Only consequences.’ ~ Unknown

Dressing Naked Soil

There are three times during any planting season where mulching is the most critical:

1. Immediately after seeds are sown, sprinkle a thin layer of shredded leaves and grasses (green + brown) that will both protect the soil from being pummeled by water droplets or/sun and act as top fertilizer while seedlings find their roots

2. When seedlings are 3-4 inches tall, a slightly more liberal layer of shredded leaves and grasses will prevent any unwanted surface seeds from sprouting, locking in soil moisture in the process

3. As plants are more established, a last thick layer of leaves, twigs, ‘chop and drop’ veggie residue, or — if you happen to have it — bark mulch to encourage the soil beings; provides safe haven for spiders and lizards, locks in soil moisture, and prevents any rogue Nature seeds or grasses from sprouting in between edibles

The consequences for missing any of these mulching steps is big: weeds. That weeding chore can be made even worse if the soil surface disturbed more than it needed to be when readying soil for seed planting.

Weeding is time consuming. It makes your back and shoulders hurt. It disturbs the soil unnecessarily, sprouting more weed seeds; pulling weeds with the root intact can unwittingly disturb the tender roots of sprouting edibles, killing them as well. It is such an unpleasant task that every gardener I know hates that chore the most. (Thinning seedlings is a close second.)

It was clear that a few of the garden classes may have omitted the first or second (maybe both?) layers of leaf mulch. Since soil remained exposed for weeks over the long winter break, Nature seeds — aka weeds — were left to grow unchecked.

So next time, students, be sure to mulch. And try not to disturb the soil. Thankfully, it was a pretty day and I had nothing else pressing on my calendar. Let the weeding chore begin.

Eek! There’s sunflowers in them thar hills.

Domestic Volunteer vs. Nature-Grown

Before weeding a garden, it’s important to know what’s already been sown: planned versus unplanned plants. Planned plants are typically domestics, that is, seeds we got at the store or by collecting from the previous year’s harvest. Nature’s plants are just that — seeds dropped by Nature.

Square foot plots allow for quick visual recognition of domestics right where you sit, both by their foliage and by how-many-per-square were planted. For instance, carrots and radish are planted 16 seeds per square (4 rows x 4 columns = 16 plants), so it’s easy to spot the densely populated squares and anything within them that doesn’t belong.

‘Weed’ is a subjective term; if it’s not wanted, it’s probably a weed.

A non-carrot, non-edible — a classic weed.
Pinch it at the base. Toss it aside for rot.

Either broccoli or cauliflower in a carrot plot.
Leave it to grow!

Sometimes, nature provides edibles for you, without any work or forethought on your part. Sometimes, those edibles are also domestics! Either way, they are all called volunteers. 

The nice thing about volunteers is that they tend to come up right where the nutrients are the best. It’s like the seeds seem to know something about the health of the soil where they sprout. It’s zero garden work for all parties involved, just leave them alone, get out of their way, maybe nibble a few within the day.

Dandelion. Edible weed.
(And super food!)

‘Leaf me be,’ says the Dandelion.

‘Lettuce live!’ Mustard chimes in.

We’re all volunteers here, when the day is sunny, and some of us are slightly punny.

Mustard. Edible volunteer.
Mark it (so it looks wanted and doesn’t
get mowed down by accident).

After a bit of pulling, pinching, and tossing, the garden bed is looking much more organized, even intentional.

Add a liberal layer of leaf mulch around the remaining plants. An entire curbside bag was used up for this 12′ x 4′ raised bed, with 12-16 square foot plots appearing to be unoccupied. (Note to self: Must remedy that with some kids and seeds!)

And, finally a good firm spray (blast?) with water to lock the whole mess all into place. This north-south facing school garden space can become a wind tunnel on blustery days. We want all those leaves to stay in place when the March winds come.

Related Posts:

What’s your favorite way to beat the weeds?

Are you a volunteer-lover?

12 thoughts on “School Gardens: Weeds, Mulching, and Volunteers

      1. I did! There’s a sea creature whose name I forget that looks similar. That’s when I learned.

        They eat my plants though… I know everything says they don’t, but they chew around the stems in rings. I can’t seem to keep a healthy population. It always over grows on me.


  1. The non-carrot, non-edible appears to be henbit, Lamium amplexicaule. To your non-s you can add non-native, given that this species invaded from Eurasia. Henbit is one of the first plants to bloom each year.


    1. Henbit. Yes, thank you for that! We have lots of henbit and the summer sunflowers are popping up all around too. Don’t know what variety those are either.


      1. I’d guess some cultivar. Last weekend I was surprised to see a common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) flowering along the MoPac expressway. I’ve noticed at least half a dozen native species already blooming.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. These are definitely ‘common’ in that they grow in fields everywhere down here. The before-after pictures show how quickly and prolifically they sprout!

      Sunflowers are left in place — planted around — as their roots till the soil, their dried stalks provide winter habitat for native bees, and the dried seed heads provide food for birds. What’s left of them is used in compost. Closed loop gardening!


    3. We’re a fan of henbit in the lawn here. My daughter picked a bunch for a bowl of water vase for the bathroom counter. I don’t let her see the henbit massacre in the veggie beds.


      1. To our defense, the henbit outside the beds — of which there is many — grows and blooms fabulously! Unfortunately, though, the district staff sees weeds as needing to be mowed. It’s sure that massacre day is coming ..

        Liked by 1 person

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