Tomato Patch: Solving my living-mulch problem

My living-mulch problem

I showed you in a recent posting about the living-mulch problem in the Tomato Patch—thousands of seeds that had sprouted after I put down straw mulch.  I asked readers to send suggestions for solving the problem.  Let me tell you about their recommendations (edited for blog length) and then explain what I did.

Pat F.: “I would cover the bed with black plastic. … You can put tiny pin holes and the weeds will get no sunlight and die enriching the soil. The plastic can be secured by metal U-pins.”

Kent P:  “Just cut it off at ground level with a weed-whacker, and it should die. Hopefully there’s no quack grass or Johnson grass seed mixed in with the annual grass.”

West Virginia J:  “Tackle it with your hands and on yer knees.”

Cape Cod weeder, tool of choice

Troy, who likes this “great experiment in intercropping,” sent four suggestions from California: “1. Mow the ‘grass’—don’t pull it.  2.  For easier ‘weeding,’ pull the tomatoes and harvest the grain.  3.  Lay down cardboard mulch over the grain and remove after kill.  4.  Drip-irrigate tomatoes, and give no water to grain.  This might work here in California, but probably not on East Coast.”

Yung: “There is a product called cocoa-shell mulch. The shells come off the bean during roasting and air dry therefore insuring a weed-free mulch. It seems like a great organic product that would eliminate your problem for the next growing season, but not this year. Maybe you can smother the weed by placing heavy-duty plastic over the area.”

James: “Treat the wheat as a free living mulch/cover crop. Allow the wheat to grow to a taller stalk, and chop it off at ground level, and leave the new mulch lying on top of your straw. It will dry and continue mulching your tomatoes. …  And if it re-grows, repeat the chop and drop. … The grain plants will die at the frost, and your problem will be solved. For next year, along with newspapers, use clean cardboard for your ground layer, and any of the grain plants that survived the winter won’t be able to grow through the cardboard.”

Siah, from Australia: “Hmm, are you sure that its wheat/barley cos in our garden we had the same thing or at least looks like it and it turned out to be grass.  We just let it grow till we had time to pull it out.”

Weed/straw mix drying in windrow

Ria M.: “Rake out as much of the straw as you can from this area. Put a single layer of cardboard over the grass/wheat/barley to smother it. Put the straw over the cardboard and water to keep cardboard from blowing away in the breeze.”

Major recommendations, then, were to pull it, cut it, or smother it.

Here’s what I did.

Step 1:  I decided not to cut the weeds.  Kent P. mentioned the possibility that some of the weeds were not grain but invasive grasses, and I had noticed that some young weeds didn’t look like grain seedlings, so I wanted to be sure to kill them. 

Step 2:  I started pulling the weeds but quickly saw the manual approach resulted in lots of roots staying in the soil with great potential for resprouting.  I then switched from hand to my Cape Cod weeder to easily uproot the thickly growing weeds and to knock most of the soil off their roots.  In the process I tried to pull out most of the straw mulch, but it was so intertwined with the weeds that I tried to cure the mix by putting most of it in a windrow on an adjacent sidewalk, hoping the heat and sun would kill the weeds.  For a day and a half I occasionally turned the “curing” mulch with a pitchfork to expose still-green weeds to the sun.

Second newspaper/straw mulch of 2012

Step 3: I smothered still-to-sprout weeds by again laying down sheets of newspaper—until I ran out about halfway through the job.  I would have used cardboard in the walkways—if I had some.  I plan to collect some next winter for use in Tomato Patch 2013.

Step 4: I bought another bale of straw at a local farm to top off the re-mulched Tomato Patch.

In a future blog I’ll share some things I’ve learned from my encounter with living mulch.  In the meantime, thank you, readers, who sent recommendations from near (Maryland and West Virginia), far (California), and around the world (Australia).

If you wish to read my earlier posting about my living-mulch problem, CLICK HERE.

All’s well, I hope, as temperature hits 97 degrees F.

3 Comments on “Tomato Patch: Solving my living-mulch problem

  1. Good job Bob!! Know this was a job and a-half for you. Hope you licked the problem and it won't resurface in 2013! Also, hope you have a bountiful supply of tomatoes to reward you for your efforts!!

    Thanks for sharing your results.


  2. Looks goods. Amazing how couple of sheets of newspaper cure a lot of weed issues. I used this technique in a couple of places in my flower garden this year.

    Also, if you would like some red plastic mulch for next year, I can guarantee its weed free and tomatoes are suppose to ripen several days earlier because of the reflection from the red plastic mulch.


  3. I use grass clippings from my lawn to make my own hay. It works great in my vegetable garden. It is more dense and smothers weeds better than straw.


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