In the Weeds…or Not

Even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with weeds in his gardens. Some 200 years later, we’re still fighting the war on weeds at Monticello.

We asked our expert gardening team to share their best tips and tricks to keep the weeds in your garden at bay.  Here’s what they told us:

Jason Young
Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens at Monticello

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered…” 
– Ralph W. Emerson
The Complete Works.  1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies.  XXX. The Fortune of the Republic

Bare soil will always be covered with plants, and the weeds of today are the most hardy of nature’s plants. Weeds add organic matter and nutrients back to soil that is often left in poor shape as a result of modern construction or use of heavy machinery.

Cover: Make sure that the soil is covered with dense layers of plants during all four seasons.

Mulch: Covering the soil with leaves, straw or wood chips will prevent weed seeds from germinating. Mulch will have to be reinstalled every year.

Chemicals: Pre-emergent herbicides can be used to create a chemical barrier to germinating weeds. Use these chemicals sparingly, if at all. Safety precautions should be read and understood before their use.

Pat Brodowski
Vegetable Gardener at Monticello

“If you’ve got a weed in seed, you’ve created seven years of work.”
– Author unknown

  • Summer weeds grow exponentially. If it’s not going to rain, we can scuffle tiny weeds and they’ll die in the hot sun. If we’ve scuffled and it rains, weeds such as purslane take advantage of the moisture and re-root.
  • We wish, of course, that Jefferson had used mulch.  That is the modern gardener’s best help in summer.
  • Place grass clippings or straw around plants to keep the soil temperatures comfortable for the roots, and challenge weed seeds to germinate. The organic material supplies nutrients as it decomposes and when we till it under.
  • If a bed is to be saved for a later crop, a summer cover crop will hold weeds at bay.

Brodowski concludes: “It’s simply wishful thinking that there will one day be no weeds. Henbit seeds remain viable for 40 years; mullein germinates after 100 years.”

Peggy Cornett
Curator of Plants at Monticello

The plough is to the farmer what the wand is to the sorcerer.
– Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, 17 April, 1813

  • Enjoy Peter Hatch’s article in the 2006 issue of Twinleaf, “Garden Weeds in the Age of Jefferson,” where you’ll learn about invasive species and find some interesting Jefferson nuggets.
  • Add mulching to prevent weeds. This is being done in parts of Monticello’s vegetable garden.
  • Straw mulch is good because it keeps crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes out of the dirt, preventing rot and keeping the harvest cleaner.

Debbie Donley
Flower Gardener at Monticello

“A stitch in time saves nine”
– English Proverb

While Donley admits that her go-to quote doesn’t exactly refer to weeds, it certainly pertains to many aspects of gardening, particularly weeding!

Here are a few more of Donley’s tips:

  • Weeding thoroughly early in the season greatly cuts back on the amount of weeds in the future.
  • Getting weeds out of the ground before they go to seed is key to a weed-free garden.
  • Weed areas thoroughly before you plant.
  • Plant close together so as to shade out the weeds and prevent them from germinating.