How to Prevent Weeds Using Stale Planting Beds

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Onion seedlings in a stale seed bed

Last year two of my best planting beds became overrun with weeds. While I was away helping my sick mother, crabgrass and several of its cronies shed so many seeds that the weed seed numbers in those beds are now sky high. Not that the rest of my garden lacks weeds. Even beds that have been closely managed for years would become weedy patches if I didn’t use various means to nurture crop plants while murdering weeds.

Hand-weeding and mulching are crucial, but one of the most effective weed control methods for organic gardeners is stale bed planting, also called false bed planting. When done well, stale bed planting can reduce weed numbers by half, which means less hand weeding for the gardener. This is especially important when you are growing vegetables that are poor weed competitors, for example onions and carrots. Without constant vigilance, faster-growing weeds will simply swallow them up.

Preparing Stale Planting Beds

Stale planting beds are created by coaxing weed seeds to germinate, killing them, and then doing it again before planting the vegetable crop. To conduct this process without losing too much planting time, I use tunnels covered with garden fleece or plastic to pre-warm beds to be planted in spring. This warming effect also triggers the germination of thousands of weed seeds, which are quickly dispatched with a sharp, shallow hoe. A new crop of weed seedlings is ready to go down a week or two later, and the stale bed is ready to plant.

Covered tunnel
Covered tunnels can help germinate weed seeds early before planting

Now for the crucial details:

  • Keep a calendar: Over time, you will discover exactly when you need to start setting up stale beds for various crops. You can’t work frozen or waterlogged soil, but the use of covered tunnels can get soil in workable condition sooner. I usually have a couple of stale beds set up by the end of February, though they won’t be planted with vegetables until early April.
  • Get your planting bed in finished condition: Mix in soil amendments and fertilisers appropriate for the crop you are planting, and rake the bed or row smooth, as if you were going to plant it that day.
  • Encourage weed seed germination: Water the prepared bed, and then use season-stretching devices (row covers, clear plastic) to provide warmth. When preparing stale planting beds, you want to see a lush green sea of weed seedlings!
  • Shave down the seedlings: Weeds are easiest to kill when they are one inch tall. Organic farmers often use propane flamers or organic herbicides to take down the first flush of weed seedlings, which disturbs the soil not at all. However, you can get excellent results using a small, sharp hoe or even a knife to slice down the baby weeds just below the soil line, almost like shaving them. Don’t go deeper than an inch (3 cm), because you don’t want to drag buried weed seeds toward the surface.
  • Stage a second sprouting cycle: If you can, take another 7 to 10 days to grow a second crop of weed seedlings. Don’t worry about slight planting delays, because a week spent waiting for weed seeds to germinate is more than justified by greatly reduced hand weeding later.
  • Avoid disturbing the soil: As you sow seeds or set out seedlings, poke holes with your fingers or use a slender trowel to avoid stirring up the soil. The topmost layer of soil over the bed has now lost more than half of its weed seeds, and should be working like a dry mulch. If possible, limit watering to precisely where young plants are growing.
  • Hand weed until the crop is ready to mulch: Stale planting beds will take care of thousands of potential weeds, but not all of them. You will still need to hand weed often until the crops are big enough to mulch, usually four to six weeks. But thanks to the stale bed technique, you will spend much less time pulling far fewer weeds.
Alt text
Shave down seedlings with a hoe or a knife

Many organic farmers regard stale beds as their most practical method for reducing problems with weeds among onions, carrots, and other crops that are poor competitors. In my garden, it will help me reclaim neglected space gone weedy in only one season, fair penance for allowing weeds to shed seeds.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"You mention poor weed competitors like carrots and onions then go on to include, "other crops that are poor competitors". For the begining gardeners, it would be great if you could lay out a list of the "other crops" you are refering to so when we plan our gardens we can take this issue into consideration."
Jeff A on Friday 4 February 2011
"When you "Shave down the seedlings" do you have to remove and discard the shavings?"
Gina on Friday 4 February 2011
"Good point, Jeff. Veggies and herbs that grow upright with thin leaves cast little shade, so they have trouble claiming their space. Fast-growing veggies with broad leaves, like beans and squash, are much better weed competitors. Gina, baby weeds shrivel right away, so there is no need to remove them."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 4 February 2011
"Found this article very informative and useful. I may not be able to use it this year, but will certainly bear it in mind"
Joe on Saturday 5 February 2011
"I always worried about whether I was pulling out plants or weeds (yes, I am that bad a gardener) so now I start my plants in prop-trays until I have plugs and then plant them out (after hardening-off) and then I know what's a weed and a plant! A great article, Barbara, and one in which I share some responsibility for the care of elderly parents. So while my time in the garden is therapeutic, it is limited and so time-saving tips are always great to have!"
Kevin on Saturday 5 February 2011
"Stale planting bed is a great idea, I have also heard this concept called pre-sprouting weeds as green manure, and it does work nicely. Here's another way to keep weeds at bay, and accomplish several other important tasks simultaneously. I recently read a book called Home Vegetable Gardening - a Complete and Practical Guide..., by F.P. Rockwell (1911)(free through Amazon Kindle, but the tables are a mess), in which I really for the first time learned what is meant by cultivation. In chap. 10, Rockwell discusses the way to simultaneously 1)kill weeds and prohibit germination of new weeds, 2)get air to the roots of plants (preventing a crust from forming), and 3)prevent excess evaporation of soil moisture; all by cultivating (loosening) 1-2 inches of the soil surface, which acts as a dust mulch which prevents crusting and shades the lower soil, breaks the capillary action of the soil which prevents both evaporation and weed germination, and it is a mulch that is not in a state of decay, so it may be up against the plant stems without harm. In all of the modern gardening books and blogs I have read, I never came across anything so enlightening as this one bit of antiquated gardening knowledge. I highly suggest you all read this book, and try soil cultivation - it really does work!"
Sara (ForestGardenGirl) on Tuesday 8 February 2011
"Continued... not to hijack this post, but I forgot a couple of things: 1. This must only be cultivation of 1-2 inches of topsoil, NOT deep digging-in. Having too loose of soil (at depth) is just as bad as having severely compacted soil because the soil particles need to be connected for capillary action to work, which is the same action by which the roots pull water in. Also, deep digging-in or turning harms soil microorganisms and worms. Shallow cultivation on the other hand keeps your bed moist and shady under the dust mulch- ideal for microorganisms and worms. Finally, and for those who are in a hot, dry climate like me, a dust mulch will encourage your plants to send their roots slightly deeper, making them more drought tolerant. I think that, in combination with stale bed planting, a dust mulch will make tedious hand-weeding a thing of the past!"
Sara (ForestGardenGirl) on Tuesday 8 February 2011
"There is an article online regarding dust mulching that compares it to organic mulch, with the latter being the better performer. http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~linda%20chalker-scott/horticultural%20myths_files/Myths/magazine%20pdfs/Dust%20mulches.pdf"
Christina on Friday 11 February 2011
"Christina: Thank you very much for that link. This pdf was the first modern treatment of dust mulch that I have seen, and I can understand now why it is not widely in use, and why it is suitable only under certain conditions. I may still use it in early, cool season gardening, but I will most certainly not use it during my hot, dry summer season. Again, thank you very much for this information, you have been very helpful."
Sara (ForestGardenGirl) on Sunday 13 February 2011
"I had a similar personal obligation that resulted in my garden turning weedy. Here in the North part of the Midwest we are looking toward the growing season. I think I will try your method in my raised vegetable beds,first and see how it works for me."
Ilona E on Friday 25 February 2011
"Interesting idea, but much to labor intensive for this old woman. We normally plant cover crops in what you call stale beds. Try to pick something we can mow, it rots adding nutrients to the soil, smothers out a lot of the weed seedlings and you can plant directly into the "mulch". I follow up with several layers of black and white newspaper between and around my seedlings and add straw both around the plants and in the walk ways. Any weeds that make it are easy to pull."
doccat5 on Friday 4 March 2011
"Any advice as to what to do with ground elder and celandine? Every time I weed them they seem to come back even stronger. Chemical weed killers haven't worked either. I'm at my wits end and can only think of removing the whole top layer of earth and replacing with something weed free. "
Sophie on Friday 25 March 2011
"Sophie, both these can be very problematic. Ground elder can gradually be beaten by forking through the soil every week and removing all of the creamy coloured roots but it will take many weeks to clear and you can't grow anything else there while doing this. I've heard that celandine can be controlled by cutting it down and then applying a deep (4 inch) mulch to smother it but, again, all other plants must be removed first and with both these plants you may end up transferring the problem if you replant them elsewhere as the weeds may transfer with them. Good luck!"
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 26 March 2011

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