Book Review

Weedless Gardening

by Lee Reich

Workman Publishing Company, New York, N.Y. March 2001. $8.95, 6 x 8, paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 0-76111-696-6.
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Reviewed by Alice Ramirez (9/2001)

Weedless Gardening, by Lee Reich, is actually a very readable book on no-till gardening, written with an emphasis on weed suppression. The main goal of no-till gardening (aside from minimizing distasteful grunt labor) is to disturb the soil as little as possible. Citing examples from nature, Reich reminds us that allowing organic matter to collect on the surface, decomposing over time while new matter collects, is Nature’s way. Charts included in the book also reveal in a stark manner how tillage has decreased the organic matter in prairie soils worldwide.

Although Reich includes information familiar to most experienced gardeners, he also weaves in enough new material to lift Weedless Gardening out of the category of Basic-Gardening-Manual-With-a-Slant. I found a good many nuggets of information surprising enough to keep me--a reasonably seasoned home gardener--reading on.

The best of these are scattered about the main text in green side-bar boxes, and include interesting trivia such as: night tillage reduces the re-sprouting of small-seeded broadleaf annuals but has no effect on large-seeded ones, or on grasses; burying organic materials creates an undesirable perched water table; why planting in raised beds is a bad practice for arid climate gardeners; how the particular weed species growing on a patch of ground reveal the condition of the soil. For example, if you have such species as sorrel, horsetail, blueberry and wild strawberry, your soil has a low pH; a potential garden filled with Bellflower, Queen Anne’s lace or campion indicates an alkaline soil, while an abundance of cardinal flower, buttercup, horsetail, yellow flag, purple loosestrife, to name a few, should tell you to improve drainage. Many of the charts scattered throughout were useful and appropriate. Some were unnecessary for experienced gardeners, but probably useful to beginners.

Weedless Gardening is informally divided into two parts. In part one, Reich discusses, in detail, everything needed for his particular no-till, weed-suppressive technique. What I call Part Two, although not set apart as such in the book, is basically a general growing guide to various garden species, divided, by chapters, into vegetables, flowers and ground covers, trees, shrubs and vines, including fruit trees. Much of it will be familiar, but is pleasantly enough written to read again, and very instructive for beginners.

In the first section, what Reich calls "Top-Down Beginnings," he describes in great detail an interesting technique for suppressing pre-existing vegetation without yanking it out by the roots or digging it under, while reinforcing excellent reasons--weed control, soil health--for practicing his technique instead of traditional rototiller, shovel or tractor cultivation. Basically, knock or cut it down, smother it with layers of paper, this covered under thick mulch, and then plant, always adding mulch above, never digging it in. This first section also includes a number of useful charts.

Related topics covered here include ways of creating edges, exceptions to Top-Down Gardening (dealing with very acid-imbalanced, rocky, hardpan or mucky soils.). He describes how to remove deep tap-rooted weeds with minimal soil disturbance (always the goal), other methods of weed containment, and the best ways of feeding plants. The book has many interesting details.

As an essentially lazy gardener who loathes hot summer weather but likes garden-fresh veggies, I found his method intriguing. However, he does not address situations in which pre-existing vegetation is dominated by extremely rampant, invasive stoloniferous grasses with roots that reach far and deep, sometimes even pushing up through weak areas of cement. It occurs to me that, by the time you dig up enough ground to insert edging sufficiently deep to stave off such a plague, you would have already disturbed a fair amount of ground, which seems to defeat the basic premise.

Time did not permit experimentation before this review goes to press, but I want to try out Reich’s technique on a patch of hated bermuda grass in my own front yard. If it enables me to replace that much-loathed lawn weed that I have been trying to kill off for years with bell peppers or zinnias, I will happily report the results in a later article and offer to buy Reich lunch.

The first section also includes the most readable explanation I have seen for putting together a home garden drip irrigation system. Most of the time, my brain goes blank and I skip over such material. I was able, after reading through these particular pages, to see myself actually installing one.

My favorite part was his description on growing cover crops; this inspired a fantasy: my front yard awash in red clover instead of Bermuda grass, their pink flower heads swaying in the breeze, being visited by honeybees while their roots enrich and further break up my clay soil. The chart connected with this information, titled "Characteristics of Selected Cover Crops," exasperated me. Nothing listed seemed to have a hardiness rating above Zone 8. However, after some study I was able to figure out which ones might work in my Zone 11 guava-belt garden.

Weedless Gardening was a pleasant read on a warm July Saturday. Partway through, I found myself peering at an uncultivated area of my back yard, fantasizing about what I could do with that space while experimenting with his techniques--at least once the weather cools down. There was enough new material to keep me interested. I can only imagine how seductive this book could be to a cold-climate gardener who came upon it in mid-February.

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