Give weeds the old heave-hoe
Nature will not tolerate a vacuum and an empty space ripe for colonisation is exactly what a lovingly prepared plot of bare soil represents.
If unattended, within days the green haze of seedling weeds will start to take over. That's gardening life!
The battle with intruding vegetation is endlessly ongoing and can, at times, feel thankless.
But it must be sustained, for the vegetable patch is an entirely artificial creation which quickly reverts to something different without regular attention.
Weeds compete with veggies for the essentials of life – moisture, nutrients, light and space – and will soon overwhelm fussier, slower growing edibles. In productive areas weeds must be controlled.
It is sensible to allow a mix of native and ornamental flowers to flourish around the margins, however, because they attract many beneficial species which naturally control pests (ladybirds and hoverflies, for example) and fertilise fruiting crops (such as beans) .
My number one weapon in the war on weeds is the Dutch hoe; essentially just a sharp blade on the end of a long pole which can be tickled through the surface centimetre or so of soil.
Hold it like a broom and, stooping slightly, stir the soil with small and controlled disturbances, jabbing smoothly back and forth.
Seedling weeds are sliced off at the stem between roots and leaves. They can be left to frazzle in the sunshine and will soon disappear.
Hoeing is best done when the ground is dry on top, in the morning with a sunny day ahead to hasten annihilation.
Established perennial weeds will recover and re-grow from their roots but annuals succumb.
My rule of thumb is to hoe before I can see any weeds, keeping the soil surface clean and crumbly.
If annual weeds are flowering when the hoe is employed then it is wise to manually remove them to a bucket and then the compost heap.
The reproductive potential of weeds is immense.
Many will ripen seeds at this stage even after chopping.
Correctly used, the hoe will soon clean even quite large areas of the plot.
Work methodically and backwards from left to right then right to left, always facing uphill to lessen the strain on your back. Regular pauses to stretch and straighten also allow for appreciation of the horticultural landscape and wildlife comings and goings.
If you're hoeing in less than ideal conditions (like when the soil is damp), then the blade can be rubbed clean and a file passed over to keep it keen.
Hoe blades are normally of just the right size to work amongst rows of vegetables. For intimate weeding I get out an old dinner knife which has been bent into an 'L' shape. This tool is perfect for precise control in the gaps between individual veggies within their rows.
When soil is moistened by rain hand-weeding is surprisingly effective, even in sticky clays where a fork can be plunged in and levered back to loosen the clods. Weeds come away mostly with an easy tug. Roots relent with a pleasant tearing rip. Mud ingrains the finger nails in a way which is most satisfying. Deep-rooted perennials may be removed individually by digging or plunging a forefinger tight down the side then pinching and pulling between the thumb to get them out as one.
'How to Grow Your Own Fruit and Veg' by Joe Hashman (ISBN 978-905862-77-1) is available in good bookstores and Amazon, rrp £9.99.