That Damned Vegetable Garden

Of all the things I talked about working on over my “break” a couple of weeks ago, the vegetable garden was noticeably absent.


Or, as I’ve been referring to it for the last two years, “that damned vegetable garden.”

Technically it’s an awesome vegetable garden in that it always produces vegetables. (And I make delicious food from those vegetables.) But every spring I feel like I’m faced with some insurmountable issues in the garden…


By “insurmountable issues” I mean “weeds”, obviously.


Because… bullthistle.

I’m not even swearing, that’s the actual name of this weed that has invaded everything. Bull thistle. It sounds appropriate. Every time I go out to the garden I can shout, “This is serious BULL THISTLE!” and, yeah, totally accurate.

So, first, let me talk about the awesome part of this garden… the part that actually works.


These raised beds.

They’re amazing. Good soil, easy to amend with compost, easy to plant and to weed. It’s also easy to control any weeds between them on the gravel walkways because I spray them.

(Side note: Every time I talk about weeds on this website I have to make a decision about omitting the fact that I spray things–walkways and the gravel part of my driveway–or, if I do mention it, potentially injuring myself from how hard I roll my eyes when someone recommends “industrial strength vinegar” to me in the comments. Which happens without fail, every time. Guys, I’m not looking for advice on this particular thing… I’ve figured out what works for me on my property through four years of trial and error and stress and spending a fair amount of money re-graveling things. The reason I do mention it is because I’m not trying to pretend that I live in a magical weed-free zone where parts of my property look pristine–ha!–with very little work from me. Or that layers of cardboard and weed fabric under gravel are the end-all-be-all of weed management. They aren’t. I spray a minimal amount of things on this property with year-long weed killer, and you can bet your ass I’m respectful of my bees and the food I’m going to eat when I do so. But, frankly, vinegar of any strength ain’t gonna cut it around here. And that is the last time I’m going going to explain why I spray shit on my property in a post on this website.)

So, anyway…  the raised beds and walkways in the garden are working beautifully. Getting those beds and walkways in to place on the “wild” side of the garden is another matter entirely. Just for context, six weeks ago I took these five beds out and re-positioned them (since I’d measured incorrectly last year and it was driving me nuts.) This is what the untamed half of the garden looked like back then:


I got all five beds in, and then turned my attention to things like planting a bunch of grapevines, until last weekend when– in what seemed like the blink of an eye– I walk out to the garden and see this…


This is why in early spring a lot of my life outside of work goes on the back-burner and all of my spare time becomes fully focused on maintaining this property. Because in a very short period of time, it can get… overwhelmingly out of hand.

For reference, here’s the garden I’ve been picturing in my head for the last three years…


And here is what it actually looks like…


Also, after years of fighting with the weed whacker, two weeks ago I officially pronounced it dead. I struggled with it for a good hour in the morning, and then walked out the garden where my mom was weeding by hand and when I told her, she said confidently and flippantly, “Oh don’t worry, we don’t need it.”


Oh. We don’t?? (That is literally what I was looking at when she said that.)

So. I took a deep breath. (Mothers do know best, after all.) And then I picked up my garden shears and started cutting down all these weeds by hand. (My mom used a shovel.)

It turns out you can make a fair amount of progress by hand when you aren’t swearing at a weed whacker all day.


Over the last week I promised myself an hour working out in the garden or on the farm every night to try to make some progress. Turns out, it worked…


Well, “worked” as in I can see the raised beds again. And there’s cardboard down to kill the weeds around the border gardens, with some fill dirt ready to spread on top of them.

And oh, hey, look. I found the basil and sage.


Technically I’ve got 4 more beds to put in and gravel to shovel between them, and then, finally, the garden will be ready for the greenhouse. But, since it is spring, I’ve still got to divide my time between this project, and a few others that are going on around out here…


I’ll get it all under control soon though (as long as I keep telling myself that, right?)


26 Responses

  1. I spaced my raised beds exactly wide enough apart so I could run the lawn mower between them in one pass. It worked reasonably well.

  2. …but have you tried industrial strength vinegar?

    ***RUNS AWAY***

    Semi-related: have you ever put in field fencing (like 4x4s with welded wire mesh?). I have some crazy garden plans brewing and I need a fence like yesterday. Trying to decide if I should DIY or get some halp.

    1. Haha. If it was anyone else…

      Also, yes to the fencing question. 4×4’s every 50 feet and T-posts every 10 ft in between them. You know how to reach me if you’ve got questions!

  3. Vinegar? Interesting and squeaky clean weeds maybe. Tasty pickles.

    Goats would be cuter. And I think they even eat thistles.

    Ever hear of Rogue Hoe?

    Their garden tools are impressive.

    Ordered a field hoe for tackling knee high weeds and weed tree seedlings.
    Prior to this I used shovels. Knives. Weed whackers that die after the first season. Then the field hoe arrived. It has weight and balance and heft. Cut through weeds & topsoil like a knife through butter.
    Bye to thistles.

    Real tools for real gardens.

    “Each hoe is hand-crafted – 100% made in the USA – from recycled agricultural disc blades. Each tool boasts a high grade tempered steel and most models are sharpened on 3 sides. They DO hold an edge!”

    Maybe they will give you some FREE TOOLS if you trial them on your blog?

    Worth looking into.

    And MAYBE even some cute little goats? : )

  4. Anytime I see a garden without weeds, I wonder, what, do they have slaves? Glad you set the record straight, I haven’t seen vinegar kill anything! I spent years hoeing paths until I realized every time I disturbed the soil I was exposing the weed seeds which resulted in yet new weeds. Cardboard, weed cloth, gravel, with an occasional shot of Agent Orange should do the trick.

  5. Ha! My sister uses vinegar but she has the time to spray regularly so it works for her. I only spray once a year, if that, so I use the horrible kills everything stuff too. The thistles keep coming back tho.

  6. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who still uses herbicides. I don’t have very much yard at all, but it’s heavy clay so sometimes it’s the only way to get rid of well established weeds. I actually have to go over the the US to buy them though – here they’re kept under lock and key and only available for agricultural use.

    1. Vanessa, I’m assuming you are Canadian. Tell them you have poison ivy. They will readily sell it to you. My mother-in-law is a big fan of that trick.

      1. I’m not too far from the US border, so an annual run for herbicide isn’t too bad of an inconvenience. It saves me more time than what it would take to clear things up without it.

  7. “…. overwhelmingly out of hand.”
    No shit… BAM! WTF!

    A Master Plan is for **long** term planning.
    Don’t despair, you’ll get there.

  8. Holy shit, I just made one of those raised beds in my yard. I can’t imagine doing all of these! Hats off.

  9. My four wheeler with spray tank on back is my best friend for keeping weeds down. (Way better than one of those pump or backpack sprayers btw) I don’t think all the town folk have any idea how much work it is to keep weeds down on a small acreage.

  10. Hi, my name is Patty, and I use herbicides (please forgive the lame attempt at 12 step humor). I don’t have my own bees, but lots of honey bees visit my property, so I am very careful for their sake as well as the myriad other critters in the area. That said, sometimes Glyphosate, 2-4-D, or Triclopyr are absolutely called for! The Triclopyr is my current favorite because it is keeping the poison ivy down to kudzu size, versus Godzilla size. I think there are lots of us chemical users out here, we’re just afraid to speak up for fear of getting battered by the peaceful environmentalists. I love your blog, thank you for being an inspiring and empowering woman!

  11. I am suffering weed woes since moving to a bigger property and trying to maintain more beds than we ever dreamed of having in our old townhouse. I am about to give in and start spraying things. I just can’t keep up and don’t want to spend hours weekly weeding everything only to have it look like I haven’t weeded a thing a couple of days later. I can’t even imagine having as much as you have to maintain.

  12. Going on record that I use a particular brand of poison ivy & tough brush killer. Does what I need it to do on my property. Vinegar? Cleans my windows well, great additive when dishwasher doing a load and love the white balsamic on my salads! ☺

  13. If you aren’t inclined to worry about potential chemical leeching from carpet, my mom swears by it. As a temporary thing of course. We renovated our house and since the yard was still growing while we focused inside, my mom put out the carpet we ripped out. The carpet will get moldy, and it is far from attractive, and there will be bugs, but it seriously works. It is heavy too, so it just stays, and you can’t poke holes in it like landscaping fabric. I probably wouldn’t put it anywhere food would be grown, but if you want to kill a spot or prevent growth somewhere, it does just that.

    Anyway, after two summers, we are trying to reclaim more and more of the property. One of the best purchases I ever made – both were yellow, which is why I think bees would be a great investment haha – besides the wheeled cart you covered on a recent post for a pretty cool use (I bought my cart on amazon, and used it to haul things to and from my sheds) – was my cubcadet st-100: Got it from HD in case I wanted to return it. I’ve had it for over two years now.

    I abuse the hell out of it, mostly every two weeks in the summer on a two acre property. Just replaced the belt after two years and that’s the only trouble I’ve ever had with the machine itself. I put in either the .55, .70, or the .95 (that one is a bit of a pain to use) string to mow over overgrown areas with anything under about 1″ thick. I – okay, mostly my mom – just cleared out a huge section of wisteria taking over my front yard. The only trouble is that things can get wrapped around the middle section and you have to use a razor blade to cut it off or, if it is metal, you have to pull it off. I did have to cut off the 4″ thick layer of wisteria vines every so often. Anyway, just thought I’d share 🙂

    I can’t wait to get my property into shape to do a garden. Definitely going to do raised beds now!

  14. Hi Kit. I’m one of those cardboard and mulch fans. Maybe with a thick layer of straw in btwn. Not because I try to be environmentally friendly, which I do, but because I’ve had to be VERY thrifty. Cardboard-free. Straw-free after Halloween. Mulch-free, when it was compost, leaves and such, or free when your local municipality provides ground up trees for nothing. Seeds need water and sun to germinate, agreed? Cover them, no sun. Till the dirt, and you’ve now exposed snoozing seeds to sun. Or you can use one of those brand name granules you sprinkle to prevent germination of seeds in early spring. But not with your newly planted seeds, or guess what, no veggies or flowers. Some people say corn meal works, haven’t tried it. But, All that chicken poop, straw and donkey poop after proper composting could all be great compost/mulch-free. Throw a layer of mulch or clean straw on top if that sounds better. I just keep throwing stuff on top of stuff. I’ve gone from no topsoil to great healthy soil. I still have to use the herbicide, but only sparingly. And I mean sparingly. I just don’t need it much anymore. Organic or otherwise. But one thing I’ve learned- in btwn raised beds is best. Anything treated with herbicide, i.e. even straw or hay ingested by animals, will often get soaked up be desired plants and destroy them. That was an expensive lesson. Lost my favorite shrubs and some hosta. For me, lessons learned. And no, I have not tried vinegar. 🙂

  15. I do worry and take care of the environment, but my husband is an ag chemical salesman so there is going to be chemicals used on our property. He is trained and licensed for application so I know that he is applying it correctly. This time of year you may think you have every under control and and with one surprise rain shower every weed and grass goes nuts! I understand!

  16. I am so glad you posted this!!! We are constantly fighting the jungle of weeds in our garden and when you see all those beautiful pinterest-worthy gardens online it can be very discouraging. Good to know I’m not the only one in this boat! 🙂

  17. “This is serious BULL THISTLE!”, haha. Your wit is fantastic, but all the work that you’re doing in ‘That Damned Vegetable Garden’ is even better. I also like your sidebar about the weeds. (How very real-person of you!) Thanks for the post.

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