On the broken-windows theory

IMG_1495Cilantro seedlings (they can stay, for now)

Weeds in the paths:  my own version of broken windows.

The broken-windows theory in urban issues means that minor things that are otherwise easily remedied (broken windows, graffiti, trash) tend to snowball, and then the neighborhood slides into urban decay.  Its gardening parallel for me is weedy paths = quite quick chaos in the garden beds.  Does anyone else subscribe to this theory?

My solution, such as it is, is to cover the paths with woodchips.  About 20 tractor loads (10 pickup truck loads) should do the trick for a solid year, with a few poke-throughs during Year Two.  I am now on Year Three of the woodchips in the paths, so they don’t work terribly well any longer.  Sigh.

So, I am trying to figure out which is less work:  getting 20 loads of woodchips from a neighbor>>schlepping them around the paths, or weed>>paths>>with>>hoe>>every>>single>>weekend until the snow falls.

I think I know my answer.

22 responses to “On the broken-windows theory

  1. you’re so much more disciplined than I. Was looking at my (very) weedy paths yesterday and thinking that I might just weed-wack them down to the ground every couple weeks instead of trying to actually get them under control. Maybe I’ll step up instead.

  2. I try to keep bad weeds out of my paths. I often have clover, dill, and cilantro growing in them. Since I walk in the middle, they tend to die there, but the “good weeds” are often living along the sides of the paths.

  3. I think that’s where Malcolm Gladwell came up with his “tipping point” theory–a lot of little things adding up until a very big change is achieved. The question in this case would probably be, how many little cilantro plants does it take to turn your garden into a jungle? (Ours have all bolted already. Time to plant more.)

  4. What about using something like newspaper under the wood chips to form a longer lasting weedbarrier? It still would last forever. But the act of scraping aside the existing would chips and installing it would dislodge a lot of this year’s starts. Maybe the chip filled paths decomposing would be a new source of composted bark that could eventually end up in the garden or compost pile adding bulk.

  5. When we did the raised beds for the garden down by the house I sifted a lot of gravel out of the soil. The soil was roughly one third gravel. I used that gravel in the paths. It makes for drier feet and it is easier to keep weeded than soil.


  6. I think my answer is: live with the weeds. Yeah, I lasagna mulched quite a bit last fall and early this year. It helps a lot. But I suspect it also multiplies the slug population exponentially. I weed by hand very intermittently. And I “harvest” some weeds for the girls. Beyond that, I live with a very messy looking garden. It won’t win any beauty prizes, but it feeds us well.

  7. I did the bark dust / wood chips last year after having spent lots of time weeding over the first few years of my backyard garden. Now most of the time when I walk through the garden I try to bend over and pull a weed or two as I go. That minimal bit of ongoing effort (and a quite dry spring?) has been keeping things mostly under control so far. I wouldn’t want to haul something in more than every few years.

  8. My long range plan is to put down landscape cloth and then 3 inches of gravel. This will make pushing the wheelbarrow around a bit tougher so then I’ll probably need some stepping stones. Or a long board. Sigh.

    Cilantro tastes like SOAP to me! Anybody else? It’s just yucky. I do think it’s lovely, though and have grown it for that reason.

  9. Yes, for me it’s that horrid nightmare grass; once that takes hold I’m ready for winter. This year I followed your cardboard under the mulch suggestion, if it works I’ll decare you a gardening goddess.

  10. I’m thinking of a propane torch. If I moved quickly enough, I could fry the weeds before leaving a trail of blazing mulch behind me, right?


    Of course, the Bermuda grass will be laughing long after I’m compost in the grave.

  11. I will never, ever forget this lovely blog, El. You named it “Fast Grow the Weeds” so I think of your blog every time I look out on my garden and its fast-growing weeds. The name was a stroke of genius!

  12. Also to Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife –

    My mantra of the last few months is “Crooked is Good”. This comes from a delightful little book by Mike Madison (Deborah Madison’s brother). A flower farmer who sells at the local farmers’ market, he wrote a bunch of short essays describing the various customers and fellow farmers and sellers. The book is titled Blithe Tomato.

    On page 142 is the essay “Crooked is Good” in which he talks about the rigid expectations of perfection some customers have, while others are far more relaxed, only wanting the tomato to taste good, who cares how it looks. That philosophical attitude takes so much pressure off oneself that I’ve virtually adopted it as my mantra, especially when I’m looking at my weedy garden.

  13. Last autumn I bought a roll of brown-paper weed mat for about $15 online (and then of course this spring I saw the very same thing in the local hardware store, ack). The weed mat stuff is thicker than kraft or wrapping paper.

    It’s easier to handle outdoors than newspaper sheets (any wind at all, and you’re chasing flying newspaper) and no inks to go into the soil. I’ve used it with a 1-2 inch layer of shredded bark mulch to smother grass and it seems to be working quite well.

    Of course, there are always seedlings that are perfectly happy to root on top of the mulch and paper, but it does cut down on the amount of mulch I have to buy.

  14. I’m a woodchipper too. I’m also at the point that I will start to hoe out the paths instead of adding more chips, I’ve already had to raise the raised beds once… not wanting to do that again.

  15. Laura, I swear I am not a perfectionist, but my meadow wants to take over the garden so I need to be vigilant. I did try to just hoe them the first year and it ended up being fairly futile. It seems like you’re pretty darned busy this year so as ever we all need to pick our battles, right? Get out the line trimmer and let it rip!

    Daphne, yeah, I step over these little guys but I think they smell heavenly when I do step on them. But I am with you: if I see dandelion, dock or plantain, they’ve gotta go.

    Oh Ed I know. It’s not that the cilantro is necessarily taking over as once I realized I was weeding amongst the weeds (because I swear I was pulling plantain out of the cilantro) then I realized I had hit a bit of a tipping point of my own. Why in the WORLD am I weeding amongst the weeds? Obviously I am trying to avoid doing something else (and that was true: I needed to get out the tiller and replow the border to keep the meadow grass out of the perimeter beds, not a fun task). And the school’s cilantro has bolted too, from these same seedlings. It’s interesting.

    MMP, yeah, that’s where I started: after the first year of just hoeing the paths and spending lots of energy doing that, I put down a year’s worth of unfolded cardboard boxes and about a month of my mom’s Chicago Tribune down, then came the first year’s worth of woodchips. That lasted a year, then I dumped a deeper load (5″) that’s now nearly gone. It seems to go away quite quickly! At my friend’s garden, I swear the soil in his paths is better than what’s in the beds (it’s finely decomposed) but in our case here it’s still our clay. Sigh.

    Yeah Kate I can see slugs being a big problem in some parts of the world. With us it’s sowbugs; I just live with them. But yeah, I can’t quite deal with the weeds though even though I have gone there and tried…just doesn’t work for me, but I am quite glad to hear it works for you!

    Hi tpepper, thanks for piping up. I guess what I am working on here–and it sounds like you are too–is that whole permaculture thing. Can I find inputs here on the farm to use, like all those pine needles and stuff? And in reality, do I want to be wheelbarrowing around loads of woodchips every 3 years when I am 60? So it’s really just trying to find a working solution. If I weed the beds by hand, I shouldn’t be kneeling on weeds to do it, so the paths get weeded too by hand. Always plenty of stuff to do if you garden, that’s for sure.

    Petunia, did you see Wall-E? I loved that movie but I thought of my own dealings with the botanical world and I realized that grass would certainly live through anything we could do to the planet. What I am saying is there are weeds that would LOVE that gravel. It’s just the nature of the world. BUT: cilantro: there is a world of difference between little unsprouty cilantro and the stuff that goes to seed. Once it even THINKS about flowering, it is soap city. So I think you got yourself some old cilantro somewhere, poor thing. But then again, of all the stuff I grow, cilantro is right up there with the most controversial. Nobody else comes down so hard on my peas or my kale.

    Pamela, you will consider me a goddess for a year or two, then all bets are off. I have that grass too and I drive myself into fits trying to get rid of it in the outside beds. Thus, my vigilance.

    Hah, Stefaneer, I had seriously considered that too. As a city person I poured boiling water on the dandelions that came up through the cracks in my front sidewalk. That seems so quaint to me now: like, I am this little old lady pouring off her tea water onto those demon dandelions. Life seemed simpler then!

    Hi Dennis, hah! Glad the name has stuck then. And thanks for that recommendation: I had considered it because Deborah is one of my heroes so I figured her brother might have a bit of that magic too. And yes, crooked IS good. My daughter came home from my mom’s house this weekend with a local hothouse cucumber. It was bigger than anything I have ever grown and about 3x more pretty, but…beyond insipid as far as taste goes. We couldn’t get over it, but then, we’re kind of spoiled for taste here. Looks, well, maybe not so much: I haven’t eaten a leaf of any of our Asian veggies without those little flea beetle holes. Ah well. I guess I should just share.

    Firefly, hah! That is the way it happens, isn’t it. FWIW I tend to wet the newspaper right after I put it down to keep it in place. But yeah, all I am looking for is just a little more time in the garden to do stuff I actually can benefit from, like edible plant maintenance, you know? Things WILL sprout in the bark mulch, but maybe not as many as bare earth.

    Yeah Woody it seems you need to hoe up that good mulchy earth and stick it in the beds. That is certainly not MY problem here so I am quite envious! Or, if the beds have enough, just add the paths’ stuff to the compost piles. It’s not a bad position to be in, you know…

  16. It seems like spring, summer, and fall is weed, weed, weed, and in our case water, water, water, weed some more, water…get rained on so you have a mess, the weeds really come.

    Oh well, I’d much rather have this than winter.


  17. As far as weeds go, in my house we have a disagreement about what’s a weed and what should be coddled. Case in point – monkey grass.

    Hi, El – you’re my gardening hero, so can I ask you a question, please? Actually, I posted it on my own little garden blog, sowwhat.wordpress.com

    I have an opportunity to lead a little workshop on gardening. It will be up to 30 people, aged 6 to adult. The first weekend in August. The announced topic is “Kim helps us take advantage of Fall’s ideal growing conditions for several great vegetables.” I will have around 45 minutes or so, and I’d prefer to do a hands-on exercise that would be interesting for adults and fun for kids. We’re in Texas, so we do have a good fall growing season.

    So, I’m reaching out to my fellow gardeners for ideas for something fun to do in this class. Any thoughts?

    Thanks so much!

  18. Linda, yeah, those weeds sure love the rain. So do the “real” plants too, there’s just something magical about the natural stuff, the stuff from the hose is not so great! But yeah, weeding…do you mulch? It saves me some time. We use our lawn clippings. Then again we’re in a pretty rainy, grassy part of the world!

    Hi Kimmarla! You’re reminding me that *I* have a gardening workshop coming up in August that I need to prepare for…like, getting some of the materials together. Texas, huh? Well on the back end of the calendar you can do more spring stuff like peas and lettuces. Likewise, things that hate your hot weather like broccoli can really shine in the winter. And you guys can grow carrots too practically all year long, and beets like it cool as well. Wow! Perhaps I should move to Dallas and garden. Er, scratch that; I would melt in your summers, heat wimp that I am. But broccoli: so much tastier than store-bought, though smaller. You could seed a row right in the garden in September, I would think, and harvest them by Thanksgiving.

  19. I find it near impossible to pull anything edible out, so I had a courtyard (which is pebbled) carpeted by rocket, dill, coriander (cilantro) and lettuces this season. I did pull out the daikon radishes that sprouted there as they are a root vegetable and the ground is too compacted for them to grow, the volunteers in the actual garden bed are doing great though, and I’ll harvest one this afternoon for asian themed pot luck at a friends tonight.

    • Hannah, what is it with daikon radishes wanting to go to seed? I grew them a few years back and was discouraged: I only got maybe 10 decent-sized radishes out of them and all 30 or so of the rest spent their energies making seeds. The same thing happened in the school garden this year, this time I pulled out the whole darned crop!! But yeah, there used to be certain areas in my city garden where I did the same thing: you wanna grow, go ahead. And dill is such a lovely self-seeder isn’t it? An Asian-themed potluck sounds divine. The Japanese do a special dish (in a special dish) called shabu-shabu where they cook veggies and then meats in a broth on the communal table. You dip the edibles then in a sauce and eat them. I have only had it once and the communal aspect of it was so appealing…kind of like fondue or raclette, you know? Yum.

  20. I hate to waste good organic matter in the paths, so we let it grow up in grass and clover, then mow it frequently and use the grass clippings as mulch on the garden beds.

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