Cultivating, or weeding, is probably going to be your most demanding task as garden caretaker. Weeds are both resilient and persistent. At times, you'll probably feel that if your vegetables grew as well and as fast as your weeds, gardening would be child's play. It's important to keep down the weeds in your vegetable garden. They steal light, water, and nutrients from the vegetables, and they shelter insects and disease.
To successfully control the weeds in your garden, you have to learn to recognize them when they are young. It helps to understand how and when weeds grow to keep the garden clean and weed free. When weeds are small, regular cultivation will control them easily. If you let them become established, getting rid of weeds will be a struggle.
Annual weeds are like many of the vegetable varieties. There are cool-season annual weeds, and there are warm-season annual weeds. Cool-season weeds, such as chickweed, generally germinate during fall and winter in the garden. They produce flowers and seeds in the spring. Although the weeds disappear, the seeds lie dormant in your soil through the summer. If these weeds are allowed to produce seeds, you'll have the same problem the following season. Warm-season annuals are much the same, but their growing season is spring through fall. Perennial weeds persist year after year, some with deep taproots, others with a long-spreading network of roots. Some perennial weeds will spread through the garden like wildfire; don't wait for this to happen. A beginning gardener can easily be overwhelmed by such a problem.
Weed seeds will germinate wherever the ground is bare, especially where you have supplied the soil with organic matter, fertilizer, and water. To help prevent weed germination, try to keep the garden covered with mulch or a cover crop. This method isn't always practical when you're waiting for a row of vegetables to germinate, but it will help keep out many weeds.
The best way to control weeds is to chop them off at ground level with a sharp hoe. If a weed is close to your vegetables, don't try to dig out the whole root system of the weed; you may also damage the root systems of neighboring vegetables in the process. Instead, just remove the top of the weed. Persistent weeds, such as dandelions, may have to be cut down several times, but eventually they will die.
Herbicides can be useful in controlling weeds under certain conditions, but these conditions are usually not encountered in the small home garden. In addition, herbicides require such careful handling that the home gardener would be well advised not to use them more than absolutely necessary.