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Grab your gardening gloves and get smarter while weeding

An ordinary table knife works well for precision weeding close to plants. LOGAN WERLINGER/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Garden dirt might make you smarter. Research by the American Society for Microbiology indicates that exposure to Microbacterium vacae is believed to increase learning behavior by stimulating the neurons in the brain. Luckily this bacterium occurs naturally in garden soil.

I should eat it by the spoonful, but maybe I’ll wait for conclusive research. Two great ways to come in close proximity to garden soil are the June projects of weeding and thinning the vegetable garden.


Garden weeding involves two operations. Cleaning between rows is the easy part, once rows are visible. A hoe, small rototiller, or wheeled cultivator will work. The challenging part is weeding within the row.

Rows of potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage are easily hoed, because the plants are spaced within the row. But weeding carrots, beets, lettuce, beans and radishes requires patience.

I become a garden crawler on hands and knees. My favorite tools are fingers and a table knife. Don’t tell Mary, but sometimes I borrow one from the kitchen drawer. A knife slices just below the soil surface with precision, letting you weed closely to the vegetables without injuring them.

Weeding is as addictive as eating popcorn if the weeds are tackled when tiny. Total despair is defined as a garden in which the weeds are six inches high and the vegetables are in there somewhere, maybe.


Carrots, radishes, lettuce, spinach, beets and similar small-seeded types often need thinning out. Larger seeds like corn, beans, peas and squash can be spaced evenly at planting, and thinning is often not required.

Thinning is necessary because the vegetables mentioned emerge thickly. Imagine a dozen carrots trying to become edible size in a space one inch wide.

I’ve tried to seed carefully when planting, to avoid unnecessary thinning. But when I do, it seems germination is less, resulting in a too-thin row. Then when I seed thicker, it seems every seed germinates.

The seed packet suggests thinning distances, but usually an inch or more apart is fine for carrots, beets, radishes and lettuce. Spacing is accomplished by gently pulling or cutting off excess seedlings with a small scissors. Newer gardeners struggle with this. Grit your teeth and know that it works. Thinnings can be used in salads.

Thinning should be done as soon as the seedlings are barely large enough to handle, and is best done late in the day. The process can cause the remaining seedlings to wilt. Sprinkling with water will refresh them.

Tools I chuckle at some of the “As Seen On TV” garden tools that practically push themselves through fluffy storybook soil. Well, not in my garden.

Tool selection depends upon soil type and personal preference.

After access to a rototiller, the top of my must-have list is a good garden hoe. A hoe can create planting row furrows, dig holes for transplants, kill weeds, and “hill up” soil around potatoes, tomatoes and onions.

I once thought all hoes were the big, blocky-shaped type that Elmer Fudd used in his carrot patch. I quickly learned the opposite when I was a student working in the North Dakota State University research plots.

The narrow hoes that we sharpened daily sliced easily through soil and weeds. I was sold on whatever hoes were thinnest and sharpest.

Next on my list is a four-tined, long handled, claw-type cultivator. I like to break the soil crust a day or two after a rain, which aerates the soil and does preemptive weeding.

At harvest time a digging tool is needed. Both a spading fork (I like the long-handled ones) and a spading shovel can be used for digging carrots, beets, potatoes and onions. Of the two, I use the fork the most.

Another necessity is the strong garden bow rake for smoothing soil in spring, and raking off refuse at the end of the season. The fan-shaped leaf rake that works well on the lawn isn’t used much in the garden.

Other nice tools include short handled trowels and cultivators, a pitchfork and a garden cart. There are many garden tool gadgets, some work under some conditions, but the standard tools are still my most-used.


With plentiful rains, most lawns and gardens haven’t required additional watering. A good rule of thumb advises application of 1 inch of water per week if Mother Nature takes a rest. Place a straight sided container within the area to measure the amount.

Flowers and plants in containers are more people-dependent. Apply enough water to moisten the entire soil ball when you water.

Overwatering is caused by keeping the soil continually soggy, not from applying too much at one time, provided the container has drainage holes.

How often depends on many factors such as sun or shade, pot size, and temperature. Frequency ranges from daily to weekly. Every second or third day is common.

Happy Father’s Day to all the gardening dads.

Article written by Don Kinzler of the Forum News Service.  Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as a North Dakota State University Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

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