After just going out to put this week's crops in the ground (one square foot of arugula, one of Boston lettuce) and spending half an hour trying without success to remove firmly-rooted weeds without disturbing my tender young seedlings, I've realized what I hate most about gardening: it's not a fair contest. Every year, the weeds get a head start.
Weeds can drop their seeds in the fall and let them sit all winter, ready to pop up in the spring the minute the weather is warm enough. My seeds, by contrast, have to either wait until the danger of frost is past before they can be sowed at all, or else be started indoors in February and carefully nurtured until they're big enough to plant. Is it any wonder that every spring, the weeds are bigger and healthier than the crops?
The weeds have every advantage, in fact. All the things that I do to help the vegetables—tilling, watering, amending the soil—help the weeds just as much. And the weeds were there first, so they can make better use of all this help I so graciously provide.
Of course, I try to remove the weeds whenever I see them, while doing whatever I can to protect the seedlings. But why should that bother the weeds? They're already well established, their roots dug well in below the soil, by the time I even start planting. I may be able to remove the tippy-tops of their little green heads, but they've already spread themselves out where it really counts—below the soil, where all the water and nutrients come from—before my plants have even had a look in. They can just send up another shoot the minute my back is turned. And they know I can't dig way down to pull them up roots and all, because that would disrupt the seedlings.
Sometimes I wonder whether this whole business of coddling seedlings—starting them indoors, under lights, in a nice clean growing medium, and keeping them safe inside until it's all nice and warm out—is all wrong. Maybe what I should really do is put all the seeds straight into the beds in December, the minute I finish pulling out the rest of last year's crops. Sure, many—perhaps most—of the seeds wouldn't survive the winter. But those that did would at least be starting out in the spring with a level playing field. (After all, the few "volunteer" plants that have seeded themselves outdoors next to the compost bin—a bunch of tomatoes and one enormous butternut squash vine—have invariably turned out to be bigger, healthier, and more productive than those started indoors. So why not just plant them this way on purpose?)