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Six Tips for Effective Weed Control

Proven methods for controlling weeds in your garden

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If you were to track every hour spent in your garden, you would probably find that you do an inordinate amount of weeding. And while the first few weeks of tearing up these intruders can prove mildly satisfying, the chore soon wears thin. Even more maddening—you are just six simple strategies away from your garden not needing weeds anymore.

What’s that? A garden needs weeds? Weeds are nature’s healing remedy for sites that are in a wounded, plantless state, but weeds and gardeners have different ideas of what makes for a good recovery. Armed with a better understanding of weeds and the strategies outlined here, you can win every future skirmish, giving you more time to enjoy your well-groomed garden.

1. Let sleeping weeds lie

Every square inch of your garden contains weed seeds, but only those in the top inch or two of soil get enough light to trigger germination. Digging and cultivating brings hidden weed seeds to the surface, so assume weed seeds are there ready to erupt, like ants from an upset anthill, every time you open a patch of ground. Dig only when you need to and immediately salve the disturbed spot with plants or mulch.

In lawns, minimize soil disturbance by using a sharp knife with a narrow blade to slice through the roots of dandelions and other lawn weeds to sever their feed source rather than digging them out. Keep in mind that weed seeds can remain dormant for a long, long time.

2. Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulch benefits plants by keeping the soil cool and moist and depriving weeds of light. Organic mulches, in particular, can actually host crickets and carabid beetles, which seek out and devour thousands of weed seeds.

Some light passes through chunky mulches, and often you will discover—too late—that the mulch you used was laced with weed seeds. It’s important to replenish the mulch as needed to keep it about 2 inches deep (more than 3 inches deep can deprive soil of oxygen). In any case, you can set weeds way back by covering the soil’s surface with a light-blocking sheet of cardboard, newspaper, or biode­gradable fabric and then spreading prettier mulch over it.

If you choose to use this method on seldom-dug areas, such as the root zones of shrubs and trees, opt for tough landscape fabric for the light-blocking bottom sheet. There is a catch, however: As soon as enough organic matter accumulates on the landscape fabric, weed seeds dropped by birds or carried in on the wind will start to grow. For the bottom layer of fabric to be effective, these must be pulled before they sink their roots through and into the ground.

Monday: Kill weeds. Tuesday: Kill weeds…

If you’re a new gardener—or you’re working in a wild and weedy space—the first season will likely be a rough one. Commit (and stick) to a weeding schedule, and don’t take on more space than you can manage. If you have more weeds than you can handle, keep weedy areas mowed until you’re ready to conquer them.

3. Weed when the weeding’s good

The old saying “Pull when wet; hoe when dry” is wise advice when facing down weeds. After a drenching rain, stage a rewarding weeding session by equipping yourself with gloves, a sitting pad, and a trug or tarp for collecting the corpses. As you head out the door, slip an old table fork into your back pocket because there’s nothing better for twisting out tendrils of henbit or chickweed. When going after bigger thugs, use a fishtail weeder to pry up taprooted weeds, like dandelion or dock.

Under dry conditions, weeds sliced off just below the soil line promptly shrivel up and die, especially if your hoe has a sharp edge. In mulched beds, use an old steak knife to sever weeds from their roots, then patch any open spaces left in the mulch.

Heat is the key to composting weeds

Few experiences compare to the joy of watching weeds shrivel in the sun after a morning weeding session, but then what should you do with them? Their best resting place, of course, is a compost pile or bin, which is the end of the story if the weeds going in are free of seeds. In reality, however, a good half of the weeds you pull probably hold seeds. Separating the seedies from other weedies is impractical, so weed seeds in compost are customarily killed by raising the temperature in the heap.

Keep it hot. Running a hot heap calls for precise mixing and remixing of materials. Rather than struggle to heat up a heap that wants to run cold, I suggest waiting until a weedy heap reaches a nearly rotted state to set things right. From there, you can solarize small batches of moist compost in black plastic nursery liners that are enclosed in clear plastic bags and placed in the sun for two to three days.

Now you’re cooking. Easier than solarizing, plug in an old Crock-Pot outdoors, turn it to its lowest setting, and warm batches of compost while you sleep (three hours at 160°F kills most weed seeds).

Heat treating weedy compost destroys many of the microscopic life-forms that give compost its punch, so it’s a good idea to reprocess cooked compost for two to three weeks before using it in the garden. Place it in a plastic storage bin with a handful of earthworms borrowed from your garden and it will soon be laced with humic acids and other plant-pleasing compounds.

4. Lop off their heads

When you can’t remove weeds, the next best thing is to chop off their heads. With annual weeds, dead­heading buys you a few weeks of time before the weed “seed rain” begins. Cutting back the tops of perennial weeds, like bindweed, reduces reseeding and forces them to use up food reserves and exhaust their supply of root buds, thus limiting their spread.

You will need pruning loppers to take down towers of ragweed or poke, or you can step up to a string trimmer equipped with a blade attachment to cut prickly thistles or brambles down to nubs. No matter which method you choose, chopping down weeds before they go to seed will help keep them from spreading.

5. Mind the gaps between plants

Close plant spacing chokes out emerging weeds by shading the soil between plants. You can prevent weed-friendly gaps from the get-go by designing with mass plantings or in drifts of closely spaced plants rather than with polka dots of widely scattered ones. You can usually shave off about 25 percent from the recommended spacing.

Most spacing recommendations, however, are based on the assumption that adjoining plants will barely touch when they reach mature size, so stick with the guidelines when working with plants that are prone to foliar diseases, such as bee balms (Monarda didyma and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9) and phloxes (Phlox paniculata and cvs., Zones 4–8).

More on controlling weeds

  • Say Goodbye to Weed Worries
  • Weeding Made Easy
  • Video: Controlling Weeds

6. Water the plants you want, not the weeds you’ve got

Put drought on your side by depriving weeds of water. Placing drip or soaker hoses beneath mulch efficiently irrigates plants while leaving nearby weeds thirsty. In most climates, depriving weeds of water reduces weed-seed germination by 50 to 70 percent. Watch out, though, for the appearance of deeply rooted perennial weeds, such as bindweed and nutsedge, in areas that are kept moist. They can take off in a flash when given the benefits of drip irrigation.

Beyond these strategies, enriching your soil with organic matter every chance you get can move your garden along down the weed-free path. Soil scientists aren’t sure how it works, but fewer weed seeds germinate in soil that contains fresh infusions of good compost or organic matter. One theory makes elegantly simple sense: When soil is healthy and well fed, weed seeds sense that they are out of a job and are less likely to appear.

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Proven methods for controlling weeds in your garden

Spend Less Time Weeding and More Time Gardening with These Tips

Weeds – those opportunistic, unwelcome plants that can effortlessly outcompete your edibles and ornamentals.

If only there were an easy way to keep them at bay!

Well, unfortunately, there isn’t. They are really good at what they do.

But there are some things you can do to make the job of weeding a lot less cumbersome and time-consuming.

Are you with me? Let’s take a look!

Understand their Role

Right off the bat, if you understand how weeds work, you’ll be better prepared to prevent them.

They are actually a specific type of plant with a certain pattern of behavior.

They also produce abundant seeds, which can stay dormant for a very long time. They spread rapidly. And they inhabit disturbed sites, like our gardens.

Ultimately, in nature, these pioneer species have a really important ecological role. They quickly cover disturbed soil and protect the area from erosion, and even sustain soil life.

Not so much in our gardens, however. But knowing that the opportunists favor the disturbed sites should give you some insight.

Seeds are just waiting to be brought to the surface where they can germinate. So minimizing soil disturbance is the first step to battling fewer weeds.

Wait Until the Time Is Right

Have you ever tried to weed on a dry, hot summer day? It’s miserable. The ground, especially if you have clay soil, is all but cement.

If you have no choice but to take on this cumbersome task when it’s hot and dry, here are my suggestions:

Use a hoe to cut seedlings off at the base. If they are small, chances are, severing them will kill them.

For the big ones, do yourself a favor and cut them back to the ground.

Cutting them back is still really beneficial, especially if you aren’t going to have a chance to get out in the garden again soon. This way you’ll keep the plant from going to flower and seed, at least for a time, which is huge.

Ultimately, the best time to pull those unwanted plants is after a good soaking rain. They all but climb out of the ground on their own! (If only…)

Still, it’s much easier work when the soil is wet. Trust me.

Use the Right Tool

If you carve some time out to wrangle overgrown thistle, dandelions, and others, it’s best to have a few key tools that will make your job a whole lot easier – and make your hard work more effective and efficient.

A good hoe, especially if you have a lot of area to cover, will be your new best friend. You can lightly cultivate any areas where you see unwanted sprouts.

And a weeding trowel, which is usually long and skinny, is more effective than a standard trowel at dislodging roots without disturbing too much soil.

Carry around sharp pruners as well, so you can lop off any seed heads. This will help to avoid scattering seeds in the process of removing the plant. You might like the Felco F-2s that we have reviewed here, if you’re in the market for a pair.

A good pair of gloves, a bucket for debris, and a pad for kneeling will also serve you well.

Get the Root

Pulling the root out of the ground, especially of a large plant, will inevitably disturb the soil. So, you can count on more seeds germinating in the same area that you clear.

But, if you don’t get the root, the plant will continue to sap water and nutrients from the soil.

For this reason, I still prefer to remove as much of the root as possible. My intention (though I’m not always successful) is to keep up with seedlings by severing them with a hoe.

Get in the Garden Often

If you make it a habit to weed as you walk, you’ll save yourself a lot of work overall.

Take a daily stroll through your garden. This is generally a good practice as you can keep an eye out for pests, water needs, and of course, weeds.

Pull what you see on your way to the car, and back again to the front door. You can even take a different route through your garden every time you leave or come back home, or make it a point to take morning strolls with your cup of coffee on nice days.

Staying on top of the state of your garden saves you from backbreaking labor later in the season.

What to Do with the Debris

Most of the pulled debris can be added to your compost pile. If plants have gone to seed, however, you’ll want to dump them at a site that won’t interfere with your garden.

For example, there’s a ditch between my house and my neighbor’s house. I dump all of my unwanted plant debris there.

I weed-eat the area regularly, so plants never have an opportunity to flower. And it’s in such an inconspicuous area, no one would ever know I dump debris there.

Here’s a caveat: you certainly don’t want to dump anywhere that it’s illegal.

Also, don’t dump seeding plants where you won’t be able to manage them – they will just germinate, mature, go to seed, and find their way back to your garden. And you don’t want that.

So, dump them either off site or in a place that is maintained. If yard waste pickup is an option in your area, take advantage of it.

Also, brush up on your identification skills. Here, in zone 6, I refuse to put wild onion or nut sedge in my compost. They are way too good at regenerating, and I don’t like to take the risk.

Technically, if compost gets hot enough, weeds and their seeds will all be killed. But often times compost doesn’t reach the necessary temperature to get the job done, between 120°F and 150°F.

And compost is a great breeding ground for beneficial microbial life.

Mulch

In late winter to early spring, lay down a thick 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch. This will go a long way to keep seed germination down.

Germination typically occurs when seeds are within an inch or two of the soil’s surface. So, adding a few inches of mulch on top of the soil buries seeds even further, minimizing their exposure to the sun and warmth that triggers germination.

Woodchips, pine fines, and straw are all great options.

If you have large, wide paths, you might want to consider laying newspaper or cardboard down. Then, cover the material with a few inches of mulch. Weeds beneath the cardboard or newspaper won’t stand a chance.

Get It Out of the Way

Instead of waiting for weeds to take over at the same time as your desired plants, try getting ahead of them.

In short, you want to prepare your garden bed a month early. Amend it, till it (if you prefer), and get it completely ready – as if you were going to plant it that day.

Then, water it – and keep the soil surface moist. The idea is to get as many weed seeds to germinate as possible. In about two weeks, you should have a nice flush of green.

At this point, take a hoe and cultivate the soil, being careful not to disturb the soil more than an inch or two below the surface. Otherwise, you’ll invite more weed seeds up to the germination zone.

This will wipe out a large portion of weeds that would have posed a problem later in the season – all before the season officially starts.

Going to Extremes: Torch Them

I’ve never tried it myself, but this seems like a surefire way (pun intended) to nix some pesky plants.

I can easily see my husband taking a torch to the sidewalk cracks and other hardscape edges where getting the roots is nearly impossible…

If you take this route, be absolutely sure that you are not burning poison ivy, or anything else that can create potentially harmful smoke or airborne particles.

Be More Efficient

Here’s the bottom line: weeding is a fact of gardening. But it doesn’t have to be all-consuming.

Check your garden often and pull unwanted plants as you see them to avoid the backbreaking labor of clearing out a garden full of mature weeds.

It’s as simple as that! And you’ll be so glad you took this simple tip to heart when you’re gazing out over your beautiful beds and pathways with a cool glass of iced tea on a warm summer day rather than bending over 6-inch weeds in the hot July sun.

What’s your secret to a weed-free garden? Share everything you know with us in the comments below!

Weeds – they're every gardener’s struggle. But you may be creating more work for yourself. Find out how they work and key tips to keep them at bay, as well as the best way to pull them and what to do with the debris. If you want to save time in the garden and minimize this seemingly endless chore, read more now.