i.e. What to do about garden weeds.
i.e. How to prevent weeds and permanently remove them from your garden.
Weeds are the antagonist of every gardener’s story. How can we conquer and defeat this relentless enemy? How can we be the hero gardener who has finally solved this incredibly frustrating problem?
Well… I’m being a little dramatic here, but preventing weeds is definitely a subject of passion for every gardener. That’s because weeds are in every single garden. In every single climate. They can be the vein of your gardening existence if you let them. But — you won’t have to!
To prevent weeds in a garden bed, don’t till the soil as little and block weeds from water and sunlight. Plant tightly and use groundcovers and mulch to smother weeds. Stick to a regular weeding schedule to keep weeds in check.
If you already have weeds taking over your peaceful gardening colony, you’ll find my favorite techniques and tools to exile your weed enemies once and for all!
Why weeds are a problem
Other than the time-consuming task of having to remove weeds from your garden, weeds can actually cause much bigger issues. An overabundance of weeds in your garden leads to what’s called weed pressure. Some problems caused by weed pressure are:
- Nutrient depletion: Nutrients in your soil are consumed by growing weed, leading to less nutrients for the plants you actually want to grow.
- Shading: Weeds typically grow much faster than the crop plant and the weed canopy can become dense enough to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches your plants.
- Water diversion: Just like any other plant, weeds need water for growth. If the weeds are using up the available water in your garden, it reduces the amount of water available for your plants and crops.
As you can see, weed pressure is kind of like an infestation — basically the weeds grow at a rate faster than your plants do. When this happens, the weeds end up overtaking your plants and make it really difficult to manage the problem.
But no worries here! Follow some of my simple tips and techniques to prevent weeds from growing. And in the unfortunate case that you already have a weed problem, I have some advice for that, too.
Prevent weeds in your garden
It’s always better if you can prevent weeds, rather than having to remove weeds. So, in a perfect world, if you’re just starting out, follow the guidelines below to keep your garden free from weed pressure. Once the buggers start growing it will be much more difficult to resolve the problem. That’s why proper planning of your garden beds is key to a healthy, low-maintenance garden.
Don’t be digging too much
Digging and cultivating your soil will bring hidden weed seeds to the surface. Tilling your soil will actually bring all of these weed seeds to the surface. Once they hit sunlight they will germinate into weeds. So, it’s best not to disturb your garden if at all possible.
If you must till your garden, or add some compost and other nutrients to your soil, it’s not the end of the world. Just know that tilling will sprout weeds and that you’ll need to stay on top of them for the next few weeks. Pull out any new weeds you see right when they pop up.
When you are digging out weeds, keep the disturbance of the soil around the weed to a minimum. Some gardeners recommend using a sharp knife with a narrow blade to slice through weed roots rather than digging them out and disturbing even more soil.
Another method you can try after tilling a large area of the garden is to wait until a lot of weeds are sprouting, then till just the surface of the soil again to kill the new weeds. You may have to do this two or three times before you’re able to actually plant that area.
My favorite method for reducing weeds is the no dig method. The jist of the “no dig” method is to cover the area (grassy or weeded) with a layer of cardboard or several layers of newspaper. Then you wet the paper, add 1.5″ of compost then add at least 2″ of mulch to the top. Water this well and the microorganisims from your soil will come to the surface and till the soil for you. The paper will also smother any weeds you have growing in your garden.
I use this method pretty much every spring. I lay some fresh newspaper down around my plants, cover with more compost and top with mulch. It really works wonderfully and I’ve seen a significant decrease in the amount of weeds in my garden! I explain the whole thing in this post. Try it out!
Do not water the evil weeds
According to Fine Gardening Issue 127, depriving weeds of water can reduce weed seed germination by 50-70%. So, how can you deprive the weeds of water but still get plants the water they need? The easiest way is using a drip irrigation soaker hose system. This is a good solution for watering your plants and not your weeds. Watering your garden by hand works, too, but it’s often tedious.
The only drawback is that deep-rooted perennial weeds like bindweed & nutsedge tend to pop up quickly when a soaker hose/drip irrigation system is used.
Maintain healthy soil that weeds will hate
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 compost and organic matter. So, be sure that you are keeping a healthy garden and you’ll be on yourway to reducing weeds.
Plant tightly so weeds won’t stand a chance
Planting your garden tightly is one of the best and easiest ways to prevent weeds. Weeds will grow anywhere there is bare space. So, if you plan out your garden so that your plants are touching each other you will leave a lot less room for weeds to grow. Just be sure that you don’t overcrowd your plants.
If you have plants that are still growing into their full size, try filling the areas in between your plants with a low-maintenance annual, like impatiens. This will fill in your garden and give your perennials the space they need to grow.
Use groundcovers to smother your weeds
Groundcovers are another amazing technique for reducing the amount of weed growth. Groundcovers will spread and fill in the areas underneath your plantings, thus eliminating the sunlight that will get to any weed seeds. If weeds do happen to sprout, often times the groundcovers you plant will choke out the weeds and eliminate the problem for you.
Quick Tip: See my top perennial groundcover recommendations here.
Mulch: the ultimate weed preventor
Mulch is a great way to add nutrients to the soil. It also keeps your plants cool, retains moisture and creates a barrier that will make it difficult for weed seeds to sprout!
Mulch with a layer 2-3 inches deep. If you have a serious weed problem, you’ll need to mulch even deeper — to about 6”. Be sure to leave a little space around the crown of your plants so you don’t hurt them.
How to stop weeds from growing in mulch
Unfortunately, some mulch that you buy is laced with weed seeds… seemingly making your weed problem worse. There are a few things you can do to combat this common problem.
- Use organic mulch: Organic mulches can host crickets and carabid beetles that will devour thousands of weed seeds. You can purchase organic mulch locally.
- Mulch alternatives: You can use wood chips, leaves or even grass clippings to mulch your beds. A rubber tree ring used around your trees acts as a mulch, too. By depriving your weeds of sunlight, they won’t be able to grow. So, these are all great alternatives to traditional mulch.
Quick Tip: Check out my article, Landscaping on a budget, for more details on low-cost mulch alternatives.
Prevent weed growth with landscape fabric
Using weed barrier landscape fabric, sometimes called groundcover sheeting, on top of the soil will create an extra level of protection against weeds.
The thing is… this isn’t my favorite method. And most people that have tried it really regret doing it later. So… do your research beforehand. The reason I don’t like this method for traditional garden beds is because of what I spoke about before: weeds don’t grow in good soil. If you are actually preventing any nutrients from getting into your soil by having a permanent layer on top of it, how can your soil be healthy?
You know what else is underneath that weed fabric? the roots of your plants. How can your plants get food and moisture properly if you are covering them up? Well, they really can’t. So, if you are planting in the area I’d really stay away from the weed fabric.
So when would you use weed fabric? The only time I personally would use it is for underneath a patio or a walkway. Adding landscape fabric beneath your hardscape can help to prevent weeds from growing. It still wont stop birds and wind from dropping their seeds from above, but it will solve half of the problem.
Other alternatives to traditional landscape fabric include cardboard, newspaper, or even burlap. I’d recommend these over the weed fabric if you’re growing any kind of plants.
Quick Tip: Don’t forget to check out my post on the no dig flower garden bed. This is a great solution to many weed problems you’ll experience as a new gardener!
Weeds are inevitable
Did you know that every square inch of your garden has weed seeds? Yes, it’s true. So when people ask me how to prevent weeds I usually chuckle a little bit on the inside. The truth is, you can’t.
Weeds are pretty much inevitable.
Even If you put a weed barrier under your mulch, you will still get weeds from seeds dropped by birds or carried in the wind.
Obviously, there are many things you can do to keep weeds at bay. But this is likely a war you will never truly win. So… don’t obsess over killing weeds so much. Weeds are just a part of gardening.
Change your mindset around weeds
I like to think of my weeding time as a time that I can get up close and personal with my plants. A time to check them out, see how they’re doing and appreciate their beauty while I pull weeds. I enjoy this time in my garden and I believe that you can too. It’s all about your mindset!
Removing weeds from your garden
In an ideal world, we would all follow these techniques to prevent weeds from growing in our garden. But… as you know… life happens. So, if you do find weeds popping up, attempt to get rid of your weeds right away. If you wait until the weeds take over your garden, it’s obviously going to be much more difficult to eliminate them. With that said, you can use some of the techniques below to get rid of weeds.
Once you are done removing the weeds, I’d recommend jumping back up to the “Preventing weeds in your garden” section. Use some (or all) of the recommendations in that section to keep the little buggers from coming back.
Commit (and stick) to a weeding schedule
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. My best advice is to commit (and stick to) a weeding schedule. If you have more weeds than you can handle, keep weedy areas mowed until you’re ready to conquer them. You don’t want to take on a bigger area than you can handle!
“Pull when wet, hoe when dry”
So when is the best time to actually yank these buggers out of the ground? And how do we go about doing this? Great question!
If the soil is wet, you can usually pull weeds by hand or with a weeding tool. The best time do hand weed your garden is when the soil is moist, like after a rain. Check out the next section for some of my favorite weeding tool recommendations.
If the soil is dry, it’s much easier to hoe your weeds rather than pulling on them. A sharp loop hoe or a lightweight scuffle hoe are good tools for this. Slice the weeds with the sharp edge of your hoe. This cuts off the weed from the root and also creates what’s called “dust mulch” which can help prevent new weeds from germinating.
Sweep your hoe just below the surface of the soil. Make broad, sweeping motions (like how you would row a boat) to slice the tops off the weeds. Try hoeing your garden early in the morning, before you water the plants.
Tools for pulling weeds
Here are some of my favorite nifty tools for pulling weeds. These slayers will make your weeding job way easier… and maybe even fun (GASP)!
Personally, I am a huge fan of Dewit garden tools. While a bit on the expensive side, this brand is pretty much all I use in the hand tool department. They have a lovely 3-piece weeding set that will take care of all of your weeding needs. This a beautiful set… one that you can give to your neighbor with a serious weed problem. They will get the hint but they won’t even be mad at you because these tools are so pretty.
I also find this little hand weeding tool really useful. It has little prongs on the end so you can grab the root of the weed and pull up, giving you a better chance at getting all the roots out. You can conquer the world with this little tool in hand. Or, at least you’ll feel like you can.
If you’re looking for a long handled weeding tool, you can’t go wrong with the Fiskars long handled weeding tool — its fantastic. Just make sure you purchase the newer version of this tool with the orange handle in the CENTER of the handle… it’s much easier and faster to “eject” the weeds with this one.
By the way, ejecting weeds has to be one of the most satisfying gardening tasks I’ve ever completed. Stomp… lift… eject into bucket. Without bending over. Amazing.
As mentioned earlier, a sharp loop hoe or a lightweight scuffle hoe are both great options for eliminating weeds in dry soil. Remember… hoe hoe hoe your boat (use the same motion you would if you were rowing a boat with an oar).
Check out this video below to see the most popular long-handled weeder gadgets put to the test by the Crazy Russian Hacker. It’s a really entertaining, but thorough, garden tool review. I think I laughed approximately 37 times.
Treatment options: killing weeds without killing plants
Weed treatment is always a last resort for me. I’d much rather do the work to prevent weeds in the first place or handle what I can by hand. But I know it’s not always practical to get rid of your weeds without a chemical treatment.
At the beginning of the growing season you can use a weed preventer treatment to stop weeds in the first place. All you do is sprinkle on the treatment and water it in to prevent weeds for up to six months. It’s like magic in a bag.
Just note that this little bag of magic isn’t really magic. It contains a chemical called Pendimethalin, an herbicide that stops the growth of “certain” young plants. It’s intended to keep annual weeds like crabgrass and dandelions from sprouting and growing. While it shouldn’t affect established plants with mature root systems, I would still be cautious when sprinkling this magic dust any delicate plants or anything you are going to eat.
If you have pets, keep them away, too. They won’t get it.
Treating invasive vines with herbicide
A couple years back I had the nastiest, most invasive vine in my front garden bed. It was so aggressive and popped up everywhere choking out most of my flowers and even larger perennial plants. I pulled and pulled at this weed every day. No matter what I did, it got worse. Every time I pulled a piece of the vine out, three more tendrils would sprout up in other areas of my garden. It literally killed my entire garden. I cried a lot, but don’t tell anyone.
As a last resort, I had to use an herbicide to kill this invasive vine. I used Compare-N-Save Concentrate Grass and Weed Killer, 41-Percent Glyphosate. It’s really, really strong so please use with caution. This stuff will kill everything in its path. I really hate that I had to use it but if you are on the vine struggle bus like I was… this is going to do the trick.
Here’s what to do:
- Please wear gloves and even eye protection while handling the herbicide.
- Pour the herbicide into a shallow, plastic bowl.
- Sit down in your garden and cut the vine a little bit above ground level.
- Use a sponge paint brush to very carefully “paint” the herbicide onto the exposed vine.
- Be sure to set the exposed vine onto a piece of plastic or a rock so that the herbicide doesn’t touch anything else in your garden.
Seriously, don’t let the end of the vine with the herbicide on it touch the soil at all. This sh!t is strong and it will contaminate your soil if it touches it.
Anyway, to kill my vine from hell it took about 3 applications over the course of a couple weeks, then another application the next year. Eventually I won the battle!
While weeds are inevitable and a part of gardening, they don’t have to take over your life. There are many preventative measures you can take to set your garden beds up for success. In the event that you do find weeds, be sure that you only pull the weeds when the weather is wet. Hoe the weeds when it’s dry. Only use herbicides and chemicals as a last resort. Remember that the what you put in your garden can affect all of wildlife around you. Not to mention your pets, your family and yourself if you are out in the garden or eating from your garden. Please use caution when working with any of the tools and chemicals suggested.
Did I miss anything? Tell us your favorite techniques or tools for weed prevention and removal by leaving a comment below!
More Gardening Posts For You
- 5 Tips for Drawing a Killer Garden Plan, Even if You’re Not a DesignerThese 5 steps will take you through the process of drawing a simple garden plan for your home landscape. Learn my simple process for drawing your own garden plan that’s uniquely you.
- This Blocking Method Will Have You Drawing Pro Garden Plans in No TimeIf you’re struggling to arrange plants, try the blocking method. This is a way to draw your garden plans using a series of shapes and repeating patterns. It’s really fun, too!
- 5 Things I Wish I Knew About Garden Design (These Would Have Saved Me $$$ Thousands)Ever wonder what no one is telling you about designing your dream landscape? These garden design tips would have saved me so much time, money and sanity. And, I’m spilling all the secrets!