Gardening with Gardner: In the Weeds

Gardening with Gardner: In the Weeds

“Love of flowers and vegetables is not enough to make a good gardener. He must also hate weeds.”   – Eugene P. Bertin

June 13th is National Weed Your Garden Day, reminding gardeners to spend a few extra minutes tending to their beds. Perhaps hating weeds is too strong a sentiment. If the saying is “right plant, right place,” a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Many “weeds” are essentially wildflowers, but I want the clover and grass in my lawn, not my flower and veggie beds. 

Weeds will always come back. Once you’ve accepted that, you can move on to developing an effective strategy to minimize their presence in your garden. Spring and early summer is the time to get weeds under control – when they are emerging and trying to bloom.

Clover in the mulch of a garden bed.
I'm okay with clover in my lawn, but not my garden beds.

Eliminate the Competition

Too many “weeds” can crowd out other plants and will compete with them for water and nutrients. It’s best to get them out while they’re still small, and definitely before they set seed and multiply. Make sure you know what seedlings of your “good plants” look like, if you’re expecting some to sprout, and you can then get to work removing the rest.

Weed soon after a rain, or after you’ve watered your garden. The moisture softens the soil and makes the task a bit easier. So, are there particular ways to weed?

Pull It All

Make sure to get the roots when you’re weeding. You may have heard that getting frequent haircuts will make hair grow thicker. I’m not so sure that works, but pulling leaves off of a weed and leaving root systems intact can be like giving them a haircut. That trim can lead to shoots regrowing from those root systems, thicker and fuller than before. If you’ve battled with bindweed – it can regrow from just a piece of root! Do NOT hit it with a weed whacker. 

A small weed, with roots, held in fingertips
When pulling weeds, try to get the roots out, too.

Weeding Tools

There are garden tools that can make weeding easier, especially in tight spaces or when dealing with stubborn plants. Here are just a few.

  • Garden hoe – with a nice long handle, you can remove weeds without having to bend or squat.
  • Dandelion tool – a handled tool with a small forked tip, great for tap roots and tight spaces
  • Hori hori (Japanese gardening knife) – like a thin flat trowel with small teeth on one side, very popular for all sorts of garden tasks.
  • Cape Cod weeder – my go-to weeding tool. Blade down gets into cracks easily, and to the side skims under the surface, cutting the roots without much disturbance.
  • Cultivator – a few tines on a handle, like rigid, mini rake. These are great for uprooting thin, spindly weeds, and for loosening the crust that might form on the top of soil.

If you’re using a tool like a hoe to remove small weeds from your beds, make sure not to work too deeply into the soil. Keeping the disturbance shallow will help discourage weeds without destroying the root systems of desirable plants. A hoe is most efficient for plants in rows, allowing you to cover a lot of area quickly.

Weeding tools: Cultivator and Cape Cod Weeder
Weeding tools: Cultivator and Cape Cod Weeder

Chemicals and Sprays

Be careful with chemicals. Make sure to read instructions and labels thoroughly. If you need to use a spray, do it on a calm (no wind) day, and consider protecting adjacent plants. 

You’ll also find lots of recipes on the internet that typically use combinations that include salt, vinegar, and other boiling water. Most products, whether store bought or homemade, won’t discriminate between bindweed and roses – broad herbicides simply kill vegetation. Keep in mind that some of the chemicals will find their way to the soil and may linger, affecting the plants nearby or those planted soon afterward.

Keep Them Out

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – for weeds, too. Getting them out early in the season and preventing their return will save you lots of time and effort and help your desired plants grow up strong and healthy.

Prevent weeds from growing in the first place by:

  • Installing a barrier – Blocking the light with a membrane like horticultural plastic or cardboard can help with perennial weeds, though annual weeds often settle on top. Bark or stone mulch can be placed overtop of the membrane, just know that dust and dirt will likely settle into the gaps over time, and weed seeds will follow. 
  • Edging your beds – many of us battle crabgrass, clover, and dandelions in our gardens, which are creeping in from our lawns. Keeping a clean edge can help, whether you dig along the edge manually each season or install edging. I installed a plastic barrier around my beds, which keeps my mulch in place, prevents weeds from creeping in, and gives me a clean line to follow when mowing the lawn.
  • Mulching – Wood and straw mulches are effective for annual weeds; they may not stop growth completely, but they will certainly slow it down and leave you with fewer to pull. The organic materials will break down over time and can help improve your soil, too.

Stay Vigilant

I usually make a couple of trips through my garden each day. I’ll make a pass through in the morning (to see what the squirrels tried to dig up and what holes I need to fill in) and in the evening. I also tend to wander through while on long phone calls. Any time I’m out there, I’m scouting for (and pulling) weeds. Soon, I’ll be deadheading spent flowers on these trips, too. Just 15 minutes a day will help keep things under control.

Columbine seedling
Is that a weed? Nope! Just a columbine seedling, but it looks a lot like clover.

Make Weeds Useful

Weeds can be useful, though, in their own ways. Clover and dandelions are important for pollinators, especially early in the season when little else is blooming. They can also show us what types of things do well in certain conditions. A spot with a lot of purslane growing is likely sunny and dry, while jewelweed prefers moisture and shade. Violets are pretty and serve as host plants for butterflies, but can multiply very quickly!

If you pull weeds before they go to seed, you can toss them right into your compost pile, or make a tea. Yep, that’s right– put them into a bucket and cover with water, letting them steep for a week or two (somewhere you won’t smell it). The results can be strained and diluted with three or four parts water as a fertilizer.

Weeding can be a great end-of-day activity. Long hours in front of a screen? Give your eyes a break, get some fresh air, and venture into the garden. Stressful day? Go rip some weeds right out of the ground, and enjoy the results. There are also good microbes in the soil that can increase your serotonin levels and help you feel more relaxed.

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” – Margaret Atwood