I've since learned that mulching and regular weeding makes the task less imposing. Now when I focus a day on weeding, the activity takes less than an hour. The key is to stay on top of weeds. Pulling a few every time you're in the garden helps keep them from overrunning your plants.
Mulch is a critical first-line defense. One of the wonderful attributes of mulch is that it reduces weeds. When weeds do pop through the mulch they're often easy to identify and easy to remove. A simple tug is usually enough to dislodge them. This year my raised beds are all mulched and I've been able to keep them virtually weed-free. The weeds still invade but with only five or ten minutes of effort every other day I can eliminate them from all 13 beds.
|Mulch reduces weeds|
I divide weeds into two broad categories: shallow root and deep root. Shallow-root weeds are easy to remove by hand or with a tool like a hoe (more on that later). Deep-root weeds take a little more effort to remove and often require individual attention with a specialized tool. Shallow-root weeds are often annual weeds and deep root ones are often perennial. Young deep-root weeds can be removed as easily as shallow root ones.
Because I make an almost daily effort to weed, my hands are the tools of choice. I grab the solitary invader close to the soil surface and pull it out. Because of my vigilance they seldom have seeds so I just toss the little plant on top the mulch to decompose and add some nutrients back to my soil.
When weeds are more plentiful, particularly in un-mulched areas, trying to pull each one by hand can be daunting. That's when real tools come into play. While you can find dozens of weed-fighting options, there are three weed attackers that I keep in my weapons bin: a dandelion weeder (also called a taproot weeder), a right-handed weeder (AKA a collinear hand weeder), and a stirrup hoe (AKA a shuffle hoe or Dutch hoe).
The dandelion weeder should be in every gardener's shed. Designed for deep-root weeds like dandelions, it has a long shank with a notch at the tip that allows you to spear it deep into the soil and dig out the weed's long taproot in one piece. This is important because many deep-root weeds will regrow if a portion of the taproot remains in the soil. Trying to yank them out by hand seldom removes the entire root. I use a hand version of this weeder but you can also find long-handled versions that allow you to dig out weeds while standing up.
|Using a Dandelion weeder|
For shallow-root weeds growing near valuable garden plants I use a right-handed weeder (left-handed versions are also available). This tool has a flat, sharp blade attached to the handle by a thin curved shank. The idea is to draw the blade through the soil, just below the surface, and slice off the weeds from their roots. It works very quickly and very effectively. The roots are severed and the weeds die. Because many of these weeds are annuals, they won't return. The small size and pointed tip of the tool allows you to remove weeds without damaging nearby plants.
|Using a right-handed weeder|
When weeds have overtaken a large area, I reach for my stirrup hoe. It also drags just below the soil surface slicing weeds. The long handle allows me to preform the task standing up with minimal effort. The action end has a flat blade held in place by a stirrup-shaped frame. Basic designs vary, but mine allows it to remove weeds with both the forward and backward strokes of the tool. In little time a large area can be weeded. I love this tool.
|A stirrup hoe makes short work of weeds|
While I prefer to use mechanical methods for removing weeds, I do occasionally resort to herbicides. Weeds that grow in my garden beds are removed by hand or tool; I don't want to risk damaging my garden plants with chemicals. But when weeds overpower my garden paths or thrive in areas that don't threaten valued plants spraying with an herbicide can make the task easy.
|These weeds in the path will be sprayed|
I use two basic types of herbicide. There is the broad-spectrum, non-selective herbicide that kills almost every plant it touches. The most common type is glyphosate (widely known as Roundup); it kills both shallow-root and deep-root weeds, and just about any other plant. The second type is a broad-leaf herbicide like 2, 4-D. It's sold under many brand names as a lawn weeder; it kills weeds with broad leaves but won't harm grass.
As I mentioned in the previous article, weed identification is important. Knowing your weeds will help you choose the correct tool for removing them. Using a stirrup hoe on dandelions won't kill them, but it will cut off the plant before it flowers and sets seed. My nemesis is Purslane; it is easily removed by hand or tool, but is very resistant to herbicides.
Purslane is grown by some gardeners on purpose because it is edible and supposedly tastes good in a salad. For me it is a scourge. In my previous garden it grew rampant and was the reason I had to spend so much time weeding. In my current garden it hasn't taken hold and I make extra effort to keep it that way. Some seeds obviously hitchhiked in soil of transplants I moved to our new home. Purslane grows quickly and sets seed early; it will even set seed after it's been pulled. When I see it I pull it and I discard larger plants in the trash so they won't have any chance of spreading seed. If I delay in my duties it may take over and I don't want that to happen. By knowing this weed I know how important it is to deal with it.
|Purslane trying to gain a foothold|
What to do with the pulled, sliced, or dug-up weeds is a personal choice. As I mentioned above, for the occasional young weed I pull in my raised beds I just toss it on top of the mulch in the bed. During weed day when I remove a large number of weeds, the compost pile is often the repository. If the weeds have flowered and set seed they usually end up in the trash; I prefer not to add more seeds to my environment.
One last factor needs to be considered when weeding. There are millions of seeds in the soil of a typical home landscape. Each of those seeds is waiting for the opportunity to germinate and make your day a little more challenging. The majority of them will never sprout, but every time you dig or disturb the soil you give some of them the chance. When you pull a weed you are also pulling up soil that contains the brother and sister seeds of that plant and they're more than willing to replace it. That's one reason weeding seems to be a never-ending chore and why they tend to grow in groups.
When you use a hoe or hand tool you will wake up seeds hiding in the soil. You better be prepared to repeat the process regularly. A benefit of herbicides is that they don't disturb the soil. The plant dies and nearby seeds aren't encouraged to grow. That's a primary reason I use herbicides on my garden paths; it reduces the number of future weeds.
Weeding isn't pleasurable. If you want to give your plants the best opportunity for success you need to remove competitors and weeding becomes necessary. How you do it is up to you. Hands, tools, and chemicals are about the only ways to attack them and you get to choose your preferred method. Consider a combination as I do. Regardless of your tack, if you act early and often the overall effort becomes easier.