All About Weeds

Weeds. Dealing with those unwanted plants is a part of every gardener’s experience. I remember the “joy” of pulling weeds in the summer heat as a wee lad. Somewhere along the way, my father brainwashed me into actually enjoying the process of cleaning out and leaving beds the way one wanted.

As much as I enjoy pulling weeds, I am also lazy and prefer not to fight wicked plants from The Little Shop of Horrors. But, rather than completely relying on gobs of systemic chemicals to “eradicate” that basket of deplorables in one’s landscape, employing an integrated weed management approach (using sound biological knowledge) can greatly reduce or eliminate the need for spraying.

First of all, let us define the term weed. Weeds, for our reference, are simply any plant growing where we do not want them. There are a number of species growing in portions of the garden exactly where they are desired, but the same species are removed in other garden sections.

Understanding why one has “weeds” in the first place aids in developing a weeding strategy involving less work. Most weeds play an important and valuable role in the natural world. They are designed to rapidly colonize areas where other plants are absent. Nature hates undisturbed or bare soil. Weeds rapidly establish in areas recently cleared by some means, rooting in and covering soil with expanding leaves. This keeps soil from eroding and degrading UV rays, and keeps it available for the local ecology.

Armed with these facts, one can attack their weed problem from multiple angles, reducing the need for chemicals. First, cover the ground. Do not leave any soil bare . This can be accomplished with mulches, closer plant spacing and higher planting density (plant in layers like a forest). Second, remove weeds using methods the least disturbing to the soil, using the least amount of digging around.  

The first step in Wellfield’s integrated weed management program is to zone the garden into different priority areas, then choose the best method for the area. There is entirely too much ground to cover with any one method, so pick your battles. Areas of low visibility or with little aesthetic valuable receive a low dose of pre-emergent herbicide to cut down on the number of times the area needs weeding. Areas of higher “value,” are covered as described below.

When weeds appear, and they always appear, Wellfield staff and volunteers utilize several different techniques to remove them. The first preferred way to least disturb the soil is merely pulling the weed by hand. IMG_0588

For persistent weeds, it is good to have a couple of different tools available. A small shovel or trowel works well for tap (think carrot) rooted plants like the burdock pictured. Placing the trowel right at the base, slicing and withdrawing it without turning soil over is the name of the game.

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A shallow drawing hoe like the one pictured below works well for fibrous rooted (think turf grass) plants. Hoe the soil as little, shallow and infrequently as possible. The more you turn the soil, the more weed seeds are exposed to light and water, and the more will sprout. In other words, the more you turn the soil, the more weeding you will do.

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For larger areas with small, young weeds with smaller root systems, burning the leaves with a propane torch has proven quite effective. A single person can cover many square feet in the time it takes to hand pull.

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There are still specific, targeted situations, such as controlling large amounts of invasive species, where chemicals are still the best tool to use. However, employing an integrated approach to weeding greatly reduces the amount of products like glyphosate needed. Give the techniques discussed here a try, and hopefully you will become less chemical-dependent and have fewer weeds in your garden!

Josh Steffen
Horticulture Manager


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