How to Outsmart Your Weeds

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Spring.  Your plants are tiny and growing. Your weeds are huge and growing.  If you want a nice garden, you really do have to outsmart your weeds and deal with the weeds that are gobbling up your soil nutrients and drinking your water.  Weeding doesn’t have to be a horrible task if you address the problem areas early and try to learn to understand how weeds behave so you can be smarter than they are.

Prioritize.

Here’s the order I go in…tackling the worst weeds first and then moving on.

  1. Noxious Weeds – for your state’s noxious weed list, go to  http://plants.usda.gov/java/noxiousDriver. These are the weeds known to be a problem in your area.  You must ban them from your garden.
  2. Weeds you know to be a problem for your garden bed. These are the weeds that come up every year and make the same problems every year.  Time to stop that cycle.
  3. Weeds that are in the areas that really matter to you—the flower beds in your front yard, your vegetable garden.  There are no doubt weeds everywhere but start with the ones that spoil your gardening.

Know your Weed and Have a Strategy for Each Kind of Weed.

Weeding isn’t just an aerobic activity to do in a frenzy of spring energy. Different weeds require different methods of dealing with them.  I see four different kinds of weeds in my garden:

Weedy Grasses

Weedy grasses are easier to get very early in the year.  In late winter, the weedy grasses often green up first, making them visible a block away.  Dig these up thoroughly getting all the runners when possible.

Annual Weeds

These are the weeds that grow from seed every year.  Killing them is usually very easy when they are young because they have a very small root system and you can sometimes just pull them by hand, or run a hoe across them to slice off all their heads.  Small annual weeds also die when burned with a propane torch or soaked with boiling water. Approach when they are small and win!

Perennial Weeds

Yikes, these are the deep-rooted weeds that have grown in the same spot for years.  My strategy for dealing with them is to be more aggressive each time I see them.  I try to dig out the weed completely.  If it returns, I dig an extra four inches down to make sure I get it. If it returns again, I dig even deeper until I get the bottom of that weed or I exhaust its ability to regrow. Burning or boiling water only work if you repeat it for three or more days in a row.

Pernicious Weeds  

OK, so there are bindweed and weeds with subterranean runners. More than just perennial, these weeds seldom die by pulling alone. But you can control them by aggressively blocking out their light and reducing their water.  A sheet of cardboard or multiple layers of newspapers laid directly on the weed and soil and covered by mulch blocks out water and light…two crucial items for growth. Keep the area well mulched and you will eventually win. But you must be thorough and consistent.

You’ll notice I don’t have chemical controls on this list. I certainly try to limit the toxic chemicals I introduce into the environment, especially with things that might kill bees. But the real reason I don’t use chemicals is that the chemicals legally available aren’t always that effective.  Take Roundup, for example.  It works because you spray the Roundup on the foliage and the plant takes the chemical down into the roots.  But in the Spring, plants aren’t taking energy down to their roots, they’re sending it up making new leaves.  Roundup just doesn’t work that well in the Spring. And the time you spend standing over the weed dousing it in chemicals could have just as well been spent digging.

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