Some people claim that weeds are merely plants growing in the wrong place. Gardeners know there’s more to it than that.
These unwanted interlopers crowd into flower borders, pop up in lawns and sprout in gravel driveways, testing a gardener's patience. Turn your back and they can take over.
Even if you were to achieve a complete elimination of every visible weed on your property, there are more on the way in the form of seeds – falling from the sky, lurking in the soil, carried in by birds and imported by small mammals.
It’s one of the great ironies of gardening that weeds are often more vigorous and prolific than the plants you want to grow. Seeds of the common Canadian thistle have a germination of up to 96 percent with every flower producing as many as 100 seeds. Dandelions and crabgrass grow like wildfire wherever the lawn is thin or the ground disturbed.
The truth is that it’s a never-ending battle to keep the weeds at bay and prevent a hostile takeover by these aggressive plants. There’s nothing more discouraging than to see a garden that was pristine in the spring completely taken over by weeds by midsummer. It’s enough to make you think of surrender.
Fortunately, you can make headway against the weeds if you act with diligence and persistence and keep a few principles in mind. Nature abhors a vacuum, so never leave bare ground for weeds to colonize. Learn to recognize common weeds since it’s always good to know the enemy. Try to plant thickly since shading the ground often will deny weeds the light they need to thrive.
There are many tactics that will help keep pesky weeds under control. Here are a few:
Hand pulling – Yanking weeds may be tedious but it’s a time-honored method of doing them in. Many have extensive root systems or tap roots, so use a trowel to loosen the soil and try to remove the whole plant, not just the top growth.
Hoeing – Use of the hoe seems to have gone out of fashion but it’s a quick way to eliminate smaller weeds and especially effective where good plants are arranged in rows, as in a vegetable garden. For best results, hoe when it’s dry and remove weeds to keep them from re-rooting.
Deadheading — Every weed flower is a potential sources of thousands of seeds and hundreds of new weeds. If nothing else, try to clip off weed blossoms as soon as you see them even if you can’t spare the time for a full assault.
Edging – Cutting a clean edge around flower and landscape beds helps keep grass and other creeping weeds from infiltrating – and makes the whole yard look well groomed. Use a flat-edged spade and cut a wedge out of the sod where it meets beds and borders.
Mulching – Mulch is the weed warrior’s best friend. A three-inch layer of organic mulch such as woodchips or shredded bark will prevent many weeds from germinating and make those that sprout easier to pull. Mulch also holds moisture in the soil to cut down on watering. Many gardeners put a barrier under their mulch. Newspaper, cardboard and planter’s paper work well. Black plastic sheeting is often more trouble than it’s worth since it is slippery and hard to keep covered with mulch.
Spreading pre-emergents – Weed-preventing products thwart the germination of weed seeds. The most readily available one is Preen, which should be applied on top of mulch and will last up to 12 weeks. It is also good at keeping weeds from sprouting in gravel and between pavers.
Other products that do much the same are Treflan and Snapshot, available in some hardware stores and garden centers. An organic alternative is corn gluten meal, but this is recommended primarily for lawns and its effectiveness is variable.
Boiling and burning — Plain boiling water will kill many shallow-rooted annual weeds, but repeat applications are often required. You also can buy flame weeders for small scale attacks. These are fired by a small propane cylinder and sell for about $50 from such outlets as leevalleytools.com. Watch your feet and always have some water close at hand.
Dousing with vinegar -- This has been talked up in organic circles, but you need something stronger than household vinegar, which is five to seven percent acetic acid. Products with higher concentrations are available but require caution – those stronger than 11 percent cause skin burns on contact and permanent eye injury. Just because a product is organic doesn’t mean it is harmless.
Poisoning chemically -- Non-selective herbicides such as Roundup, Rondo and Tumbleweed will kill any green tissue they contact, good plant and bad. Some gardeners consider their use controversial but few persist in the soil. The good news is that they will kill root, leaf and stem, making a complete kill. The downside is that they must be used with extreme caution to avoid injuring desirable plants and harming the persons using them. Choose a windless day for spraying to avoid drift and follow directions carefully.
If you garden, you will be dealing with weeds as a fact of life. Elimination may be impossible but control is within reach. Weeds will grow – but you are bigger, stronger and smarter than they are and remembering that, you can win the battle.