Wednesday, August 21, 2019

My Weed Management Strategies

Like laundry and dirty dishes, weeds are a routine task that needs to get done. In July and August, I find that weeding is my principal garden chore.

My approach tends to be proactive–I do my best to prevent problem weeds from gaining a foothold, but I have a very big garden to manage and weeds are happy to take full advantage of any opportunity.

Here is a look at my overall approach to weed management.

Take stock of any Issues

I always begin my time in the garden with a little stroll. I like to pause and admire what's in bloom, but there is also a very practical purpose to this exercise– I make mental notes on what needs attention and the chores that are the most urgent. If I notice weeds have begun to flower or set seed, I'll target that problem area before I do anything else. If the list of chores is long or I'm otherwise pressed for time, I might only have a chance to cut the flower heads off any weeds. When I have more time, I'll circle back and take care of the roots.

Most importantly, this walk around the yard reminds me of the reason I garden in the first place. It's when I take pleasure in the beauty born of all my hard work.

Assorted Phlox, Rudbeckia triloba 'Prairie Glow' and white Liatris

An Overall Gameplan

As I said, I tend to tackle any urgent weed problem immediately. For me, it doesn't make sense to concentrate on clearing one flowerbed at a time if I know Goldenrod seeds are going airborne at the very back of the yard.

But once everything pressing is addressed, I tend to work through the flowerbeds one at a time, clearing one bed completely before I move to the next. Once an area is done, I will mulch any disturbed ground as a final step.

The Best Time to Weed

After it rains is absolutely the best time to weed. Dry soil, especially if you have clay, can be as hard as a rock! Wet soil is soft and loose making it so much easier to pull weeds.

There seems to be only one drawback to a damp garden– the rain also seems to bring out the mosquitoes. If the bugs are bad, I tend to work in one of the more open areas of the garden (in my experience, mosquitoes love the cover of shade and dense growth).

If the mosquitoes are a worry for you to, try to time your weeding chores on a day when there is a good, stiff breeze. Mosquitoes are not great flyers, so they tend to lie low when there is a wind.

 Not my garden thank goodness! These are weeds in an open field.

 Seeds with Wings

Begin by Gathering all your Tools

My weeding tools couldn't be any more basic. I use a trowel with a sharp point and a heavy-duty plastic bucket (a former plant pot for a tree) to collect anything I pull. I also keep a shovel on hand for anything with stubborn roots and a pair of pruners (if a weed has gone to seed, I will cut the seedhead off first and then remove the rest of the plant. This lessens the chances any seed will drop to the ground or get airborne).

One last thing I should mention. Weeds can be armed and dangerous! While I don't always wear garden gloves, I always put them on when I'm weeding. Etched into my memory is the first time I had a run-in with Stinging Nettles. My fingers were on fire!

Follow the Shade

Some gardeners love the sun, but I find the heat and humidity drains my energy. And I have fair skin that never tans. The sun only plays connect the dots with my fine freckles.

I prefer to wait for an area to move into the shade before I begin my work. After a while, you get used to the way the sun moves across the sky and how that impacts any one portion of the yard.

For instance, I know that the flowerbed next to the pond enjoys a period of shade for a little over an hour in mid-afternoon. The circular garden at the back of the yard is full sun in the morning and shaded in the late afternoon. If I want to weed in the shade, those times are the perfect opportunities.

Garlic Mustard

Know your Weeds

Like so many people, I have had an issue with Garlic Mustard. I've learned its habits and now use that knowledge against its further spread. I watch for Garlic Mustard in early spring. It flowers in May and is a prolific self-seeder. Before the tulips are finished and the perennials have flushed out, I comb the garden for Garlic Mustard and pull any flowering plants. In the fall, I make a second sweep and yank any seedlings that I may have missed. In just a couple of years, I have reduced the initial problem very significantly.

Make sure you Get all the Roots

Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis blows into the garden from the surrounding fields. I appreciate that it is an attractive, late-summer magnet for bees, wasps and other insects, but it is also a terrible thug. It both seeds prolifically and spreads by underground roots.

Once you've dug out a weed that spreads underground, I find it pays to go back over the area a second time and look for any root segments that you may have missed.

 Lilium 'Black Beauty'

 Phlox (the bubblegum pink is self-seeded, the darker shade is 'Niki') and Agastache 'Blue Fortune'

Lilium 'Black Beauty'

The hose snaking its way through the flowerbeds.

Open Ground is an Invitation for Weeds

To my mind, I can fill any open ground with the plants of my choice or nature will make the selection for me.

The perennials in my garden are all snuggly planted. Whenever possible, I layer my plants. For example, I will plant hostas and Lamium at the feet of shrubs. I also let Lamium wander around the feet of taller plants. The Lily you see in the image above grows up through Geranium macrorrhizum 'W. Ingwersen's Variety'.

Watch that you or your furry friend isn't spreading the problem

Just a quick caution to alert you to the possibility that you or your pets may inadvertently become part of the problem.

I looked down the other day when I was weeding only to discover that my skirt was covered in seeds. It took me ten minutes to pick the fuzzy seeds out of my clothes! Piper got covered in seeds as well and had to be brushed clean.

Invasive Weeds

For me, a problem weed or plant is not just aggressive, it's also a plant that is hard to remove where unwanted. Weeds can send out roots that spread underground in many directions. Eradicating them can be very difficult. Even if you dig out the main plant, any roots segments you miss are capable of producing a new plant.

I have written about invasive plants quite extensively, so if that is an issue you are facing, I am going to refer you back to these earlier posts Part 1: Invasive Plants, Part 2: Plants to Avoid and Part 3: How I Eliminated Goutweed from my Garden (a method that might easily be used for weeds as well). 

Balloon Flower, Platycodon grandiflorus

 An older variety of Phlox that sometimes self-seeds.

Phlox paniculata 'Jeana' has clusters of tiny flowers.


My number one strategy for suppressing weeds is to use mulch. Honestly, I could not manage my sizeable garden without it.

Mulch works by depriving seeds of sunlight. A mulch is simply a layer of material (usually organic) that is spread over the surface of the soil. Mulch not only helps suppress weeds, but it also helps with moisture retention and depending on what you use, soil health and fertility. A few organic options might include compost, manure, straw or hay, pine needles, leaf mold, shredded bark, sawdust and wood chips.

A Few Factors to Consider

The drier and woodier the mulch, the slower it will decompose and the fewer nutrients it will add to the soil. Manure, compost and straw may all contain weed seeds, so it is important to know the source of these materials.

Perhaps the best mulch is compost or leaf mold you make yourself. You know what's gone into it, and when its properly made, aged compost shouldn't contain any weed seeds.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Lime', Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' and a pink Phlox.

I don't mulch every square inch of my garden, but I do mulch most of my flowerbeds. The exception would be a number of mature areas of the garden where the plants are so tightly packed weeds have trouble finding any open ground to colonize.

While I started to make compost and leaf mold, my composter's present output does not meet my full requirements. This is something I hope to rectify in the near future with an overhaul of my present setup. In the meantime, I use natural cedar mulch. It is not super nutritious, but it is effective and very affordable.

Mulch is such an important topic I think I will come back in another post (perhaps after we redo our compost bins) and address it in more detail.

Single Balloon Flower, Platycodon grandiflorus and Phlox 'Eva Cullum'

Do we really want to think of the Garden as a Battleground?

As I wrote in the opening of this article, like housework, gardening is a chore. Our approach to these two tasks is however quite different. We always talk about doing battle with weeds, but it never occurs to us that we are waging war when we pull out the vacuum cleaner. Why is yanking weeds any different than killing germs and getting rid of dust and dirt?

My husband and I had a long discussion about this. "I want to end my post on a positive note," I said to him. "I struggle with the notion of my garden as a battleground." After all, the garden is where I go for peace and comfort. The joy it brings me seems so out-of-step with any notion of winning a war against weeds.

Certainly, there is a long history of gardening as a means of taming or controlling nature to suit our purposes. Modern science has only sharpened the battle cry. Make things fast and easy. Bring on the chemical concoctions!

For me, it's time for a new mindset. I don't want to engage in a struggle with Mother Nature, because I know it is a battle she'd win anyway. If I were to step away from my garden for just a few months, Mother Nature would quickly reclaim her rightful place.

There is no such thing as a spotless house or a weed-free garden and perhaps that is as it should be.


  1. Great post! I never used mulch in my flower beds until this year and I'm glad I did. It is so much easier keeping the weeds down. It was a lot of work and we're getting older, so some of my garden money next year will be for someone to do it for me. Can't wait for that!

    1. Having someone to spread mulch will certainly be a great help. I certainly find it makes a huge difference in weed management.

  2. My property was so bad, blackberry, English Ivy and every weed and invasive grass under the sun that I had to start with a complete surface removal. Then I hit solid black plastic and had to remove that, then I hit another layer of solid black plastic. The soil when that plastic was removed was like a sewer and grey. Not a worm to be found. I was down 3 feet at that point...and that's when we discovered the buried dump in the backyard that went down 6 more feet. Apparently back "in the old days" folks had big pits dug in their yards to toss their garbage into instead of hauling it to the dump. I have been able to remain "weed free" with your "sane practices". One thing I did have to do at one fence line with a neighbor, I had to install 20 inch tall plastic panels. This really has helped to keep the weed seed drift down.

    1. I can relate to some of your troubles (although I think your challenges were even greater). A couple of weeks ago we unearthed a concrete slab of a good size (there used to be a large carriage house behind our home). I was tired of seeing the darn thing so yesterday I put it into our garbage can. Big mistake! I pulled the muscles down one side of my back lifting it into the garbage. Wish I had waited for my husband to do it!
      I can relate to issues with the neighbours as well. Mine lets thistles and other weeds grow along our joint fence. He's too lazy to do more than cut the lawn. You've got me thinking about putting up some kind of additional barrier during the late summer/fall...

    2. During one project under the back deck (leveling and making it accessible to my disabled husband)I hit a huge blob of cement. Cement companies pour off the excess and flush the tank so it doesn't set-up. Apparently it was left when the foundation was poured. I should have used a jackhammer instead of a pick. Anything like that at my age has repercussions! Those pieces of cement slowly traveled to the front yard block wall building project as back filler. I can do it all, I just can't do it all at once and it must be scaled down in size or my knees will collapse. I went with a clear panel on the fence, it allows the light to still filter in and it does help a lot. Cheers!

  3. What a perfect article for me. I just came in from weeding and mulching for a break and sat down to read your article. You and I garden the same :) I just love your photos and your dogs.I have always had collies till this last dog. He is a english cocker spaniel and the best garden dog. He just lays at my side while I weed. Of course the has to chase a chipmunk or two while he waits.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the blog post. Actually Piper is a Shetland Sheepdog (but very close to a Collie!). Sounds like your cocker spaniel is a great garden buddy. Piper chases squirrels and every large bird in the sky. He even goes after the odd airplane! LOL


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