If I followed my own advice and kept track of what I do in my yard every year, I’m pretty sure that many of my gardening hours are spent weeding. Pulling weeds can be satisfying the couple of first go-rounds, but it quickly turns into a chore. At some mid-summer point, I just throw in the trowel, usually when the temperature and humidity starts to climb. This year though, is an exception. There is a wedding in September and the garden has to be perfection.
So I did a little research this spring to see if I could weed smarter, instead of harder. And there are a few strategies that seem to be working. Let’s start with a little bad news-good news. Every square inch of your garden contains weed seeds. And the good news? Only those seeds in the top couple of inches of soil get enough light to germinate. Digging brings these seeds closer to the surface, triggering germination. So, control strategy number one? Dig only when you need to and immediately cover the disturbed area with plants or mulch. Mulching is key. Not only does this layer of organic material suppress weeds, but it keeps the soil cool and moist, something your plants will appreciate in July and August.
Control strategy number two. Pull when wet! Schedule your weeding after a good soaking rain or a nice session with the sprinkler. Use narrow tools, like fish-tailed weeders or old table forks to minimize the soil disturbance. When it’s too dry to pull the weeds, chopping off their heads is the next best thing. Sever the weeds from the roots just below the soil with a sharp hoe or garden knife.
This is an especially important job with perennial weeds. Cutting them back reduces reseeding. You’ll need to use sharp pruning shears or loppers for big plants like ragweed or teasel. A string trimmer will work for big patches of weeds like creeping bellflower. But no matter what method you choose, it’s really important to cut the plants back before they flower.
And as long as we’re on the subject of dry weather, weed control strategy number three is to use watering to your advantage. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation instead of wide-spread sprinklers delivers the water to the roots of your shrubs and perennials where it’s needed. For many weeds, dry conditions efficiently reduce seed germination.
Besides these methods, try to add some organic matter to your garden whenever you can. No one is really sure how it works, but there is some anecdotal evidence that fewer weed seeds germinate in compost-enriched soil.
Sometimes our own attitudes about what defines a weed is the root of the problem. Most gardeners agree that a weed is a plant in a place where it’s uninvited. It seems to be more about the names we use than the plants themselves. I immediately reach for tools and treatments and spend a lot of time and energy ruthlessly waging battle against anything with the word creeping in the name.
We could, and I know that this is a stretch, learn a lesson from the foragers and add some weeds to our culinary repertoire. An old episode of Top Chef showed a finalist cooking a bit of purslane as a side dish and I’ve seen dandelion greens at the farmers market. Which begs the question, what does your lawn and garden bring to the table?