Weeding dandelions
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Weedy wisdom

From Sarah's garden to yours

A weed is just a plant in the wrong place. As gardeners, weeds can be the bane of our existence, creating a never-ending chore that needs tending to regularly, lest it take over and ruin all our good work.

Plants don’t know they are weeds, they see a likely spot of earth and decide to make it home. They are completely unaware that they are intruding on a pristine lawn or nestling in amongst carefully curated plants in a flower border, completely ruining the look. In the vegetable garden, they steal nutrients intended for edible crops and outcompete them, robbing them of space and light.

Some weeds arrive in the garden wafted in on a breeze, stuck to the fur of a passing animal, or delivered from above by a passing bird. You can’t really prevent these intruders. Others can be brought into the garden unintentionally by the gardener. A gifted plant can hide weeds in the pot, or soil bought cheaply to fill a bed can contain traces of a problem. It is important to thoroughly inspect anything new coming into the garden to prevent the introduction of an unwanted weedy newcomer. Some weeds even start as plants we think will make a lovely addition to the garden only to have them self-seed prolifically or spread like wildfire.

Not all weeds are the same and as a result, there are many ways to ‘weed’ them out. No matter how though some weeds are, there is a way to get rid of most of them. Although some are easy to remove – a simple pull and they are gone – there are others that require a mighty effort to dig them out. Furthermore, there are others that will put up a long and sustained battle, but can be defeated with perseverance. There is much variation within the world of weeds!

At the outset, take a look at your weeds and try to identify them. Finding out why they are considered a weed, how they got there, and what makes them stubborn or prolific can help to work out how best to deal with them.

Soil in the garden

The best defence is to tackle them while they are small. Even the toughest weed when tiny is as easy to remove as the pass of a hoe across the soil once a week. A good thick mulch can also help keep most of them away.

A physical approach can be the easiest or the hardest way to deal with weeds. Many weeds have shallow roots or are weak in nature and can be as simple to remove as pulling them out. Others require a bit more effort - a cultivator to loosen the soil usually helps to pry them free. But some are so stubborn you need the help of a garden fork or spade to dig down deep to chase down long taproots and sprawling root systems.

Sometimes the act of weeding can make the situation worse if you aren’t careful. If you don’t manage to get every last fragment of root or rhizome from the soil, new plants will spring from what is left behind. It is best to avoid using a mechanical cultivator on a weedy soil as pernicious weeds can be chopped into many small pieces making the weed pressure worse that it was to start with.

If the situation is too difficult to dig or the weed is belligerently stubborn, then it may require the help of a spray. This should be done with great caution; all instructions should be thoroughly read, and safety precautions followed. A chemical remedy can be just the thing needed to solve a weedy mess, however not all sprays are created equal. A broad-spectrum herbicide will kill whatever it comes in contact with, so caution is needed to prevent harm to desirable plants. It is also prudent to spray on a still day or you will unintentionally harm your neighbours’ plants. Targeted sprays are available that are specifically formulated to take care of the specific plant groups although caution is still required while spraying.

The common weeds in a lawn are broad leafed plants; the best treatment for these weeds is a broadleaf herbicide that will leave the grass untouched.

There is a temptation to treat weeds with something homemade that feels safer, however take care when using store cupboard ingredients as even the most innocuous ingredient can be harmful in a garden environment.

Common recommendations include salt, which, while it will kill weeds, will also kill all life. The Romans knew this, and used to salt the fields of their vanquished enemies so they couldn’t grow crops for many years. Vinegar will also make weeds disappear, but often it is only the leaves that shrivel up and repeat treatments are required to weaken the plant. However, with each application the soil pH is altered, harming the micro communities and affecting the ability for desired plants to function in the soil. Boiling water can also work well, but should be used with caution. Hot waters’ efficacy in killing weeds can be great for between the cracks in pavers, however the soil communities will be harmed from the hot water so use it judiciously.

Man in garden

Another way to tackle weeds is to change the environment. Plants thrive in locations that suit them. For example, if you have a persistently damp spot that attracts damp-loving weeds like dock or buttercup, improving the drainage will make them struggle to thrive.
For a large unruly patch, you can exclude the light by laying down cardboard or other barrier for 6 – 8 weeks or more and let the organic material break down and become incorporated into the soil.

Finally, you could just live with some of your weeds. Many are beneficial and form the basis of herbal remedies, or are habitats for beneficial insect communities. Some are even beautiful, if you take the weed label off and take a fresh look at them. We tend to like things tidy in the garden, but nature likes things a little wild.

Having a general awareness of existing and potential weeds, and having your weed radar tuned in helps too. Don’t knowingly plant invasive plants and try not to let weeds set seed, but if you can’t keep on top of the weeding, then at the very least go around and deadhead the flowering ones. If you find yourself with weed seeds, roots and rhizomes that regenerate easily, soak them in a bucket of water to rot them down before adding them to the compost.

As a responsible gardener, it is important to do our best to keep the worst of the weeds under control. In this way, weeds don’t escape from our gardens and into the natural environment where they may outcompete native communities.