In the Weeds

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Before thinking about killing weeds, you should discourage them from growing in the first place.


I always take the weeds in my garden as a good sign, a sign that things want to grow in my garden. I am not someone who is afraid of weeds, because I have strategies for dealing with them. Weeds also provide benefits, but only when they aren’t competing with crops.

More important than recognizing the names of weeds is recognizing their growth habits. If you’ve spent any amount of time in the garden, you’re probably becoming familiar with the weeds you have and how they like to grow. I know the names of very few weeds, but I can tell you the habits of most of the ones in my garden: where and when they like to grow, how fast they grow, what their roots are like, and what their flowers look like.

How to kill a weed

Before thinking about how to kill weeds, you should discourage them from growing in the first place. Forking your beds to loosen the soil and then hand-pulling or sifting out the roots gives you a head start.

Preventing any existing seeds from germinating is also helpful. Seeds germinate best in warm, sunny, moist soil. Loose, dry, extremely shady soil does not germinate seeds well. Cultivating soil shallowly and regularly to keep it loose and dry, or keeping it dark under the canopy of plants or under thick or dark mulch, helps limit germination.

Once the weeds do start sprouting, there are a few basic ways to kill them. One way is burying. This works well for broadleaves that don’t grow back from roots well; for other weeds, it will at least slow them down. Mulching is a form of burying, but so is hilling, as is commonly done with potatoes.

Another approach is to cut the roots from the tops. This is usually done with a hoe, scraper, or knife. Again, this works well for most plants, but some plants still grow back from theirremaining roots. That’s OK, though; you’ve still set them back.

A third approach is to pull weeds and let them completely dry out. This is effective on all plants, although some can be pretty tricky to get completely dry, especially here in the Northwest. Hand-weeding is very common, and I like to use thin, nitrile garden gloves to protect my hands while maintaining good dexterity. Mostly I try to avoid hand-weeding. While it can be effective and satisfying, it’s not usually as good for the soil or the other plants in the garden.

Tools and Timing

I’m pretty miserly, so I shy away from buying mulches, straw, plastic, or otherwise. That said, mulching at the time of planting can be both effective in preventing weeds from germinating and in improving the soil over the long term. While plastic mulches can help with warming the soil, organic mulches, like straw or leaves, keep soil cooler, and all mulches can harbor garden pests that create problems for us here in the Northwest. Mulches can be a great option, but they’re not the only option.

Even though I’m miserly, I have a thing for quality tools. A quality hoe or rake is a pleasure to use and will last pretty much indefinitely. In the garden, my favorite hoe for cultivating is a swan neck hoe or a collinear hoe. These have narrow blades that slice off weeds just below the soil surface and loosen the surface at the same time. The handle angle allows you to stand upright and use a sweeping motion, similar to using a broom. (I admit, I kind of like sweeping, too.) In very tight spaces, a Japanese scraper is a great tool — very sharp and easy to control. Learning how to sharpen these tools is not difficult and makes a big difference in how easy they are to use.

When the soil is wet and sticking to the hoe, I use a tine cultivator (basically a very small rake) to loosen the soil and disturb any weeds. In larger spaces, I just use a full-sized rake. By raking the surface weekly, I get rid of many weeds quickly.

The key to effective hoeing and raking is timing, and the easiest time to kill a weed is when it is very, very small. A very quick hoeing every week or two quickly and easily kills any weeds that have sprouted or, at the very least, sets them back for a week or two, allowing your garden plants to get ahead.

If a few weeds get away from you, they will be easy to pull out by hand or slice off just below the soil later. The advantage of slicing instead of pulling is that slicing doesn’t disturb the roots of your garden plants. Additionally, by leaving weed roots behind to rot in place, you help feed the soil and improve its structure.

Consider Leaving Some Weeds

In the late fall, I like to leave some weeds in the garden to provide good ground cover, protect the soil, and help cycle nutrients instead of letting them wash out with winter rains. You can call these weeds “cover crops”, and some, like chickweed, are even good for eating.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1530581873205{border-top-width: 3px !important;border-right-width: 3px !important;border-bottom-width: 3px !important;border-left-width: 3px !important;border-left-color: #e6ae48 !important;border-left-style: solid !important;border-right-color: #e6ae48 !important;border-right-style: solid !important;border-top-color: #e6ae48 !important;border-top-style: solid !important;border-bottom-color: #e6ae48 !important;border-bottom-style: solid !important;border-radius: 3px !important;}”][vc_column][vc_empty_space height=”10px”][vc_column_text]

Know Your Weeds

Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials

Weeds are just like other plants; some grow from seed and some overwinter, surviving either whole or growing back from their roots.

Monocots and Dicots

Generally, monocots have their main growing tips (where new growth comes from) below ground, and dicots have their main growing tips above ground. In the weed world, these are sometimes referred to as grasses and broadleaves, but there are more monocots than just grasses, and some broadleaves are pretty good at growing back from below ground.

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Josh Volk is the author of the book Compact Farms. He writes from a desk that looks out over his garden, farms in Portland at Cully Neighborhood Farm, and travels around the country speaking to farmers and gardeners. You can find more about Josh at[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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