Weeding Effectively (Or Getting to the Root of the Issue)

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Weeding Effectively (Or Getting to the Root of the Issue)

Weeds happen. No garden is without at least a few.

For every gardener out there who swears s/he loves to weed, there are probably a dozen or more who curse pulling weeds. Understanding how a particular weed grows can help use choose the right methods and tools for minimizing the work required to keep weeds at bay.

First, it’s important to understand what kind of weed you’re facing, it’s basic growth characteristics, and when it is most vulnerable to your attack.

Many weeds are self-seeding annuals. These plants pop up everywhere, often several times in a season. They germinate from seed that have fallen from a parent plant in your garden – or a garden a few blocks away. They may range from easy-to-pull rosettes of shotweed and chickweed to highly toxic Giant Hogweed to deeply tap rooted dandelion.

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Some weeds are perennial nightmares. Dandelion and Hogweed may blow in and germinate in your garden in year one, but given the chance, it will replicate itself at the root level as well. Weeds that have the ability to over-winter and sprout anew from their roots provide another set of challenges. These may range from viney English Ivy, to tap rooted dockweed, to underground travelling Archangel and Bindweed, to woody suckers and seedlings from nearby trees, to blackberry brambles and more.

To improve your odds fighting back these invaders, first classify what kind of weed you’re facing:

1. Does the weed have delicate, easy-to-pull shallow roots?
2. Does the weed have one (or a few) long, deep, hard to pull tap roots?
3. Does the weed have long, travelling roots or stems from which roots seem to emerge intermittently?
4. Does your root look like a baby tree?

Group 1 Plants: (including but not limited to chickweed and shotweed): Using a hand tool like the Big Grip Multi-Purpose Planting Tool dig near the base of the plant to lift and remove the entire plant from the soil.

Group 2 Plants: (including but not limited to dandelion and Dockweed): Start by using a Garden Fork like the D-handle Garden fork. Insert the fork into several points in the soil around the taprooted plant to loosen the ground around the deep taproot. Then, using a hand tool like the Big Grip Multi-Purpose Planting Tool, carefully continue to loosen the long, deep root that grows vertically downward. It is critical the entire taproot is removed. If you break it while pulling, you may stimulate the taproot to divide. The result: you get a stronger-rooted or multiple new plants sprouting up where before you had only one plant.

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Group 3 Plants: (including plants like archangel, morning glory and ivy): Again grab your Garden Fork and use it to loose the soil in the area where the plant is growing. Then, using your Big Grip Multi-Purpose Planting Tool, carefully continue to loosen the long, deep roots that developed from under-ground roots or above-ground stems that (mostly) travel horizontally along the soil horizons. Follow and dig out the parallel-growing stems, but also be sure to check below the top of the soil; there may be several layers of roots to remove. With these plants, leaving just a bit of root behind may be enough to create lots of new growth following all your hard work.

Note: if you are removing ivy growing up a tree, begin by cutting the aboveground growth at the base of the tree. Allow the material growing up the tree to die before removing it by hand; tearing it off while the ivy is still alive may damage your tree.

Group 4 Plants: Finally, if your plant looks like a small tree or has a woody base where it enters the soil, first try to determine if it is a travelling sucker from a nearby tree or shrub. Plants like Lilac, Cherry trees and many others will send out suckering travelers to create groves of themselves. If this is the case, use your digging tools to expose the rooting system of the unwanted tree. Then, cut the plant out – roots and all -- as close to the parent tree as possible, removing all of the unwanted parts. If your tree-like weed does not appear to originate from a nearby parent, likely it is a gift planted by a neighborhood squirrel. Dig downward, loosening the soil and remove the entire seedling. Odds are, you’ll find a little hazelnut or acorn shell somewhere along the root!

Regardless of which group your weeds fall into, resist the urge to simply scratch the top growth off the plant and hope for the best. If you do this, you may end up stimulating new growth, multiplying your work next time. Removing the roots is imperative! And, always remove the pulled weed material out of your garden beds completely. Many weeds have the ability to re-root themselves if you pull them and leave them laying about on your garden soil.

Timing your work is another key to making your job easier. If you pull weeds before they set seed, the plants won’t have a chance to spread more babies all over your garden. If you pull weeds the day after a good rain, working the soil should be much easier, and you’ll be less likely to leave behind broken taproots, which perpetuate your weed patches.

Finally, consider how much time you have to work on weeding. Be sure to have the right hand tools on hand as well as a Eco bin™ Composter as a collection container so you’re able to clear your beds as you go. And, have a supply of composted mulch or arborist chips on hand. If you take the time to spread a thick layer of mulch or chips over the area you just finished weeding, you will be armoring your garden against another influx of weedy invaders while making your future gardening life a lot easier.