Weeding Part 2: How To Weed

Weeding season is almost over, or should be. Actually, it’s never over, but I mean the main spring weeding effort, which, if done promptly, can save the gardener a lot of work and worry later on.

Spring is the ideal time to extract most annual weeds before they bloom, set seeds and multiply. It’s also a good time to deal with perennial weeds, while they are in the early stages of growth and easily seen.

In an earlier post, I noted that it’s helpful for gardeners to recognize plants at the seedling stage, so they can remove them if they are weeds or nurture them if they are desired plants. Keeping that in mind, here are some tools and techniques for removing the unwanted.

Tools range from small and surgical (a one-prong cultivator that used to have three prongs, the usual three-pronged version as well as a three-pronged hand-fork, a nice little hand-hoe with a very sharp blade, the ever-popular dandelion tool) to large and crude (hoes, mattocks and the like, which I hardly ever use in my crowded beds). The main thing is to decide whether you want to extract or merely cut. Cutting works for masses of small seedlings. The sharp-bladed hand-hoe is just the thing for slicing their roots just below the soil surface, but care is needed to avoid desirable plants, which can be decapitated along with the weeds. A different set of tools is needed to penetrate the soil as far as a weed’s roots go, in order to loosen it to the point that the weed can be extracted intact. The dandelion tool is an example of this, but the sad truth is that I never get the whole root. Removing at least some of it does in the dandelion for that season, however, and prevents blooming and seeding. Repeated hoicking, moreover, weakens the plant to the point where it eventually gives up. I have reduced the dandelion population in my lawn to almost nothing this way, even though dandelions bloom merrily in the yard next door.

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding teaches one how to weed. After a few sessions, you recognize which weeds can be pulled up by yanking on their tops and which need to be dug out or pried up. The main thing is to do this work before the soil dries and hardens and taproots become immovable. That’s by the end of May in my garden, but a lot depends on soil type (clay is always difficult) and amount of rainfall.

Tardy gardeners need desperate measures for when things are getting out of control:  if weeds haven’t been pulled out before blooming, at least cut off the developing seed heads. Even if the seeds have ripened, you can carefully cut off the seed heads, depositing them into a bucket. Resign yourself to the fact that some seeds will be scattered during this procedure, resulting in seedlings next spring. And it goes without saying that you don’t put the seed heads into the compost heap, unless yours is a hot heap. (Mine isn’t).

Finally, know when to admit defeat and negotiate. Some weeds are invincible and you just have to learn to live with them (or move). Nearly every summer, I find myself pulling masses of small bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) out of the lawn — not to remove it permanently; there’s no hope of that — but as an act of cosmetic desperation, simply to get rid of as many of those screaming white flowers that stand out wonderfully against the by then brown lawn. There’s something slovenly about that scene, like dust-bunnies chasing each other around the kitchen floor. (But maybe that’s just one of my crotchets and other people don’t even notice bindweed. I can always hope).

Right now I’m thinking I had better come to grips with “deadheading” Euphorbia characias subsp. characias “Humpty Dumpty” (yes, that really is its name, both the repetitious Latin moniker and the cutesy variety name). It blooms hugely all spring. In June, the flower heads begin to take on a tawny look, and if you are near the plant on a sunny day, you hear crisp little pops. “What’s that?” you think. It’s the euphoria’s seed pods bursting and shooting seeds all over the place, resulting in a crop of little seedlings (blue-green 1/2-inch long leaves) that need to be pulled out before they grow into 4′ x 4′ Humpties. Really.

Euphorbia "Humpty Dumpty"

Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty”

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for these excellent tips. Some weeds bother me more than others: I hate the false raspberry weed, although I don’t know the proper name to curse it by. And those ugly and dangerous thistle weeds are terribly hard to get rid of.

    Is clover a weed you can eradicate in the spring?

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    1. Actually, I kind of like clover, at least in my lawns. This would be white clover — which is sort of cream coloured, not bright white like bindweed flowers — and a small yellow-flowering kind. I don’t have the big pink clover here. Any of them might become a nuisance in perennial beds or vegetable gardens because they spread by running roots as well as by seed. The best strategy to remove it from places other than lawns would be to dig up every plant with its roots in spring, about the time you would be preparing soil for planting vegetables or setting out annuals. That could be quite tedious, depending on how much clover you have and whether it’s tangled up with other plants. I consider clover a bonus in lawns because it fixes nitrogen (not that fertilizing my lawns is a big priority) and its little round leaves add texture. But then, my lawns are not of the manicured variety. I do keep them edged, however; makes a huge difference to how the whole garden looks.

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  2. I like the article, however I should add your weeding toolkit is incomplete. I am soon to remove some weeds with an axe! These plants looked really good for a while, but they got out of hand!

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    1. Yes, an axe comes in handy at times. I can no longer dig in parts of my garden due to roots of two large Norway maples, so I have both an axe and a hatchet in my garden shed. But I don’t as yet regard them as “normal” weeding tools.

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