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8 Things to Know When Pulling Weeds

Banish weeds the right way—and keep them from coming back—with these tips, tools, and techniques.

Ask any group of gardeners to cite their least favorite task is and you’re bound to hear a chorus of “Weeding!” Rampant weeds steal water and valuable nutrients from the soil that beneficial plants could be receiving, and their less-than-lovely heads detract from lawn and garden design.

In your quest to keep your landscape weed-free, it’s easy to make some overzealous mistakes. Before you begin pulling weeds, read on for the right way to vanquish green invaders and reduce their future growth. Your bountiful vegetable harvest and big beautiful flowers will thank you!

1. Don’t wait to weed.

If you let weeds tower over your tomatoes, you’ll have a tough time getting them out. When weeds are small, their roots are weaker, making it easier to pull them out. Commit to doing a quick walk-through of your garden every other day; it will take only a few minutes to pull up any young weeds that show up.

Bonus tip: Pull weeds soon after watering your plants or a rain shower; when the soil is moist, the whole weed is more likely to come out by the roots. It’s perfectly fine to put pulled weeds in your compost bin, where the naturally hot temperature will destroy any seeds.

2. Grab by the base.

Gardeners who weed manually may be tempted to reach down and snatch a handful give it a sharp tug. Unfortunately, that often causes the weed to snap in two, leaving the bottom half and the roots still in the ground. Instead, take your time and grab each weed individually at its base and then pull slowly and steadily to ease the roots from the soil.

3. Ply the proper tools.

Many gardeners find that a few tools make weeding speedier. Choose well-made implements with a solid handle that feels comfortable in your grasp and a head or blade made of tough forged steel. Also, select tools that suit your weeding method, either kneeling or standing.

Kneeling tools: These have relatively short handles, from about six to 12 inches long. Rake-type tools with finger-like prongs (such as the Gardener’s Claw Rake, available on Amazon) work well for scraping up surface weeds with minimal root systems, such as henbit. A hook neck tool (such as the CobraHead Weeder, available on Amazon) can be positioned behind the base of a weed and used to dig in and scoop out the intruder. To remove weeds between beneficial plants, try an angled hand hoe like the Nejiri Gama Hoe (also available on Amazon), which features a sharp point for getting into tight spots. Hand shovels can be used to dig out large weed roots.

Standing tools: For removing many weeds at once, it’s hard to beat the tried-and-true long-handled hoe, but today’s manufacturers have done just that! A hoe with a sharpened blade, such as the ProHoe Rogue Garden Hoe (available on Amazon), can sever roots beneath the soil surface with a single chop. Grip-and-pull weeders like Fiskars’ Deluxe Stand-up Weeder (available on Amazon) promise to save time and labor when removing weeds with deep root systems, such as dandelions. Sharp prongs are driven deep into the soil by pressing a foot pedal, and then the prongs grip the roots securely and pull them right out.

Photo: amazon.com via Roundup

4. Understand herbicides.

Need a break from the strenuous work of pulling weeds? Controlling these unwanted crops with foliar herbicides (toxic substances absorbed through a plant’s leaves) is physically easier than either pulling or hoeing. Just be sure to consider the pros and cons of these weed killers before you go this route.

PROS

+ Spraying a foliar herbicide such as Roundup (available on Amazon) effectively kills individual weeds or large areas that are awash with weeds.

+ Foliar herbicides work fast, killing weeds sometimes within a day—and usually no longer than a week—of application.

+ There’s no need to remove weeds individually and no strain on your back from bending over and pulling weeds for long periods of time. After the weeds turn brown and die, rake them into a pile and dispose of them.

CONS

The wind could blow herbicidal spray onto beneficial plants, inadvertently harming or killing them.

Exposure to chemical herbicides may result in skin irritation while inhaling the spray can result in a sore throat and other respiratory woes. Care should always be taken not to come into contact with the spray.

Weeds that are chemically killed should not be placed in the compost bin. Traces of herbicides can survive the composting process and may result in stunting vegetation if later used in garden soil.

Chemical herbicides may interfere with the environment and studies indicate that the chemicals can affect earthworms and offset soil nutrients, leading to the leaching of chemicals into streams and underground aquifers. Consider a non-toxic herbicide, such as A.D.I.O.S Eco-Friendly Weed Control (available on Amazon), which will allow you to avoid the contamination problems associated with toxic herbicides.

5. Avoid pulling weeds with an ounce of prevention.

You don’t have to kill or pull weeds if they don’t grow in the first place, so consider a pre-emergent to keep weed seeds from germinating. Sprinkle a granular pre-emergent herbicide such as Preen’s Organic Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer (available on Amazon) on the soil and then water. The granules will dissolve and permeate the soil, creating a barrier around the weed seeds. A single application will last up to 12 weeks, after which the product can be reapplied.

Note that once a pre-emergent is in the soil, beneficial seeds won’t sprout either. For best results, wait until beneficial plants are four to eight inches tall before using a pre-emergent product (as directed on the package)—it won’t kill plants that are already growing.

6. Cut it out.

Some stubborn weeds, such as Canadian thistle, not only send deep roots that are extremely hard to pull, but also feature prickly stems and foliage that will pierce anything less than heavy leather gloves. When dealing with these tough customers, reach for a sharp pair of nippers, such as TABOR TOOLS Bypass Pruning Shears (available on Amazon) for small to medium size weeds or long-handled shears, such as Fiskars 28” Bypass Loppers (available on Amazon) for cutting down those large Canadian thistles. The roots will still remain in the soil, but in most cases, if you remove the entire growing part of the plant, it can no longer receive the sunshine it needs to survive.

7. Know when to turn up the heat!

If you find yourself with a large swath of weeds that don’t respond to other methods, consider burning them out. A weed burner, such as the Red Dragon Weed Torch Kit (available on Amazon), connects to a standard propane tank to deliver a flame directly to the weeds, scorching and killing them. A weed burner works well on invaders growing beneath fences or encroaching near raised garden beds. Be sure weeds are green, not brown and dry. You want to scorch them, not start a fire. Check with local authorities before using a weed torch as some communities may restrict or ban their use.

Hot water can also kill weeds. Carefully pour a pitcher of just-boiled water directly on weeds or use a steam weeder, such as the DynaSteam Weeder (available at Amazon), to simplify the process—and reduce the risk of dripping scalding water on your feet.

You can also use heat to kill weeds between gardening seasons. After harvest, cover a planting bed with dark landscape plastic (hold it in place rocks or bricks) and leave it on over the winter. Sun hitting the plastic it will raise the soil temperature beneath to destroy weed seeds.

8. Grow a no-till garden.

Every fall and again every spring, home gardeners can be found turning their garden soil to helps break up heavy clay, distribute organic matter, and deliver oxygen to the soil. Tilling in this way, however, also brings dormant weed seeds to the surface where they quickly sprout. An alternative to the turning the soil several times annually—and reduce weed growth—is a no-till garden.

You will till, but only once—when you start the garden to loosen the soil. Then, you’ll cover the soil with four to six inches of organic mulch (dried leaves, grass clippings, or hardwood chips). The mulch helps keep the soil beneath moist and also prevents weed seeds from sprouting by keeping light from reaching the surface. When you want to plant seeds or transplant seedlings, just push the mulch aside in that spot.

For a vegetable garden, this might mean creating long V-shaped rows in the mulch with bare soil only visible inside the “V.” Crops grow in the narrow rows, and after harvest, remove the spent plants and cover the area again with mulch. Once you’ve established a no-till garden, add a few inches of mulch every year (the old mulch will biodegrade and settle) and push the soil aside as described each time you plant.

In your quest to keep your yard and garden weed-free, it’s easy to make some overzealous mistakes. Before you begin pulling weeds, read up on the best tips.

Weeding by hand

Some people love weeding by hand, digging out their garden weeds. But is it such a great idea? In some circumstances probably not as it can lead to further weed growth.

In brief

The old adage of “one year’s seeding means seven year’s weeding” is not far from the truth. Many seeds lie dormant in the soil for several years. Some, such as poppies, remain viable for decades and will germinate when moved to the top inch or so of soil.

To dig or not to dig?

Digging out weeds can therefore be a mixed blessing. On the positive side you finish the day with a clean surface and you have removed lots of weeds and roots. The action of digging with a fork will also aerate the soil and allow you to introduce organic matter.

On the other hand, the soil movement will have brought lots of weed seeds to the surface where they will soon germinate. The digging action will also have chopped up the roots of perennial weeds – such as couch grass, bindweed and ground elder – possibly spreading their coverage.

To hoe or not to hoe?

Hoeing is an effective way of dealing with small and annual weeds.

Hoeing is really only effective if the ground is already clear of large weeds. Going through clean beds every week with a push hoe or Dutch hoe is a great idea. The action will disturb the annual weed seeds just germinating and cut off any new or fresh growth from perennial weeds.However, the physical cutting through the soil with a hoe can also damage the feeding roots of the flowers and vegetables you are trying to grow, so great care is needed.

Always hoe lightly, without going deep into the soil. In fact, this is hoe a hoe is meant to be used – just skimming on or under the soil level.

Weedy ground and weedkillers

If the ground is already weedy, probably the best answer is to first use a suitable chemical weedkiller to kill the existing vegetation.

There are many weedkillers to choose from depending on the area where your weed is growing and the types of weeds you’re killing – annuals or perennials. These weedkillers can really take the backache out of weeding.

Some people love hand weeding, digging out their garden weeds. But is it such a great idea? At Love The Garden we discuss the do’s and don’ts to hand weeding.