Dealing with weeds
Weeding is an inescapable part of gardening. You can minimize the amount of it you have to do by using mulch and planting intensively (less space between plants means less space for weeds) but you’re always going to have some weeds to deal with. Ignoring them just leads to more weeds, so it’s a battle that needs to be fought continuously. Especially in the heat of summer, it can be tempting to give up the fight, but you’re a better gardener than that! I find that tackling small areas at a time, in the cooler parts of the day, is a good strategy.
First off, you need to identify which plants are weeds. The loose definition of a weed is any plant that grows where you don’t want it. In my garden, black eyed susans (Rudbeckia) are sometimes weeds—they self-seed everywhere. So I treat them that way, even when they’re blooming (which, I’ll admit, does require a bit of ruthlessness.) There’s no need to learn the identity of every weed in your garden, unless you want to—it’s wise to familiarize yourself with those that might cause a skin reaction (e.g. poison ivy, poison oak, giant hogweed) but otherwise feel free to pull out anything that’s interfering with your vision of what a fabulous garden should look like.
The secret to less weeding:
The key to weeding is to not just remove the plant that’s above the ground but also the roots below ground. Depending on how insidious/persistent/adaptable the weed is, leaving even a little bit of the root behind can result in regrowth. Get all of it out.
For most weeds this can be done, when the soil is damp, by grasping the weed near the ground and gently pulling.
For weeds with long taproots, like dandelions, or those growing in compacted soil, you often need a small trowel or some sort of implement (a flat screwdriver will work in a pinch) to push into the ground alongside the weed (between Step 2 and Step 3) and then pry upwards as you pull, popping the weed and its roots out of the ground.
The next best thing to weeding:
If you’re behind on your weeding and you see that your weeds are flowering but you can’t pull them all out right then at least snap the flowers off. This will prevent the weed from setting seed and causing you more weeding in future.
Dealing with a lot of weeds:
If you have a lot of weeds in an area without other plants (e.g. on an interlock pathway, cracks in your driveway, etc.) there are ways to kill them off without actually pulling them up individually. I do not recommend applying herbicides created from synthetic chemicals for this (there are some very limited uses where I believe these herbicides do have a place, but general weed removal in your garden is certainly not one of them).
My favourite method to get rid of a lot of weeds in my garden paths is to pour boiling water over them. I boil a kettle full of water, run it outside while it’s still hot, and pour it over the weeds so that it soaks down to the roots. It smells a bit like cooking spinach. In a day or two the plants have withered and died. If they haven’t, I do it again, using a greater quantity of boiling water. Note that you don’t have to boil a kettle of clean water for this—you can use the water you just drained from a pot of pasta or (my trick at this time of year) the hot water left in your canning pot after you’ve pulled out the last jar of jam.
Another method I’ve heard of, but never used myself is burning off the weeds with a blow torch. This only works where weeds are growing on non-flammable surfaces (e.g. an interlock patio or driveway), when there are no flammable materials around (dried plants, vehicles, houses, etc.), and is best done when there is no wind. Those who have used this method it tell me that it’s very quick, effective, and doesn’t require you to bend down. Remarkably, you can buy a torch specifically designed for this purpose. Use it at your own risk.
I’ve also heard of people dousing their weeds with vinegar with an acetic acid level of 20% or higher (in fact, this is the main ingredient in most of the weed killers you can buy legally in my city right now). It does work, when you use enough of it, but, just like herbicides derived from synthetic chemicals, it does not discriminate between a weed and your prized begonia. It also changes the pH of the soil in the area where you’ve used it for a time, which means you won’t be able to grow other plants in that spot until it regenerates. It also kills off the organisms (such as worms) that live in the soil. If you want to use this method do some research and really think about whether it’s appropriate in your situation.
The method I use most of the time is the tried and true—knees to ground, hand to weed, one weed at a time. Repeat.
Thanks Jennifer. Great article as usual. I love your considerations of reusing water, protecting the next plants to go in the soil, and of course taking care of the living organisms that work so hard to care for our gardens too. I love the satisfaction of pulling weeds – it relaxes me. One of my favourite nights of gardening was sitting on my 2 month-new grass full of thistles, and one by one for hours pulling them from the root. The grass looked amazing when I woke up the next morning and stayed that way!
Can you share an article about plants that thrive in full sun but can also handle a lot of water? (Think highrise balcony in Vancouver)
Thanks for your comment Carla. Any time you’re in Toronto and want to enjoy a relaxing few hours pulling weeds please feel free to come over!
Full sun and lots of water is actually a pretty good combination, as the challenge most balcony gardeners face is that their plants dry out very quickly because of the wind. The higher up you are the more wind becomes the biggest challenge, because it dries your plants out, beats them up, and also lowers your growing zone (i.e. it’s cooler and winters are harsher so you can’t grow some of the tropical things you might see in other Vancouver gardens). If you are up higher (say higher than the 6th floor) you’ll need to think about erecting some sort of wind break (latticework, decorative glass panels, even window screening can help). I’ve heard landscape designers speak on the topic, and they say that after you hit a certain height (can’t remember what floor–it was pretty high) the wind makes it impossible to grow anything, even with windbreaks installed. Hopefully you’re not in that situation.
So if you’ve dealt with the wind, as long as your pots have good drainage (no plants like to have wet feet, and some really hate it), you should have a lot of plants to choose from.
I did a bit of a search for a plant list to share with you and didn’t have much luck (so thank you for the blog topic suggestion–I’ll add it to my list!) so here’s my short version: All the full sun vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, etc.) should be ok. I see no reason that annual flowers like petunias, salvia, biddens, zinnias, dahlias wouldn’t do well. Geraniums likely wouldn’t bloom much (they need to be on the dry side to flower). In terms of perennials and shrubs, with big enough well draining pots you might be able to have cedars, roses, lilies, and you could try black-eyed susans (not sure how they’ll like the wet, but they seem almost indestructible). I’d probably stay away from perennial grasses, lavender, sedums and hostas.
So that’s my mini-list. Stay tuned for a more in depth exploration of the topic in a future post 🙂
I use a blow torch on my lockstone patio weeds. Works wonders.
I have a 1200 sq. ft. veggie garden which is heavily mulched with most any organic matter I can get my hands on, including the weeds I just pulled (without seed heads). Prefer straw. I can usually weed that garden in under five minutes every few days. You are so right in your advice to stay on top of the situation.
I wasn’t going to “out” you as the person I know who uses a blow torch but you’ve admitted it publicly so I guess it’s ok for me to talk about it now 😉
Yes, mulching is amazingly effective at weed control. My vegetable beds are quick like yours–it’s my wood chip paths that cause me so much work.
Must run in the family….I use a blow torch on my flagstone patio and walkway too. Works wonders very quickly!