How to control weeds in the garden

Weeds. It's the one thing that makes gardening more chore than enjoyable pastime some days. Keeping the weeds in your garden under control can make the difference between having an amazing harvest, and barely gathering enough to make the garden worthwhile! After all, weeds take up the sun, water and nutrients the plants need so usually the more weeds you grow, the less produce you can harvest.

Weed free garden plot

So how do you maintain a weed free garden?

A few years ago I would have said "Lots of work" but I've adopted a method that makes it pretty easy to control the weeds. I probably spend about 10 minutes a day on it, which isn't all that much in my 23' x 25' garden. The 2 main tricks to make it easier are weeding often and deep mulch.

What are weeds?

Weeds are just plants that you don't want, and they function just like the plants you do want. Some of the weeds I pull most frequently in my garden are dandelion, clover, valerian and chamomile. These are in addition to the crab grasses and hay sprouts of course!

This just proves the point though that weeds are just regular plants in an undesirable location. If I can transplant them to a better place I will, but many times I'm pulling or cutting them down before they're even big enough to recognize. 

Just like regular plants, weeds need water, sunlight, and nutrition to survive. Of these three key survival needs, the easiest one for a gardener to eliminate is sunlight. Through proper mulching you can eliminate the sunlight completely. Remove the sunlight and even though the seeds will still germinate, they will die off shortly.

How weeds spread

Weeds either grow from seed or they reproduce from their roots. So to eliminate weeds you need to not let them go to seed and/or pull them out by their roots. Sounds simple enough, right? If you pull weeds when they're small they won't produce seeds and can't replant themselves! I try to spend about 5-10 minutes a day weeding the garden to keep things under control.

There are many weeds that you can cut off at ground level and be done with it...but there are many more that will grow again from any root left behind. Then there are the ones that reproduce from their roots. 

As the roots grow outward from the parent plant, new plants sprout up from the lateral roots, creating more parent plants and the process continues as the weeds thrive. Weeds that reproduce from the root are usually more difficult to control. 

You need to dig these weeds up and flip them so the roots are facing up. The sun will dry them out killing them. You can break them into smaller pieces with a hoe or spade to speed up the drying process. This works best on a hot, sunny day.

The cut and flip method works for weeds with a tap root also. Ever pull the top off a dandelion then it grows back in the same spot? That's because the root was left in the soil. Even though these plants don't reproduce through the roots, they can if you only ever rip the top off you can end up pulling the same weed multiple times!

Straw mulch on garden

Weeds in the garden

The two main ways I keep my garden from being overtaken with weeds is by pulling the weeds that are growing and discouraging more weeds from starting to grow.

How to remove weeds

Tilling is great for breaking up weed roots but once the garden is planted you won't be able to till in many places. You'll have to pull weeds by hand or use a hoe to cut them off at soil level. 

The old saying goes "Pull when wet, hoe when dry". 

Right after it rains is one of the best times to pull weeds. The roots will come out of the soil better and more completely than if the soil was dry. This is even more effective if it's a young weed, as the whole root system will likely pull out. This is exactly what we want!

A hoe cuts weeds in half cleanly when scraped across dry soil. Again, this is especially effective if they're young weeds and don't have a developed root system. A hoe used on wet soil will yank on the weeds instead of cutting them, which pulls the roots out also. That would still work, except you run the risk of them regrowing in the wet dirt you scraped up with the weeds.

You could use the hoe to scrape the first inch or so of dirt and weeds loose and then chop it all up with the sharp edge, but that's a little more work. Hoe when the soil is dry and when you're not expecting rain and the weed pieces will dry up and wilt in no time.

Be aware that some mature weeds can still go to seed after they're uprooted! Pull a dandelion flower and leave it sit'll be fluff in a day or two. Break that open and the seeds can still float away on a breeze. Chickweed does something similar.

Spend time every day working on the weed situation in your garden! The younger the weed is when you pull or hoe it, the less likely that it can regrow from any bits of root left behind. The more frequently you're working in the garden the more likely to catch a new crop of weeds popping up.

In this case 10 minutes a day is better than an hour once a week. Weeds grow fast!

What is mulch?

Mulch is an organic matter spread around or under a plant to insulate and protect the soil. It keeps the sun from drying out the soil too quickly, thus keeping the plants roots from drying out on hot days. 

Popular mulch options are leaves, dried cut grass, straw, compost, wood chips and wood bark. Mulch should be put down in a layer about 3" thick to prevent the sun from reaching the soil.

Since mulch is organic it breaks down or gets mixed into the soil as the season passes. It will need replenished as it becomes thin, otherwise weeds will start growing again. Make sure you check your mulch thickness regularly and add more if needed. Most mulch options are cheap, if not free.

Mulching the garden

Before mulching you can spread newspaper (several layers thick) or cardboard over the soil and place the mulch on top of that. The newspaper will block the sunlight from reaching the surface of the soil and help to keep weed growth to a minimum. The paper will eventually decompose and will not permanently alter the make up of your garden. Paper grocery bags also work well.

This is more effective than mulch alone since mulch can be disturbed by weather, animals or even from you walking through the garden. Once it gets thin in spots, then rain and sun can get through which will cause any weed seeds to germinate, starting the process all over again. 
By putting the newspaper under the mulch, the ground never becomes exposed.

You'll want to wet down the newspaper with the hose after you lay it, but before you put the mulch on top of it. The newspaper being wet helps to keep everything in place as you're working with it. 

Make sure you leave a space near the root of the plant. You need enough space to water/feed the plant, while leaving some soil exposed so it can dry out between waterings. Too much moisture can be as big a problem as too little! Leave about 2" on all sides of the plant stems.

Can you mulch over weeds?

As mentioned earlier weeds need light, nutrition and water to survive so if you toss the mulch on top of them and block out the sun won't they just die anyway? Unfortunately this takes a really long time to work, if at all. Your weeds will probably continue to grow under the mulch. 

If they are perennial weeds they will continue spreading through the root system and start popping up in other parts of your garden. It's better to till them up before covering them with mulch.

Fill the bare spaces

I love to add flowers and herbs to all the bare spots in my garden. Marigolds and nasturtiums are my favorites, though I often use dahlias and have chamomile growing everywhere! This is a great way to use companion planting in your garden to repel pests or attract beneficial insects.

The more crowded the plants in your garden are, the less space there are for weeds. This is not to say that you should place vegetable plants too close together! That will stunt growth and reduce harvest. Filling in empty spaces with flowers or late season vegetables though, is a productive use of space. 

Related reading: 8 Flowers you need in your vegetable garden.

Don't water the weeds

I know it's super easy to put the hose nozzle on the shower setting and just water the whole garden, but that is exactly what the weeds are hoping for! You really only need to water right above the plants roots. I fill a bucket or watering can and water each plant individually. Yes, it's more work but it's worth it. 

Not only does watering your garden this way use less water, but the weeds growing in the pathways and between plants will not get any water. Hopefully they'll dry up and cease to be...more than likely they won't, but they will stop growing and reproducing as quickly giving you more time to rip them out.

Landscape fabric with weeds growing in it

Landscape fabric in the garden

What about black plastic, or the weed barrier fabric sold at garden centers? I've used both but I don’t really like either. For one, neither one of them can decompose so they don't go away until you physically remove them, which is a real pain in the butt. Any bits left behind will pop up as you work the soil from year to year

Plastic is no good for the soil because soil needs to breathe. Plastic blocks the transfer of water and oxygen, and eventually your soil will suffer, as will your garden. It’s all right to use plastic in a vegetable garden as long as you remove it at the end of the growing season and give the soil a chance to breathe.

You'll find that once the plastic is removed it's a very dry, hard dirt underneath. I like to till the garden before it sits for the winter, but that's up to you. If you do till and have chickens, let them in afterwards to clean up the bugs and seeds for you!

Weed barrier fabrics allow the soil to breathe more than plastic does. Unfortunately, what happens is that when you mulch over top of the fabric (which you'll probably do because the fabric is ugly) the mulch decomposes and becomes topsoil. Weeds love topsoil, and they will grow like crazy in it.

Then when you yank the fabric out of your garden, it looks like the picture up above.

The problem is the weeds are growing on top of the fabric, and you are stuck with a weedy garden. Plus it's a major job of trying to remove the fabric that is now firmly anchored in place because the weeds have rooted through it.

If you don't mulch on top of the weed fabric (even though it's ugly) it's porous enough that light will peek through and weeds below the fabric will grow, pushing their way through the fabric. It's just a giant pain in the butt, unless there's some trick to using it that I'm not aware of? I’ve removed it every time I tried to use it because it does not work as expected. 

So while it seems like landscape fabric would be a shortcut, it really isn't. The best way to have a weed free garden is mulching heavy and regular weeding. 

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  1. Is using burlap just as bad as the black plastic or the matting? I have thought about that.
    We have OLD hay in the barn but Lord knows what's been in it, or still is.
    Would that be OK for mulch? We also have OLD hay out by the fencing for the cows. Some already looks like it's already mulching. What do you suggest?

    I have a little thing I do for the plants that vine. I get those wire things that you put on the weed mat to hold it down. I gather a couple vines together so the go the way I want/need them to go and the put on of those in place over the vines to keep them in place.

    Thank you and glad to be here!

    1. I have never used burlap but I'm going to try it! I think it would work similar to landscape fabric. Old hay can still have seeds in it, which of course will grow. I just bought some straw full of wheat seeds and even though it's growing like crazy, it does pull out really if you are stuck, you can make it work!

      That's a great idea for training the vines! I'm going to try that. Thanks for the tip!


  2. I renamed all the weeds in my garden as wildflowers so now I have no weeds 😂

    1. Ha Ha Ha! That's brilliant!

      Actually many weeds like plantain, clover, lambs quarters, chickweed etc have medicinal maybe I'll just rename mine "The foraging garden" and leave them grow! ;-)

      Have a great day!