Weeds are a constant source of frustration for most gardeners, evoking feelings of disdain like no other plant. Toxic chemical herbicides, thankfully now out of fashion, were once the go-to remedy for eradicating any weed deemed undesirable by property owners. So aside from pulling weeds out of the ground with bare hands until our backs ache, what’s a gardener to do?
Prevention is key
Inspecting newly acquired plants to ensure they aren’t carrying weeds prevents potential troubles later. That goes for any soil amendments, too. If you doubt the quality of the soil you plan on using in your garden, and can’t compost it at high enough temperatures to destroy weed seeds, 40, don’t use it.
Get them when young
Walk around your yard daily — especially after a ground-softening rain — to spot any new intruders and remove them promptly before their roots are firmly established and their flowers have had a chance to set seed. Then, using a sharpened hoe, be like the Queen and yell “Off with your head!”
Use the right tool
There are plenty of weeding tools out there designed to simplify the task, but a simple knife can often do the trick of slicing weeds out of patio stones. One popular lawn weeding device makes use of a metal claw that grasps and expels dandelions and their taproots like a shotgun blast without having to get down on your knees — satisfaction guaranteed.
Mulch is the easiest and most effective way to control weeds in planting beds. When applied correctly, mulch prevents 90 per cent of unwanted seeds from germinating by depriving them of sunlight. If wayward weeds do manage to grow there, as they sometimes will, they are easy to pull out from the loose mulch layer.
Organic mulches — such as shredded cedar, pine or cypress bark or fallen leaves — help grow bigger and healthier plants, give landscapes a neat appearance and protect soil from water evaporation and temperature fluctuations (especially important in winter). Moreover, mulches can host valuable predatory insects such as ground beetles which devour thousands of weed seeds in addition to insect pest larvae like grubs and aphids. Just keep the mulch layer to no more than 5-7 cm (2–3 inches) thick or soil could suffocate.
Cover bare ground with plants
Non-invasive, ornamental groundcover plants provide a living mulch in flower beds or in areas where lawns don’t grow well, around mature trees and on slopes. There are plenty of deciduous and evergreen groundcovers to choose from, so know your site conditions and choose wisely.
Gardeners have a habit of tilling the soil before planting in it, but this practice can worsen a weed problem since it brings dormant weed seeds and chopped root systems to the soil surface where light and rainwater hasten their growth. Tilling also destroys soil structure and beneficial soil fungi so it’s no longer recommended. Instead, to alleviate compaction, spread organic matter on soil surface and let nature do the job for you or grow plants in raised beds filled with healthy soil.
A dense, healthy lawn is the best way to outcompete weeds from growing in it. Overseed it with clover and mow high, leaving grass clippings on the lawn for a nitrogen boost (grass clippings don’t cause thatch buildup). Corn gluten meal can prevent crabgrass seeds from developing in lawns, but timing the application is tricky and over seeding with grass seed must be postponed.
When all else fails
Despite our best efforts, troublesome weeds may call for more forceful control measures. Solarization uses the heat of the sun to ‘bake’ weeds to death under a plastic tarp for a month or two, a practice best left for planting sites overrun by stubborn weeds like coltsfoot. Other methods aim to weaken weeds, particularly in patios and walkways, by using a propane torch or boiling water to burn weed foliage or by spraying them with homemade vinegar and salt concoctions. Just be aware that such drastic measures also destroy soil life and should only be used as a last resort.
If you can’t beat them, eat them
Dandelion’s bright, yellow flowers feed pollinating insects early in the season. Their deep taproots aerate compacted soils, transporting plant nutrients to soil’s upper layers. Creeping Charlie, and so many other weeds have renowned remedial properties. White clover, wild violets, chickweed, plantain and purslane all make nutritious additions to salads. Even the dreaded dandelion is entirely edible. Weeds have value in landscapes or they would cease to exist.
Weeds may be a gardener’s nemesis, but don’t have to be with regular preventative maintenance and a little tolerance, which is also lot easier on our backs.
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com