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Managing Weeds in the Garden

No matter the weather, weeds seem to thrive and reproduce, and if left unchecked, they can overwhelm the garden and gardener. These unwanted plants find their way into your garden as seeds, roots, rhizomes, or whole plants. Seeds can be carried in by the wind, birds, and other animals or on the soles of shoes. Roots, rhizomes, and even plants hitch a ride in the soil or with plants that we move into the garden.

Start early managing weeds in your garden. Smaller weeds are easier to pull and removing them before they flower and form seeds can prevent hundreds of weeds in next year’s landscape.

This is not always possible. Weather and busy schedules often limit gardening time, allowing these vigorous plants to overtake the garden.

It is never too late to invest time in managing weeds in the garden. Weeds are adaptable and vigorous, outcompeting desirable plants for water and nutrients. Many serve as host plants for insect pests and diseases that may also attack garden plants.

Carefully dig or pull weeds, removing the top and roots. Established weeds may have a deep tap root or extensive root system that may be difficult to remove. Depending on the weed, any part left behind has the potential to start a new plant.

Find the tool that best works for you. A Dutch or action hoe works well on small weeds where there is space between plants. Glide the cutting edge just below the soil surface to cut the roots. Many gardeners find a weed knife to be a useful tool. It allows you to dig right next to the weed and pop it out of the ground with minimal impact on surrounding plants.

If bending is an issue, you may opt for one of the standup weeders. There are several types available. Most have tines you insert into the soil surrounding the weed. A hand or foot-operated action causes the tines to tighten around the weed roots before you lever it out of the ground.

Perennial weeds are a bit more challenging. Many have extensive roots that are nearly impossible to remove entirely.  Repeatedly digging up the plants can eventually manage these weeds, but it can take years. Cutting the plants back to the ground as soon as they appear can help “starve” them, prevent reseeding, and help contain and even eliminate some perennial weeds.

If the weeds begin to take over the garden, tackle those flowering or setting seeds first.  Do not compost these or perennial weeds.  Most compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill the seeds or perennial weeds.  Contact your local municipality to find out your options for disposing of these as well as perennial and invasive weeds.

Once the weeds are out of the garden, spread a layer of organic mulch over the soil surface. The finer the mulch, the thinner the layer needed. Pull the mulch away from tree trunks, shrub stems, and the crowns of your other plants.

Mulching helps suppress weeds by reducing seed sprouting and making it easier to pull the seedlings that get through the mulch. To increase your success, place a couple of sheets of newspaper or a piece of cardboard beneath the mulch. Mulching won’t stop existing perennial weeds like quackgrass and bindweed. Keep managing these until all the roots have been removed.  

Shredded leaves, evergreen needles, and other organic mulch also conserve moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and add organic matter to the soil as it breaks down. Mulch also helps protect the soil from compaction and erosion during heavy rains. As many places experience more intense rainfall and higher-than-normal summer heat, mulching the soil becomes even more beneficial.

Consider the benefits when you head out to tackle the weeds in your garden. You will improve the health and beauty of your garden while burning between 200 and 400 calories every hour you weed.

Melinda Myers has written over 20 gardening books, including Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” instant video and DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Myers’ website is

Melinda Myers
Melinda Myers
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including the recently released Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD and instant video series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Suntory Flowers for her expertise in writing this article. Myers’ website is
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