Every gardener’s worst nightmare is a garden overrun with weeds.
Keeping weeds under control is one of the most hated of all garden chores, but it is one that needs to be done very regularly, particularly at the height of the growing season.
Eliminating weeds altogether is always going to be impossible but there are ways to reduce weeds, without spending every spare minute out in the garden.
What exactly is a weed?
No one species of plant is a weed; the most accepted definition is that a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it. So, to some people, self-seeded poppies are lovely, but to others they are just a weed.
Why keep weeds under control?
Most people with a garden, even an informal wildflower garden, prefer to control the types of plants they grow. This means that dandelions, thistles, nettles and bindweed are all seen as the enemy.
If you are growing new shrubs, summer annuals or vegetables, clearing the weeds prevents them from taking over the light, nutrients and space of what you are trying to grow, allowing them to grow faster and to produce more flowers, fruit or food for the table.
Keeping weeds down in your lawn
Most people with families don’t have a perfect lawn but when it starts to look more like a field than a lawn, action is needed. Garden centres all sell different preparations known as ‘weed and feed’ that contain a weed killer and a fertiliser.
If you are a purely organic gardener, you will not want to use them but they are effective and only need one or two applications each year to keep your lawn free of dandelions, clover and other broad-leaved weeds.
Dandelions can also be removed by hand, filling in the hold with new soil and some grass seed.
Hand weeding, hoeing and borders
Hand weeding and hoeing is of the best way to keep weeds under control in a flower bed, border or vegetable patch.
It is important to start with a well prepared bed (see below) and to start your weeding programme in spring, as soon as the weeds start to appear.
Once a week is fine to start with, but perhaps twice a week may be necessary in mid-summer.
Begin with the hoe and use it to gently chip away at the new growth of weeds that you can see. Move across the ground systematically, avoiding your young plants, and leave the weeds lying there.
You can leave it at that, or you can do a more thorough job by getting down on hands and knees and removing all weed debris and stray weeds.
Preparing a growing bed to avoid weeds
Seeds are carried around on the wind all the time, so it’s impossible to stop new weeds growing altogether. If you prepare your bed properly though, your weeding chores will be a lot less difficult:
- Prepare the soil. Remove all visible weeds in the autumn/winter when the ground is soft enough to disturb. After removing all obvious plants, use a hoe to break up the soil to expose any weed roots that are left in the ground. Turn over the soil with a fork or spade so that it is well broken up. Repeat this process after a week or so, several times. This will help to reduce the roots remaining in the soil that will burst into life in spring.
- Use a good mulch. Covering the cleared ground with a thick mulch is also good preparation, and can also be done around well-established plants. Some people suggest putting newspaper, several sheets of it, over the soil and then putting chipped bark or some other mulch thickly on top. This cuts out the light from the soil and provides a physical barrier that stops weeds coming up. You will still get some seeded weeds but the hoeing and hand weeding technique will deal with these easily.
- Use a weed membrane. Membranes that allow the soil to breathe but provide a more permanent base for a mulch can also keep weeds coming up from the ground. This does work out more expensive, as you need to buy the mulch and the membrane, but it allows you to feed your shrubs and other plants while denying the weeds the nutrients they need.
Opting for a low-maintenance garden
If you really hate weeding and want a garden that is ultra-low maintenance, you could opt for some hard landscaping and a Japanese-type garden.
By replacing traditional borders and lawn with paved areas, a couple of feature trees and grasses, some ornamental pots and gravel over a thick weed membrane, you can create a lovely outside space for relaxing in that needs only a few minute attention each week.