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Why Pull Weeds? 11 Reasons to Weed Your Garden

Pulling weeds can be a pain. Literally. (And if you’re dealing with thistle, it’s more than a pain, it’s a nightmare.) It’s a drain on your time and energy. Is it even worth it to pull weeds?

I’m seeing more and more folks embrace a “permaculture” perspective on garden weeds. After all, weeds can be useful. Chickweed, plantain, purslane, dandelion, lamb’s quarter, and more are used for food and medicine. Why not leave them to grow up alongside your garden crops and increase the bounty? Why bother to pull weeds at all?

I’ll admit it. It’s a very tempting solution to a continuous garden problem!

In the end, I’m going to pull the weeds in my garden despite perceived benefits. I have 11 good reasons why we should pull weeds.

Check out this clip of my all-time favorite weeding tool!

Why Pull Weeds? 11 Reasons to Weed Your Garden

Weeds Compete with Your Food

Imagine we’re all sitting around the dining room table, about to enjoy a really great home cooked meal together. The food is warm and the fellowship even warmer. Everything looks bright, fresh, and delicious. It’s looking like you’re going to bed with a full belly tonight! And then some uninvited guests show up. They smelled the good food wafting in their window. They know you’re of a hospitable nature and won’t turn them away from a meal. Oh, and they brought their extended family with them. Forget your full belly, now you’re wondering if there is going to be enough food to go around. Rightly so because the pickings are slim, food isn’t just going to multiply with the guests.

This is a lot what it’s like when weeds show up in your garden. The soil is full of nutrients for the plants to use along with the sun and rain to grow. It’s a smorgasbord. But the soil biology can only transport them so far. Every plant has to share their meal with their neighbors. The fewer neighbors that show up, the more nourishment there is for the plants. Which will, in turn, mean healthier, more nutrient-dense produce on your table, for your family. (And your guests.)

This is also exactly why you need to be careful when growing your vegetables intensively in small spaces. If you need to be intentional about growing crops too close together, how much more so when we’re talking about uninvited crops?

When you allow weeds to grow up alongside your vegetables they compete with your food for food and your cultivated plants won’t be as productive and nutritious as they could be.

Weeds Block Out Sunlight and Steal Water

Not only do weeds compete with your crops for nutrients in the soil, but they compete for sunlight and water as well.

It’s no secret that weeds seem to grow more aggressively than the plants you carefully tucked into the soil. When weeds grow faster than your vegetables, they begin to block out the sun that your garden plants need to thrive.

Weeds can also create micro-climates that cause your plants to be too cool in the mornings and evenings, or in the early & late season. While this technique can be used to your advantage when planning your garden layout, being intentional about it is different than allowing it to happen where you didn’t necessarily want it to.

The precious resource of water, so beneficial to the growth of your garden, just like the nutrients in the soil has limited availability and what the weeds “drink” leaves less water available for the plants you’ve cultivated.

Weeds Crowd Out Your Crops Space

Each plant that grows in your garden, whether weed or crop, has a root zone. It’s like its personal space and they don’t take kindly to having their personal space invaded. When the root zone of one plant shares space with another plant the plants become stressed, unhealthy and susceptible to pressures from pests and diseases. The root zone of a tomato plant can grow to over 5 feet! In our heavy clay soils when those roots run out of room to go down easily, they begin to go out. In that 5 square feet around a tomato plant, I often have other tomato plants, maybe some undersown greens as well. If we don’t pull weeds and they are allowed to flourish, they are not only competing for real estate above the soil but below it as well.

Weeds Hide Your Crop

For some vegetables we grow, like summer squash, it’s difficult to find the crop buried under the leaves. When you allow the weeds to grow up, the problem is multiplied and your harvest may be buried under the weeds that have been allowed to grow up.

Of course, that’s if they grew in the first place.

Weeds will crowd out garden fruits from your view, block their flowers from the sight and scent of the pollinators that cause fruit to set or other beneficial insects that might have been attracted to your garden. If the weeds are too abundant and attractive to pollinators, they could actually curb the pollination of the cultivated crops because the pollinators have an adequate food source in the flowering weeds.

Weeds Camouflage Pests and Disease

Weeds hide your precious crop when you are making your harvest. But they could also be hiding the symptoms of pests and diseases that will stress the plants and decrease the yields. Through quick identification and action, many of these problems could be nipped in the bud before they become a larger problem.

When dealing with squash bugs in the garden for example your best offense is the quick identification and elimination before eggs ever get a chance to hatch. I have a cheap and easy trick for killing squash bugs that would never work if the zucchini or cucumbers or pumpkins were growing in a jungle of weeds.

Pulling Weeds Gives You a Reason to Be in Your Garden

Between the sowing season in early spring and the beginnings of the harvest weeks later, a nonchalant weeding plan doesn’t give you much of an excuse to be in the garden. This is a critical time that you could be missing out on cues of problems with your plants. When you pull weeds it gives you a chance to study and make mental notes of what is going on with the life in your garden. You can observe successes, catch potential failures, learn to identify pests or beneficial insects, and cultivate your best garden.

Weeds Can Create a Habitat for Pests to Overwinter

If weeds are left to overwinter in the garden, many pests will make that habitat their home during the cold winter months. That shelter is great news for them. They won’t have to look far when searching for their favorite host plants in the spring. But it’s bad news for you because such a pest-friendly environment spells disaster for your next year’s garden. Nothing like setting yourself up for failure.

Crop Diseases

Weeds can carry diseases that can be passed from the weed to your crops by insects feeding first on the weeds, particularly by insects that feed by sucking plant juices such as aphids. ¹

Weeds May Contain Allelopathic Compounds

Certain weeds, such as lamb’s quarter, thistle, and pigweed may contain allelopathic compounds. They can create a zone of infertility around their roots. This is so they can take full advantage of the sun, water, and nutrients that the space they are occupying has to offer. Or they can inhibit germination of the seeds altogether and create an inhospitable environment for growth. (This is one of the reasons why some cover crops work so well.) Infertility may impact this season or the next….which is one reason why crop rotation in the garden is important- some crops, such as brassicas, have allelopathic actions on successive crops planted in the same space. ² ³

Weeds Are a Problem That Will Only Get Worse

Several successions of weeds can grow to maturity and go to seed before your garden is through producing in the fall. One plant of lambs quarter can have over 75,000 seeds! Chickweed averages 25,000 seeds per plant which makes thistle seem like no problem at all with “only” 2,000 seeds. (The thought of 2,000 more thistles in the garden makes me want to cry.) Each dandelion flower is capable of producing 150-200 more dandelion plants. How many seeds did you drop from the packet into the soil this year? You do the math. Let your weeds go and you don’t stand a chance.

.There are many incredibly useful and beneficial weeds for food, ground cover, pollinator attractants, and more. But the trouble is that most of those weeds aren’t easy to identify as seedlings. That happens to be the easiest and best time to pull weeds. Unchecked, the weeds we could use for food and medicine could end up causing more garden problems than they’re worth.

It Can Be Therapeutic to Pull Weeds

At least for me, it is. Total introvert here and when I pull weeds it gives me some meditative, yet productive, alone time. Or a chance to catch up on my favorite podcasts while making my garden a more beautiful space! Because nobody’s volunteering to lend a hand. If a chatty kid hangs out too long all I’ve got to do is suggest they might as well help out while they’re talking and, well, that ends that.

WINNING THE WAR ON WEEDS

Tackling the weeds in your landscape is a long game. Our long cold winters and short summers seem to make them even tougher here in Indianapolis . The best strategy to win this war is knowledge, persistence, and the right weapons.

The first thing to know is that healthy soil produces fewer weeds than soil depleted of nutrients and organic matter. That’s because the natural purpose of most weeds is to improve the soil. Grasses prevent erosion with their tiny root hairs. Taproots, like dandelions, break up hard compacted soil. Most weeds also sequester carbon, which is good for the soil. Weeds with deep roots also absorb nutrients from deep down, then release those nutrients onto the surface when they die.

WEAPONS OF WEED DESTRUCTION

IMPROVE THE SOIL

If your garden and flower beds are running rampant with weeds every year, your soil may be overrun with weed seeds. If you’re composting , spread a thick layer of compost over your beds every fall to reduce the volume of seeds in your topsoil. Make sure to never put weeds in your composter! If you don’t have a compost system in place, you can purchase weed-free soil from our garden center.

SMOTHER THEM

One of the best ways to suppress weeds is with bark mulch. After pulling out the existing weeds, cover the area with 2-3 inches of mulch to prevent them from growing back. If you’ve got a particularly aggressive weed problem, you can add a layer of newspaper under your mulch layer. But—and there’s always a “but”—mulch has to be topped up every year or two. And, since the wood chips break down into the soil over time, you may eventually get some weeds popping up in your mulch. Prevent this by adding plants that can out-compete your weeds. Some ground cover plants do an excellent job of choking weeds out.

UPROOT THEM

If you stay vigilant and find these weeds when they’re small, the roots should be quite shallow in the loose mulch. You should be able to pull their entire roots out right away and keep them from spreading.

CHOP OFF THEIR HEADS

At the height of the season in Indianapolis , weeds tend to grow faster than we can get to them. If you don’t have time to tackle weeds when you first see them, make sure you clip or pull off the tops of them before they go to seed. A weed that has gone to seed means you’ll be battling those weeds for years to come.

DIG DEEP

If you find them growing around the edges of mulch or in garden beds, you’ll need to dig deep to extract the whole root. Be careful, however—you don’t want to disturb the soil too much, as that encourages more weeds to grow. The ideal weeder tool for removing deep roots has a long narrow shaft with sharp prongs at the end. This tool should allow you to loosen the root way down at the bottom and remove the whole thing without disturbing the soil too much.

GET THEM WHEN THEIR DEFENCES ARE WEAKEST

When the soil is soft from rainfall or the sprinkler, it’ll be much easier to get out weeds with deep roots.

When they’re just coming up in the spring, wait for a hot and dry day, then hoe that first layer of soil when they’re still small, chopping them off just below the surface.

BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS

If your weeds are out of control, you might need to go after them with chemicals. Some weeds can be resistant to certain types of weedkillers. If you’re not sure what to use, ask the experts at our garden center in Indianapolis . We can help you identify which weedkiller will work for your types of weeds.

DISPOSE OF THE BODIES

Always dispose of pulled weeds properly in yard waste bags to prevent the weeds and seeds from taking root again in your yard.

The main thing to remember is to be persistent. Tackling your weeds may seem like a never-ending battle. But, if you can stay on top of it, you’ll see a gradual improvement year over year.

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Tackle weeds first; then plant your spring flowers

Clear out unwanted foliage so it doesn’t compete with your garden’s growth

April showers bring May flowers — and weeds, lots of weeds.

A weed is defined by the Weed Science Society of America as, “Any plant that is objectionable or interferes with activities or welfare of mankind.” It isn’t just a thistle, foxtail or crabgrass you recognize immediately as unwanted and pluck it out. A majestic oak on the edge of your property can be an integral part of your landscaping. An acorn sprouting up in the middle of your roses is a weed.

The most effective and economical way to approach a weed problem is to plan ahead and take steps to prevent an infestation before it overwhelms the perfectly planned landscape. Spring planting time is upon us, and now is the time to think, not just about those beautiful summer blooms, but how to minimize weeds. Successful weed management should begin before new plants are set into the landscaping. Developing a weed management plan is as important as the landscape design itself.

A site assessment is the first step. Before preparing the planting area and while weeds are visible, evaluate the soil and slope to anticipate where problems might occur. Make adjustments based on what you see. Is there a drainage issue that might move weed seeds during runoff? Is there compaction that won’t support your prized petunia but is a perfect harbor for a weed seed to grow? Full-sun plants won’t flourish in the shade, but some weeds will. Does water pool in a low spot rather than infiltrating evenly? All of these problems should be corrected before you begin site preparation.

Site preparation begins with the removal of existing weeds. The weeds must be controlled before the area is planted or you will be nurturing not only the landscape plants but the weed seeds hidden and waiting for their moment to emerge. Hand pulling stubborn perennials and larger annual grasses will help. However, hand pulling is an important practice but will not completely address the problem.

Any effort to eliminate weeds in the planting area requires an integrated approach, using a variety of weed control methods. If hand weeding and hoeing do not provide a satisfactory level of control, a non-selective translocated herbicide, where the active ingredient moves from the blades and leaves to the roots, can be used on the remaining annual grasses and broadleaf perennials. Non-selective contact herbicides (synthetic or organic) are also effective in controlling young annuals. Once those first weeds have been managed, more will soon appear. Shallow cultivation of these young annuals, scraping the top 1 inch or less of soil with a shovel or hoe, will remove these. Immediately water the area after initial scraping to encourage those last remaining weed seeds to sprout. When the last weeds appear, repeat the shallow cultivation.

When selecting plants, don’t accidentally bring in weeds. Check your potted plants for weeds sprouting from the surface. Annual weeds removed by hand will be gone, but perennial weeds may cause a recurring long-term problem and will probably necessitate an herbicide treatment.

Some perennial weeds are highly invasive and should be avoided at all costs. The nutsedges, yellow and purple, which propagate underground, and field bindweed, which can sink its roots down to 9 feet, can only be controlled chemically or with years of non-chemical methods.

Keep your equipment and garden tools clean. Cleaning mowers, trimmers, hand tools and large garden implements will help reduce the introduction of new weeds. Soil amendments and potting mix can sometimes introduce weed seeds. Using only amendments certified by the U.S. Composting Council (compostingcouncil.org/seal-of-testing-assurance) will ensure a weed-free product.

Appropriate plant selection can make it easier to manage weeds after planting. Woody plants, especially once they are established, are more tolerant of close cultivation. Herbaceous plants, including annuals, will require hand pulling of weeds. The use of borders will discourage weed growth into your planting bed.

Employ the right irrigation method when setting up your landscape design. Drip or subsurface irrigation target the plants drip line and will put the water where it is most needed. The overspray of sprinklers will moisten areas away from the plant and encourage weeds to grow in empty spaces.

Get new plants established and growing as quickly as possible so that they can become competitive with the weeds. Consult a trusted source, such as the Master Gardener Hotline, (858)-822-6910, to learn about plant culture, fertilizing and irrigation schedules. Pay attention to the information on the nursery tag, especially with regard to light exposure. Adhere to the old garden adage, “The right plant for the right place.”

And mulch! Mulches suppress annual weeds by limiting the light required for them to establish themselves. Typically, mulch should be applied to a minimum depth of 2 inches. Three to 4 inches is often used because as mulch decomposes, the depth is reduced and weeds may begin to grow through it. Replenish the mulch as it decomposes. The larger the particle used, the deeper the layer required to be effective. A porous underlayment (plastic or fabric) can be used to further suppress any weed seeds left after site preparation. After a period of rain, some weeds will appear on top of the mulch layer, but those can easily be removed with hand pulling.

Weeding does not have to be a full-time job if a management plan is implemented in the early stages of design. Then, when those April showers do arrive, there will be the reward of bright flowers and colorful foliage instead of the dread of hours of weeding to separate those valued plants from those unwanted invaders.

Harrelson has been a Master Gardener since 2012. He is currently the vice president of communications and writes on gardening for the association’s many print and social media platforms.