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Weeding your garden

Learn what exactly needs to be done to protect your garden from weeds

Weeds - A gardeners least favorite visitor

Gardening Tips Beginner and ExpertA weed in a general sense is a plant that is considered by the user of the term to be a nuisance, and normally applied to unwanted plants in human-made settings such as gardens, lawns or agricultural areas, but also in parks, woods and other natural areas. More specifically, the term is often used to describe native or nonnative plants that grow and reproduce aggressively.

Weeds may be unwanted because they are unsightly, or they limit the growth of other plants by blocking light or using up nutrients from the soil. They also can harbor and spread plant pathogens that can infect and degrade the quality of crop or horticultural plants. Weeds may be a nuisance because they have thorns or prickles, cause skin irritation when contacted, or parts of the plants might come off and attach to fur or clothes.[top]

Definition of a Weed

The term weed in its general sense is a subjective one, without any classification value, since a "weed" is not a weed when growing where it belongs or is wanted. Indeed, a number of "weeds" have been used in gardens or other cultivated-plant settings. An example is the corncockle, Agrostemma, which was a common field weed exported from Europe along with wheat, but now sometimes grown as a garden plant.[top]

Weed Spreading and Distribution

Weedy plants generally share similar adaptations that give them advantages and allow them to proliferate in disturbed environments whose soil or natural vegetative cover has been damaged. Naturally occurring disturbed environments include dunes and other windswept areas with shifting soils, alluvial flood plains, river banks and deltas, and areas that are often burned. Since human agricultural practices often mimic these natural environments where weedy species have evolved, weeds have adapted to grow and proliferate in human-disturbed areas such as agricultural fields, lawns, roadsides, and construction sites.

The weedy nature of these species often gives them an advantage over more desirable crop species because they often grow quickly and reproduce quickly, have seeds that persist in the soil seed bank for many years, or have short lifespans with multiple generations in the same growing season. Perennial weeds often have underground stems that spread out under the soil surface or, like ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), have creeping stems that root and spread out over the ground. A number of weedy species have developed allelopathy, chemical means to prevent the germination or growth of neighboring plants.[top]

Weed's Relation to humans

As long as humans have cultivated plants, weeds have been a problem. Weeds have even been mentioned in religious and literature texts like the following quotes from Genesis and a Shakespearean sonnet:

"Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,"

"To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds: But why thy odour matcheth not thy show, The soil is this, that thou dost common grow."

Weed seeds are often collected and transported with crops after the harvesting of grains, and so many weed species have moved out of their natural geographic locations and have spread around the world with humans. (See Invasive species.) Not all weeds have the same ability to damage crops and horticultural plants. Some have been classified as noxious weeds because if left unchecked, they often dominate the environment where crop plants are to be grown. They are often foreign species mistakenly or accidentally imported into a region where there are few natural controls to limit their spread and population. Many weeds have ideal areas for growth and reproduction thanks to large areas of open soil created by the conversion of land to agriculture, and human distribution of food crops mixed with seeds of weeds from other parts of the world. Thus humans are the vector of transport and the producer of disturbed environments, so weedy species have an ideal association with humans.

A number of weeds, such as the dandelion Taraxacum, are edible, and their leaves and roots may be used for food or herbal medicine. Burdock is common weed over much of the world, and is sometimes used to make soup and other medicine in East Asia. These so-called "beneficial weeds" may have other beneficial effects, such as drawing away the attacks of crop-destroying insects, but often are breeding grounds for insects and pathogens that attack other plants. Dandelions are one of several species which break up hardpan in overly cultivated fields, helping crops grow deeper root systems. Some modern species of domesticated flower actually originated as weeds in cultivated fields and have been bred by people into garden plants for their flowers or foliage.[top]

Examples of Common Weeds

* Bindweed
* Broadleaf plantain - perennial, spreads by seeds that persist in the soil for many years
* Burdock - biennial
* Creeping Charlie - perennial, fast-spreading plants with long creeping stems
* Dandelion - perennial, wind-spread, fast-growing, and drought-tolerant
* Goldenrod - perennial
* Kudzu - perennial
* Leafy spurge - perennial, with underground stems
* Milk thistle - annual or biennial
* Poison ivy - perennial
* Ragweed - annual
* Sorrel - annual
* Sumac - woody perennial
* Wild carrot - biennial
* Wood sorrel - perennial

Weed Control

Weed control is the botanical component of pest control, stopping weeds from reaching a mature stage of growth when they could be harmful to domesticated plants and livestock by physical and chemical methods. In order to reduce weed growth, many "weed control" strategies have been developed in order to contain the growth and spread of weeds. The most basic is ploughing which cuts the roots of annual weeds. Today, chemical weed killers known as herbicides are widely used.[top]

The Effects of Weeds on Plants

Weeds can compete with productive crops or pasture, or convert productive land into unusable scrub. Weed are also often poisonous, distasteful, produce burrs, thorns or other damaging body parts or otherwise interfere with the use and management of desirable plants by contaminating harvests or excluding livestock.

Weeds tend to thrive at the expense of the more refined edible or ornamental crops. They provide competition for space, nutrients, water and light, although how seriously they will affect a crop depends on a number of factors. Some crops have greater resistance than others- smaller, slower growing seedlings are more likely to be overwhelmed than those that are larger and more vigorous. Onions are one of the crops most susceptible to competition, for they are slow to germinate and produce slender, upright stems. Quick growing, broad leafed weeds therefore have a distinct advantage, and if not removed, the crop is likely to be lost. Broad beans however produce large seedlings, and will suffer far less profound effects of weed competition other than during periods of water shortage at the crucial time when the pods are filling out. Transplanted crops raised in sterile seed or potting compost will have a head start over germinating weed seeds.

Weeds also differ in their competitive abilities, and can vary according to conditions and the time of year. Tall growing vigorous weeds such as fat hen (Chenopodium album) can have the most pronounced effects on adjacent crops, although seedlings of fat hen that appear in late summer will only produce small plants. Chickweed (Stellaria media), a low growing plant, can happily co-exist with a tall crop during the summer, but plants that have overwintered will grow rapidly in early spring and may swamp crops such as onions or spring greens.

The presence of weeds does not necessarily mean that they are competing with a crop, especially during the early stages of growth when each plant can find the resources it requires without interfering with the others. However, as the seedlings’ size increases, their root systems will spread as they each begin to require greater amounts of water and nutrients. Estimates suggest that weed and crop can co-exist harmoniously for around three weeks, therefore it is important that weeds are removed early on in order to prevent competition occurring. Weed competition can have quite dramatic effects on crop growth. Harold A Roberts cites research carried out with onions wherein "Weeds were carefully removed from separate plots at different times during the growth of the crop and the plots were then kept clean. It was found that after competition had started, the final yield of bulbs was being reduced at a rate equivalent to almost 4% per day. So that by delaying weeding for another fortnight, the yield was cut to less than half that produced on ground kept clean all the time." (The Complete Know And Grow Vegetables, Bleasdale, Salter and others, OUP 1991). He goes on to record that "by early June, the weight of weeds per unit area was twenty times that of the crop, and the weeds had already taken from the soil about half of the nitrogen and a third of the potash which had been applied".

Perennial weeds with bulbils, such as lesser celandine and oxalis, or with persistent underground stems such as couch grass (Agropyron repens) or creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) are able to store reserves of food, and are thus able to grow faster and with more vigour than their annual counterparts. There is also evidence that the roots of some perennials such as couch grass exude allelopathic chemicals which inhibit the growth of other nearby plants.

Weeds can also host pests and diseases that can spread to cultivated crops. Charlock and Shepherd’s purse may carry clubroot, eelworm can be harboured by chickweed, fat hen and shepherd’s purse, while the cucumber mosaic virus, which can devastate the cucurbit family, is carried by a range of different weeds including chickweed and groundsel.

However, at times the role of weeds in this respect can be over-rated. As far as insect pests are concerned, often the species that live on weeds are not the same as those that attack vegetable crops; "Tests with the common cruciferous weeds such as shepherds purse have shown that they do not act as hosts for the larvae of the cabbage root fly. One exception was found to be the wild radish, but this is not usually a weed of established vegetable gardens" (Roberts, The Complete Know And Grow Vegetables). However pests such as cutworms may first attack weeds then move on to cultivated crops.

While charlock, a common weed in southeastern USA, may be considered a weed by row crop growers, it is highly valued by beekeepers, who seek out places where it blooms all winter, thus providing pollen for honeybees and other pollinators. Its bloom is resistant to all but a very hard freeze, and even that will only kill it back briefly. By feeding an array of pollinators during a seasonal dearth, it can redound to the farmer's advantage. Many weeds are likewise highly beneficial to pollinators.[top]

Methods of Controlling Weeds

In domestic gardens, methods of weed control include covering an area of ground with several layers of wet newspaper or one black plastic sheet for several weeks. In the case of using wet newspaper, the multiple layers prevent light from reaching all plants beneath, which kills them. Saturating the newspaper with water daily speeds the decomposition of the dead plants. Any weed seeds that start to sprout because of the water will also be deprived of sunlight, be killed, and decompose. After several weeks, all germinating weed seeds present in the ground should be dead. Then the newspaper can be removed and the ground can be planted. The decomposed plants will help fertilize the plants or seeds planted later.

In the case of using the black plastic sheet, the greenhouse effect is used to kill the plants beneath the sheet. A 5-10 cm layer of wood chip mulch on the ground will also prevent most weeds from sprouting. Also, gravel can be spread over the ground as an inorganic mulch. In agriculture, irrigation is sometimes used as a weed control measure such as in the case of paddy fields. Many people find that although the black plastic sheeting is extreemly effective at preventing the weeds in areas where it covers, in actual use it is difficult to achieve full coverage. Weeds are removed manually in large parts of India. Weeds are removed manually in large parts of India.

Knowing how weeds reproduce, spread and survive adverse conditions can help in developing effective control and management strategies. Weeds have a range of techniques that enable them to thrive;

Annual and biennial weeds such as chickweed, annual meadow grass, shepherd’s purse, groundsel, fat hen, cleaver, speedwell and hairy bittercress propagate themselves by seeding. Many produce huge numbers of seed several times a season, some all year round. Groundsel can produce 1000 seed, and can continue right through a mild winter, whilst scentless mayweed produces over 30,000 seeds per plant. Not all of these will germinate at once, but over several seasons, lying dormant in the soil sometimes for years until exposed to light. Poppy seed can survive 80-100 years, dock 50 or more. There can be many thousands of seeds in a square foot or square metre of ground, thus and soil disturbance will produce a flush of fresh weed seedlings.[top]

"Stale seed bed" Weeding Technique

One technique employed by growers is the ‘stale seed bed’, which involves cultivating the soil, then leaving it for a week or so. When the initial flush of weeds has germinated, the grower will lightly hoe off before the desired crop is planted. However, even a freshly cleared bed will be susceptible to airborne seed from elsewhere, as well as seed brought in by passing animals which can carry them on their fur, or from freshly imported manure. The organic solution to the problem of spreading annual weeds lies in regular, properly timed weeding, preferably just before flowering (fortuitously, this is also the time at which they will be of the most value in the compost heap). This technique is also quite often used by farmers who let weeds germinate then return the soil before crop sowing.

Perennial weeds also propagate by seeding; the airborne seed of the dandelion and the rose-bay willow herb are parachuted far and wide. But they also have an additional range of vegetative means of spreading that gives them their pernicious reputation. Dandelion and dock put down deep tap roots, which, although they do not spread underground, are able to regrow from any remaining piece left in the ground. Removal of the complete tap root is the only sure remedy.

The most persistent of the perennials are those that spread by underground creeping rhizomes that can regrow from the tiniest fragment. These include couch grass, bindweed, ground elder, nettles, rosebay willow herb, Japanese knotweed, horsetail and bracken, as well as creeping thistle, whose tap roots can put out lateral roots. Other perennials put out runners that spread along the soil surface. As they creep along they set down roots, enabling them to colonise bare ground with great rapidity. These include creeping buttercup and ground ivy. Yet another group of perennials propagate by stolons- stems that arch back into the ground to reroot. Most familiar of these is the bramble.

All of the above weeds can be very difficult to eradicate- thick black plastic mulches can be effective to a degree, although will probably need to be left in place for at least two seasons. In addition, hoeing off weed leaves and stems as soon as they appear can eventually weaken and kill the plants, although this will require persistence in the case of plants such as bindweed. Nettle infestations can be tackled by cutting back at least three times a year, repeated over a three year period. Bramble can be dealt with in a similar way. Some plants are said to produce root exudates that suppress herbaceous weeds. Tagetes minuata is claimed to be effective against couch and ground elder, whilst a border of comfrey is also said to act as a barrier against the invasion of some weeds including couch.[top]


Ploughing includes tilling of soil, intercultural ploughing and summer ploughing. Ploughing through tilling of soil uproots the weeds which causes them to die. In summer ploughing is done during deep summers. Summer ploughing also helps in killing pests.[top]

Use of Herbicides to Control Weeds

The above described methods of weed control avoid using chemicals. They are often used by farmers. However, these methods may damage a fragile soil by destructuring it, hence are not always used. They are those preferred by the organic gardener or organic farmer. However weed control can also be achieved by the use of herbicides. Selective herbicides kill certain targets while leaving the desired crop relatively unharmed. Some of these act by interfering with the growth of the weed and are often based on plant hormones. Herbicides are generally classified as follows;

* Contact herbicides destroy only that plant tissue in contact with the chemical spray. Generally, these are the fastest acting herbicides. They are ineffective on perennial plants that are able to re-grow from roots or tubers.

* Systemic herbicides are foliar-applied and are translocated through the plant and destroy a greater amount of the plant tissue. Modern herbicides such as glyphosate are designed to leave no harmful residue in the soil.

* Soil-borne herbicides are applied to the soil and are taken up by the roots of the target plant.

* Pre-emergent herbicides are applied to the soil and prevent germination or early growth of weed seeds.

In agriculture large scale and systematic weeding is usually required, often by machines, such as liquid herbicide sprayers, or even by helicopter (such as in the USA), to eliminate the massive amount of weeds present on farming lands.

However there are a number of techniques that the organic farmer can employ such as mulching and carefully timed cutting of weeds before they are able to set seed.[top]

Organic Methods of Weeding

Typically a combination of methods are used in organic situations.

* Drip irrigation: Rubber hoses and other methods are used to bring water directly to the roots of the desired plants. This limits weed access to water.

* Manually pulling weeds: Laborers are used to pull weeds at various points in the growing process.

* Mechanically tilling around plants: Tractors are used to carefully till weeds around the crop plants at various points in the growing process. [top]