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How to Clear a Garden Full of Weeds

November 07, 2022
How to Clear a Garden Full of Weeds

Facing a few weeds is a little annoying, but facing a garden full of them is a demoralizing headache. If you have ever wanted to know how to clear a garden full of weeds (and never let it get to that stage again) then you need to know the go-to strategies and techniques to re-gain control of your space!

What is a weed?

There are many definitions of a weed out there, and many of which are rather unhelpful. I like the definition that a weed is a plant growing where it isn’t supposed to grow. For example, lets say you have a bed of asparagus and now a load of dandelions, nettles, and grass have also found home in that bed; these aren’t supposed to be there, therefore they are a weed. Another example could be a volunteer tomato plant springing up in a raised bed that grew tomatoes ast year, yes it is a crop but chances are you don’t want a tomato plant there this year, therefore it’s a weed. 

Whilst most weeds are annoying, most offer a huge benefit to the local wildlife; for example dandelions are vital early forage for bees when there aren't many flowers about. This is why I allow the dandelions that are growing along paths and on the lawn to flower to help wildlife, even though the seeds may cause some issues later down the line if they land in my growing beds. I am more than happy to do a little extra weeding in return for benefiting my local pollinators, although I really haven't seen a difference in weed pressure from letting extra dandelions flower and seed nearby. 

Why do weeds grow?

Weeds are a natural phenomenon; they are natures response to healing damaged soil. Soil should never be bare or damaged, if it is then it can cause erosion. Fortunately this empty soil is the ideal environment for fast growing plants to appear due to the bare ground having no other species to compete against. These fast growing plants add nutrition to the soil and reduce erosion due to the plant roots binding the soil together, and the leaves lessening the impact of rain and winds. Weeds may be annoying, but we can at least respect them for trying to do the right thing

Image: Annual and biannual weeds like the ones pictured above grow quickly to protect bare soil from erosion.

A weeding strategy

Often I am guilty of over-exaggerating how much work is realistically needed. The first step is to have a wonder around your weedy patch and asses what challenge you actually face. Make note of the worst affected areas in particular, as well as spaces that can offer quick wins that don't need much weeding but doing so may ease you into the more serious areas. Use this recon mission to formalise a strategy for dealing with the weed issue head-on. Before going any further, it is vital that you understand that there are many ways to deal with weeds, and the following methods are particularly effective:

Cover and Leave

If your garden is currently in its off-season, such as a vegetable garden in late autumn, and you have loads of weeds  on some ground and no other plants of significance then you are in luck. This is because the easiest way to deal with weeds is to cover them with a thick mulch material that you leave on top for 3-4 months. Over time, the mulch will exclude light to the weeds causing them to eventually die and decay. Once this has happened and you lift up the mulch a few months later, you will have weed-free bare soil ready for action! I usually like to combine two tasks in on, by applying a layer of compost over the bed to feed the soil over winter, and then cover with a light-blocking mulch.

My go-to mulch for this purpose is cardboard. Not only is it free and readily available almost anywhere, it is also allows the soil to breathe unlike a thick plastic mulch (unless it’s a woven landscape fabric which instead gives you different problems like microplastics). For maximum effectiveness, apply at least 3 layers of cardboard on the ground and then cover with some heavy objects such as wooden posts or bricks to stop it from blowing away. 

This mulch method is also great for when you feel like you have too much on and you can’t keep up with your garden for whatever reason. Rather than abandoning the garden, you can put some areas into a dormancy stage by laying cardboard over the top to keep the soil weed-free and healthy and then when you do feel like you have more time to manage the space you remove the cardboard and plant immediately.

Marginal Gains

The next technique is rather than focusing on the whole area of the garden to weed, split the area in question into smaller chunks and only focus on weeding one at a time. This will greatly reduce the overwhelm of the entire task because you are instead celebrating the quicker wins as you start weeding section by section. When I have lots of motivation and energy I will tackle the tougher sections, whilst if I am tired I will instead focus on a simpler area. Energy matching between mindset and task is a hugely valuable awareness skill to harness.

How to clear the weeds

My go-to tools are a handfork, my hands, and when things really get serious - a long handled fork! The goals when weeding are to disturb the soil only as much as you need to, remove as much root of the weed as you can, and to do it before the weed starts flowering and spreading seeds everywhere. Whenever you do remove a weed, make sure you give it a really good shake to release as much soil back to the bed as possible. Another tip is to avoid walking over newly weeded ground, so if you are focusing on a large section, work backwards so you don’t further disrupt the newly weeded areas.

Image: My hands are always my favourite weeding tool, and allow me to to quickly grab small weeds before they become too big of a nuisance.

Little and often

Once you have clear ground, or the clear ground has been newly planted your work doesn’t stop there! Now the focus shifts on maintaining a relatively weed-free plot. The tool for this is your hands; whenever you see a weed pop up in a tidy bed, pick it out right away. If you get a bit occupied for a few days with life and you feel like pulling out all the new weeds by hand is mission impossible it’s time to turn to using a hoe. There are many types of hoe, in fact it can be rather overwhelming with so many options, but there are three that meet the vast majority of my needs. Firstly is the Gardena push-pull hoe, then an oscillating hoe, and a Japanese hand hoe. All offer plenty of freedom, control, and most importantly maximum effectiveness when weeding.

If you are new to hoeing weeds, the optimum time of day to do it is when it’s the sunniest or the windiest. Both conditions will quickly dry out weeds as the key benefit of hoeing is you chop all the weeds down but leave them on the surface of the soil to shrivel up and then decompose. Hoeing weeds in the rain may simply allow the weeds to grow back. If you are a fair-weather gardener, it is even more of an excuse to wait for the sunniest day to do your weeding. 

There is of course the option to mulch newly weeded ground with a variety of different materials. You could opt for grass clippings or wool for example, or invest in profiessional growing grade resources like biodegradable landscape fabric made from starch. This method smothers weeds trying to germinate and grow through, however isn't suitable for gardens that have high slug populations as slugs love to hide under all kinds of mulches.

Image: Kale mulched with wool from wool packaging. 

Taken on too much?

If you have a large allotment or garden where you are struggling to keep up with everything do not despair for there are two dead simple methods you can implement to reduce the pressure. The first step for both methods is to know how much space you realistically can manage, and set that to one side. For the rest of the space you have two options, the first is to bulk plant one or two staple crops that will allow you to still gain a substantial harvest but massively lessen the maintenance and tlc needed. My go-to staple crops are potatoes, pumpkins, onions, and leeks. You will probably end up growing more than you need but this is a wonderful chance to share the surplus with friends and neighbours, or even donate to your local soup kitchen.

The second option is to use the cover-and-leave approach that I have already mentioned, but to add a fresh layer of cardboard every month or two and keep the space covered as long as you want - even if it’s for two years! Whatever the length of time you need that space out of action, keeping it protected means that when you do feel you are ready to expand your growing space, you can remove the remaining cardboard, apply a 2-3cm mulch of compost, and start planting into it right away. 

Help pass the time

Weeding may not be my favourite garden job but after many years I have learned to rather enjoy it. When you have a significant number of weeds in your path, it is an opportunity to either listen to the birds and the sounds of the world going on around you, or stick on a pair of headphones and enter the world of songs, podcasts, and audiobooks! However, nothing beats having a catchup with a friend whilst weeding (and enjoying plenty of tea breaks!). Try and make it as fun as possible and see it as multi-tasking to lessen the pain of weeding.

How to compost weeds

When you’ve cleared a space of weeds, the final question is what do you do with them? In almost all cases I will quickly chop them up with some shears and then chuck them on the compost pile. This is something you don’t want to do though with weeds that have flowered or have gone to seed as then your homemade compost will become a weed factory - very demoralising when you mulch one of your garden beds with it only to grow a forest of unwanteds a week later! For weeds that aren’t suitable for the compost, there is another way to deal with them that will still benefit your garden, and that is by creating a very basic liquid feed. Get a bucket, or any kind of large leak-proof container, and fill it with a variety of weeds. Then, fill with enough water to just about cover the weeds and place a plank of wood over the top as a simple lid. Leave for 2-4 weeks and then strain and dilute 1 part weed feed to 10 parts water to use as a nourishing nutrient boost for your crops.

Image: The finished product of liquid weed feed before diluting