Got weeds? Tips on how to yank them now

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Three to 5 inches of rain in late May after a very wet winter and soggy spring have the weeds rejoicing. While the weedy annual grasses have largely headed and are going to seed, summer annual and perennial weeds like mallow, dandelion, bristly ox tongue, horseweed, prickly lettuce, chicory, bindweed, kicksia, moth mullein, puncturevine, knotweed, teasel, pokeweed, dock, plantain and many others are likely thriving.

Growth is lush and robust and the plants are fast establishing extensive root systems and top growth. The rain also has created perfect conditions to pull weeds easily from the soft ground. Each weed has the potential to produce hundreds of seeds, so weeding now will prevent new weeds in the future. Do this faithfully and it’s possible to have an almost weed-free garden in three years, whether annual or perennial. Relatively few weed seeds blow in or are deposited by birds. By removing weeds before they go to seed, weeding can become an easy task rather than an overwhelming one. Prevention and maintenance are key. There are a few strategies that make weeding easier.

Yearly mulching also helps with preventing weeds and makes the few or many that do germinate easy to pull. Pulling out mallow or other strong weeds in hard packed soil can be a real task, and usually requires a shovel to dig out the roots. Some weeds stems like pokeweed break off when pulled, even when very small, leaving the roots still intact and ready to re-sprout. It is essential to get the main root mass out when you pull any weeds, otherwise they will just grow back and you will have to weed them again. Mulch is usually composed of organic materials like woodchips or composted green waste or compost that is placed on top of the soil. Mulch acts to suppress weeds by smothering them. Seeds that germinate can’t make it to the soil surface to grow. Mulch also aids in retaining soil moisture by protecting the soil from the drying effects of the sun. Composted greenwaste and compost add soil organic matter and create healthy soils that have improved porosity, drainage and fertility — retaining soil moisture and providing needed plant nutrients.

The best mulch for many plants is composted greenwaste. Composted greenwaste is just composted plant matter like yard trimmings, grass clippings and chipped wood. The best greenwaste mulch also has manure mixed in — giving it additional nutrients and beneficial soil microbial populations. Composted greenwaste usually has coarse material that takes several years to break down, and binds together and stays on slopes. It also has more decomposed material that provides plant nutrients quickly.

It should be placed on soil around plants but not on top of them. Lay it about 4 inches deep. Reapply 1 or 2 inches each year. Composted greenwaste is suitable for most plants except annual plants like vegetables and annual flowers. In this case compost can be used as a mulch. Perennial flower borders that are composed of plants that require regular watering and a fairly high level of nutrients are best mulched with compost. Wood chips are widely used as a mulch but as they decompose, much nitrogen is removed from the soil and many plants suffer nutrient deficiencies. If decomposed woodchips are available, they are a good alternative to fresh woodchips.

Sheet-mulching with cardboard is a great way to kill weeds in large or small areas. Simply lay corrugated cardboard on the surface of the soil and cover it with about 4 inches of mulch. Overlap each sheet. It takes a couple of months for weeds to die. Bermuda grass needs two layers of cardboard and about 6 inches of mulch — and time — about 1.5 years to be killed.

Many people have problems with bindweed, a perennial weedy morning glory that grows rampantly from deep underground roots. It regrows when pulled. Bindweed grows best in compacted soil conditions. As soil becomes more friable and attains better porosity from mulching, the bindweed becomes both much easier to pull, and declines in vigor. Mulch is key to controlling bindweed. If you weed it several times a summer, before it sets seed, and keep areas mulched, within three to four years it will be gone. Spraying it with products like vinegar just burns the top growth and doesn’t affect the roots.

Some tools make weeding much easier. Hoes and hula hoes are effective weeding tools best used when weeds are small and on nonrocky soil. They act when used properly to slice weeds off just below the soil surface, killing them. The hula hoe, sometimes called a stirrup hoe, works with a back and forth motion. It is the most back-friendly of all the weeding tools. On friable soils and when weeds are still young and small, it is an easy and efficient weeding tool. Round-pointed shovels are effective in slicing strong-rooted weeds like teasel off just below the surface of the ground. For hand weeding, some people like weeding knives to slice off taprooted weeds like dandelion under the soil.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:,, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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