We all know that gardening is a labor of love. After all the hard work and the many hours spent planning, planting, watering, and caring for plant life, there is something so profound about watching the soil produce beautiful and delicious things.
Being outside in the sunshine and fresh air, with the sounds and smells of nature around us, is truly magical. It’s a pastime that helps us find meaning and purpose in this crazy world, a chance to escape our screens and get our dopamine hits from the simplest things – like a newly opened flower.
As good as it feels to plant the plants and harvest the grub, there is no gardening without weeding.
Of all the chores that need doing, weeding is one that is tedious, drudging, back-breaking, and at times, frustrating. It’s one job that is never really “done,” and it all feels especially futile when recently cleared weeds return with gusto.
If you’re committing the cardinal sin of weeding – breaking plants at the soil line and leaving the roots behind – you’re only making more work for yourself in the end. In the realm of weeding, haste is a waste of both time and effort.
We’ll never fully rid ourselves of weeds, and the price of a mostly weed-free garden is eternal vigilance. Instead of expecting weeds to stay gone, the goal should be to delay their return for as long as possible.
Weeding – An Obnoxious, but Necessary Chore
Aside from the aesthetics of a tidy and well-groomed garden, removing weeds will prevent them from competing with your plants for light, water, nutrients, and space. Allow them to grow unchecked, and they can smother and choke out the others. Some bring with them diseases and pests that can spread throughout your cultivated plants.
The longer you leave it, the more work it’ll be to reclaim your lands. I should know – I’m in my fourth year of restoring a landscape that was neglected for more than a decade by the previous owner. I’m tackling colonies of motherwort, creeping charlie, crabgrass, blue violet, yellow wood sorrel, and many more yet-to-be-identified weeds. But hey – I thank my lucky stars every day that I’m not dealing with Japanese knotweed!
Between blistered hands, sunburnt skin, more than a few herniated disks – and using inefficient weeding techniques all the while – I’ve learned many weeding lessons the hard way.
In my time out there in the weeds, I’ve picked up a slew of strategies that help outsmart those pesky plants, save time and effort so it’s not so much of a grind, and preserve your strength so you won’t be reckoning with a wrecked body for days on end.
1. Come Properly Equipped and Attired
Being prepared in your battle against the throngs of weeds will only serve to increase your weed-pulling efficiency and endurance.
Weeding does pose a few perils, so it’s important to protect yourself before heading out. The ritual of slathering yourself in sunscreen should never be skipped, and if you’re working in the shade, mosquito repellent. Always check yourself for ticks after working in wooded areas or tall grass.
When temperatures permit, keep covered up.
Prevent sun and heat stroke by wearing loose-fitting, light-colored clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Stay hydrated by keeping a bottle of water within reach.
Come ready with the tools you’ll need to whack those weeds in earnest. There’s an assortment of short and long-handled weed management tools available on the market today, from trowels and garden forks to loop hoes and stand-up weed pullers.
Personally, I’m quite partial to my hori hori because it really elevated my weeding game. It quickly and easily slices through soil to lever up plants, roots and all. And unlike my old trowel, it has never once given me blisters.
2. Use a Stool
Sitting or kneeling directly on the ground while you weed is a surefire way to wake up the next day with aches and pains all over. The hard, uneven surface puts loads of unnecessary pressure on the butt, thighs, knees, and lower back.
Before a big weeding blitz, I bring along a small step stool.
It’s astonishing how a little thing like raising yourself up by a few inches off the soil line can have such a hugely beneficial impact on the body.
Sitting on a flat and slightly elevated surface is more comfortable and greatly reduces the strain placed on the back, knees, hips, and joints. On a stool, there is less bending, and it’s so much easier to shift position and move around. You can rotate 360° with minimal effort and cover more ground from one spot.
Overall, my stool makes the slog of weeding a whole lot less painful. Because of this, I find my energy levels for long-haul weeding are miles improved as well.
3. Change Your Position, Constantly
Waking up the next day sore, stiff, and moving glacially slow after a particularly grueling weeding session is no good. I know I’ve really outdone myself when the simple act of picking something up off the floor requires careful strategizing.
As someone who has thrown out my back too many times to count because of weeding, this tip has been life-changing and has saved me from feeling that all-too-familiar twinge.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but changing your position every few minutes will keep you loose and limber.
Staying in one spot for too long increases the chance of straining muscles you didn’t even know existed.
Whether you’re a sitter, a squatter, a kneeler – or a stooler – the key is to keep it moving. After a few minutes on my stool, I’ll sit on the ground for a while, then stand up and stretch. Next, I’ll squat for a bit, then kneel, and then it’s back to the stool.
Constantly switching it up, shifts the load from one part of the body to another, giving the fatigued muscles a chance to rest. It promotes better blood circulation and keeps joints lubricated and flexible.
Moving up, down, and all around results in better posture, too. Instead of ending the day hunched over, frequent movement will help keep your spine better aligned.
4. Stretch Your Body, Before and After Weeding
Here’s a positive spin we can put on weeding – it burns between 200 and 400 calories per hour! And like any workout, it’s smart to do some stretches to help with flexibility and prevent muscles from tearing.
Here are a few good ones to do, both before and after an intense round of weeding:
Neck: Tilt your head gently to one side, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Repeat for the opposite side.
Shoulders: In a circular motion, roll your shoulders forward and backward.
Back: While standing, hold your arms up over your head, palms out, and fingers interlocking. Lean to one side, then the other.
Quads: Standing on one leg, grab the opposite leg and pull it towards your buttocks. Do the same for the other side.
Hips: In a lunge position, keep your back straight while pushing the hips forward. Repeat for the other side.
Hamstrings: Sit down with one leg extended straight and the other bent with your foot touching your inner thigh. Reach forward as if to touch your toes. Repeat for the other leg.
Wrist and Hands: Extend your arms straight in front of you with palms facing down. Bend at the wrist, with fingers pointing up to the sky and then down to the ground.
Calves: Standing with one leg forward and the other back, bend at the knee while keeping the back leg straight. Repeat for the other side.
Child’s Pose: In a seated kneeling position, stretch your arms forward and rest your forehead on the ground. Slowly move your arms down, palms up, next to your legs.
Always stretch gently and never force a stretch. Hold each stretch as long as you can, up to 30 seconds on each side. And remember to breathe slowly and deeply during your stretches.
5. Do Your Weeding After a Good Rain
The old saying, “Pull when wet; hoe when dry,” is undoubtedly wisdom to live by when it comes to weeding.
There is no better time to weed than after a good rain or a deep watering. Moist soil is like lubricant for plant roots, and dry soil is more like cement.
The difference is like night and day.
Weed when the soil is bone dry, and your unwanted plants will not leave gracefully. It requires more pulling, tugging, and fighting with your weeds, and often root fragments are left behind. To get the whole root, you’ll have to dig around the weed and loosen the soil before pulling it out. It’s the slowest and most time-consuming way to do your weeding.
With wet soil, though, most types of weeds can be yanked up easily without needing to dig around the plant to loosen things up. Because of the moisture, a little wiggle-and-pull is all it takes for the roots to come up readily and intact. And when you weed with just your hands – unhampered by trowels or tools – you can quickly rip through a patch of weeds in record time.
So whenever you can, hold off on those big weeding sessions until a heavy rain. Waiting until the ground is saturated with moisture is a much more productive use of your time.
6. Dig Only When You Have To
When the rains don’t fall according to your schedule, there is no choice but to weed when the ground is dry. And for that, you’ll need to dig around with your favorite weeding tool.
Traditionally, folks have attempted to make this task easier by hoeing or tilling in early spring to uproot and turn over weeds, burying them under the soil. It’s faster than hand-pulling, and you’ll get immediate satisfaction of having no weeds in sight.
But alas, it’s only a temporary reprieve from weedy growth, and you’ll have even more weeds to contend with later on.
Why? Because every square inch of soil is riddled with dormant seeds. And every one of them has the potential to burst forth with life if given the opportunity.
The weeds taking over your flower and veggie beds started from seeds in the upper two inches of soil, where sunlight can penetrate enough to trigger germination. Below that 2-inch threshold is an infinite number of sleeping seeds, just waiting for something to bring them closer to the surface. Don’t let that something be you!
Weeding is the sort of job that if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing it right. Hand-pulling is slower, but it lowers the chances of waking these teeny slumbering beasts.
Minimize soil disturbance by inserting a garden knife or trowel close to the root system, and lever the weed up. After removing a clump of roots, immediately mulch the area. Mulching will help to restrict the light freshly unearthed weed seeds would otherwise receive.
7. Smother, Cover, and Fill
It’s beyond maddening when you clear a patch of weeds only for it to look like you never even weeded there just a few short weeks later.
For the most problematic areas – where weeds grow thick and dense, or the roots are so fine and fragile they snap off as you pull them – you’ll need to break out the big guns: cardboard, mulch, and new plantings.
After hand-weeding or mowing the area, lay down cardboard to smother any bits of root left behind. So you only have to do this once, place cardboard down two or more layers thick.
Once the cardboard is set, cover it with mulch to further restrict the weeds’ access to sunlight. In flower beds, mulch to a depth of 3 to 4 inches with a slow-to-degrade material, like wood chips. In veggie beds, use straw or leaf mold.
As the finishing move, you can displace weedy growth by filling up the space with plants you actually desire. Choose hardy cultivars with thick root systems and a spreading or bushy habit to best block the weeds from receiving light, space, and resources. Once the space is fully occupied, the stubborn weeds below will have a much harder time re-establishing themselves in that spot.
8. Get to Know Your Weeds
Most of the weeds you come upon are unwelcome plants, mainly due to their looks and habits. But if you know what to look for, you can occasionally encounter plants that are a worthy addition to the garden.
Weeding is the perfect opportunity to find volunteers – those wild plants that pop up out of nowhere, from seeds dropped by birds, buried by squirrels, or blown in with the breeze.
When I see a weed that doesn’t look like the rest, I’ll fire up the iNaturalist app to identify the species. A lot of the time, it’s an invasive, non-native weed that promptly gets yanked. On rare occasions, however, it’s a lovely native plant that I’ll add to my garden collection.
So far, I’ve discovered and rehomed black walnut, common ninebark, smooth hydrangea, wild geranium, black raspberry, forget-me-nots, goldenrod, New England aster, and most recently, frost grape.
You never know what fantastic volunteers are hiding amongst the weeds – and it’s like found money when you can snag some beauties for free.
9. Recharge and Repeat
As wonderful as it would be to banish the weeds in your yard over a single weekend, it’s not realistic – especially when you’re dealing with hordes of unwanted greens.
Think of weeding as a marathon and not a sprint. Rather than trying to do it all at once, it’s better to chop it up into smaller, more manageable chunks. Do two hours here, one hour there, and then take a long break or switch to other, more pleasurable garden work.
I find it helpful to set mini-goals for myself. One bed or section of the yard per weeding session, for example. Or filling up and emptying out the weed bucket at least five times.
Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate on your weeding routine. Smaller plants are easier to remove than those that have had the time to grow big and sprawl. Plan to do a big weeding push in spring and fall, with smaller weed-as-you-go sessions spaced a week or two apart throughout the summer.
Be persistent and consistent, chipping away at it one weed at a time, and you’ll see a noticeable reduction of weedy growth the following season.
10. Appreciate the Little Moments
Apart from scoring free plants and having a productive workout, there’s another nice thing I can say about my least favorite yard task: weeding offers a truly immersive gardening experience.
There are no words to describe the joy of seeing a bumblebee buzzing from flower to flower, or a breathtaking Monarch butterfly landing on a nearby leaf to rest, or rambunctious squirrels doing funny, squirrelly things. With the birds singing and the air thick with the fragrance of lilac, being in the garden really is magical – like ambrosia for the soul.
Out there, there’s always something interesting to see – and I would have missed so much of it if I hadn’t been weeding.
Every so often, look up from the weeds and take in the scene. Weeding doesn’t need to be drudgery. It’s also an opportunity to bear witness to the incredible tapestry of life that thrives in our own backyards.