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Dealing with Weeds

Gardeners in the Mid-Atlantic deal with a LOT of weeds. A LOT.

For literally hundreds of years, foreign plants have been brought here intentionally and unintentionally. The typical Mid-Atlantic garden soil has decades of weed seed deposition held in what we call the "seed bank." Seeds are continually brought in by wind, water, and animals. But we do have a few tools and strategies to make dealing with weeds easier.

Our weed management and prevention strategies are:

  1. Limiting soil disturbance

  2. Mulching heavily

  3. Planting densely

  4. Removing weeds thoughtfully

1. Limiting Soil Disturbance

Let's talk more about that seed bank. Your landscape's soil has weed seeds in it. I guarantee it. Some seeds can survive in soil for 30 years or more! They don't have to germinate though. When you are prepping a new garden bed or installing new plants the soil gets disturbed. That brings weed seeds to the surface where they get exposed to enough sunlight to germinate. This is one of the reasons we no longer recommend tilling the soil. Try not to disturb your soil too much. If a soil test indicates that you need to add amendments, apply those to the soil surface and don't mix them in.

2. Mulching Heavily

New plantings need mulch. In terms of weed management, mulch shades the soil to prevent the germination of new weeds. Apply 2-4" of mulch around perennials, a minimum of 4" around trees and shrubs. Don't let the mulch touch the trunks of trees and shrubs and do not create a "mulch volcano". Only use undyed natural hardwood mulch or better yet, arborist wood chips. If you are following strategy #3, you'll never need to apply mulch again.

3. Planting Densely

You've heard me say it before, the best mulch is green mulch. In other words, plant densely. Even under your trees and shrubs (out to the drip line). Whether it's perennials or a simple groundcover, filling the space with plants you want is the best strategy for preventing plants you don't want... there just won't be enough room or sunlight for weeds. Using a small plant that self-seeds (like Columbine or Violets) or spreads through vining (like our native Strawberry) can help fill up any empty space between your plants. Sedge can also be a great option for shadier sites.

4. Removing Weeds Thoughtfully

Weeds are going to happen. Especially in newly planted beds with disturbed soil. We are NOT going to pull weeds, though. Pulling a weed out creates a new soil disturbance, which brings more weed seeds to the surface for germination. Instead, we are going to snip them off at the soil surface.

I recommend walking around the garden maybe twice a month with a Dutch scuffle hoe. Also called a push-pull hoe, this tool makes weed removal so easy. Its long handle is easy on your back and knees. The working end slides along the surface of the soil under the mulch, cutting weeds off.

You don't even need to remove the cut weeds, just allow them to compost in place. If you do this about twice a month, the weeds will still be tiny, and the roots won't have enough energy to start growing again. If you have let it go too long, some plants will have enough energy stored to try to resprout (especially ones with deep tap roots like dandelions). They will need to be cut back again to deplete the energy stored in the roots. But honestly, it typically only takes about 15 minutes to do this quick chore, and the Dutch scuffle hoe is easy to maneuver between new small plants. 30 minutes a month for weed management is totally doable.

Here are a few Dutch scuffle hoes that I recommend:

Have you tried this weed management method? Do you think you can resist the urge to pull those weeds out by the roots? I admit I still do it, too. Old habits. But using this tool is much easier on the body and the garden as well!

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