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A weed free garden: 9 strategies for reducing weeds

Does a weed free garden sound like a dream? It IS possible to reduce weeds in flower and vegetable beds with a few simple strategies. I’ve been putting these techniques to work in my large vegetable garden for many years and while I wouldn’t call my garden completely weed free, I’ve cut my weeding time dramatically. Read on to learn my nine strategies for reducing garden weeds.

What is a weed?

A weed is generally defined as any unwanted plant. Common garden weeds include dandelions, purslane, lamb’s quarters, bindweed, and pigweed. Weeds compete with plants for water, sunlight, and nutrients, but they can also harbor pests or diseases. Many weeds, like lamb’s quarters also produce a huge volume of seeds so if allowed to set seed in your garden you may find yourself pulling them out for many years.

Of course, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Certain weeds, like dandelions, purslane and lamb’s quarters are edible and popular with foragers. Weeds can also attract and support beneficial insects and pollinators. For this reason, I happily let dandelions bloom in the ‘wild’ areas around my property.

One of the best ways to work towards a weed free garden is to NEVER let weeds, like hairy bittercress, set seeds in your garden beds.

9 strategies for a weed free garden:

1 – Pull weeds as soon as you see them

During the main growing season, I spend a lot of time in my vegetable garden. Some of that time is spent tending the crops, other times I just want to hang out and relax in that beautiful space. I often take a mug of tea up to the garden and wander around the beds, checking the growth of my crops and taking a peek for potential problems – like weeds. One of the keys to a weed free garden is to pull weeds as soon as you spot them. When immature, most weeds are easy to remove with a quick yank or the help of a garden tool. Don’t make weeding an occasional chore, pull them as soon as you see them to minimize the risk that they will spread.

2 – Never let them to go seed

I don’t want to alarm you but did you know there is a weed seed bank in your soil? That means there are seeds in your soil just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. And they can lay dormant for years, sometimes decades! The best way to reduce garden weeds is to never let them set seeds in your beds. Even if you’re super busy and don’t have time to pull up all the weeds, at least clip off any flowers or seedheads that have developed on weed plants. You can break them off by hand or use garden snips. If you’re gardening in a new site, you can reduce the weed seed bank in your soil by tilling or hand tilling the soil, watering, and then waiting. Many of the weed seeds in the soil will germinate. Pull them out as they appear.

Mulch is an important tool in reducing weeds in vegetable and flower garden beds.

3 – Mulch mulch mulch for a weed free garden

Mulch is one of the most important tools in a weed free garden. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing trees and shrubs, perennials, annual flowers, or vegetables, a layer of mulch will be your best friend. Mulch blocks light from reaching the soil, reducing weed seed germination. For ornamental plants, the most common mulching material is bark mulch which is made from shredded bark. In food gardens, straw or shredded leaves are popular for reducing weed growth. Generally a two to three inch thick layer of mulch is enough to reduce weeds. Read more about garden mulches in this excellent article by Jessica.

4 – Check and inspect!

Have you ever bought or been given a new plant only to discover there were weed roots or seeds hiding in the soil? That’s how I got goutweed in my flower border. Frustrating! Before you introduce new plants to your garden, give them a good ‘once over’. Check the soil surface for any signs of weeds and if they came from a neighborhood plant sale, which can increase your chances of weeds, break apart the root ball. I’ve learned what goutweed roots look like (fleshy, white or light brown that break apart easily) and checking the soil allows me to inspect for invasive weeds like goutweed.

My goutweed originally came from a plant given to me by a friend. Be sure to inspect all new plants for weeds before you put them in your garden.

5 – Never leave bare soil in the garden

Bare soil is an invitation to weeds. No matter what type of garden you’re growing, cover bare soil with mulch or plants to limit weeds. In a shrub or perennial garden where plants are spaced to allow for growth, use bark mulch or a similar material. In my vegetable garden, I use shredded leaves, straw mulch, or interplant to create a living mulch. Interplanting is simply planting more than one type of crop in the same space. Between slower growing crops like tomatoes or broccoli, I plant quick growing crops like arugula or leaf lettuce. By the time the slower growing plants need the space, the greens have been harvested.

I also plant my vegetables intensively. High-intensity planting means seeding or transplanting crops close together. You don’t want them to compete for sun, water, and nutrients, so read seed packets to discover recommended planting distances. You do, however, want them to grow densely with healthy root systems so they can choke out weeds.

Planting vegetables intensively is a great way to reduce weeds in the garden. The dense foliage acts as a living mulch to limit weed seed germination.

6 – Put cover crops to work

Cover crops are a sneaky way to reduce weeds as well as build soil. If you have a new garden site and want to reduce the weeds, you can plant a fast growing, dense cover crop like buckwheat which is often affectionally called a ‘smother crop’ for its ability to crowd out weeds. It’s also is a great soil builder when tilled or dug into the soil. Just be sure to cut cover crops down before they set seeds. You can also use perennial cover crops like clover as pathway plants between raised beds to reduce weeds and entice pollinators.

7 – Garden in raised beds (or containers)

My raised vegetable beds are four feet wide. This means that I can easily tend to my crops from both sides of the bed without ever needing to walk on the soil. Walking on garden soil causes compaction. Compacted soil has fewer air pockets and doesn’t allow water to move through the soil easily. When soil is compressed, the only plants that seem to grow well are weeds. Having raised beds or gardens where you never walk on the soil is a big step in promoting healthy plant growth and reducing weeds.

In small spaces, you can also plant annual flowers, vegetables, and herbs in containers. There are many types of containers available at garden centres and online in a wide selection of sizes, styles, and materials. When you garden in pots you’re planting in sterilized potting mix, not garden soil and that means fewer weeds.

There are many benefits to growing in containers but one of the biggest ones is that you’ll spend much less time weeding. Potting mixes are generally sterilized to kill weed seeds.

8 – Grow healthy soil

Healthy soil that is rich in organic matter is the best way to encourage plants to grow well, and in the case of vegetables, produce a good harvest. When plants are growing well, they’re more able to compete with weeds. That said, if you’re getting organic matter, like rotted manure from a farm, be sure to monitor beds closely for weeds in the weeks after applying it to the soil. Compost or manure bought in bags is typically sterilized and free of weed seeds.

9 – Water smart for a weed free garden

Implementing smart watering techniques, especially when plants are young, is a good way to restrict weeds. Whether you’ve planted a lilac or a tomato plant, water the plant, not the all the soil in the garden bed. If you water the whole garden, you’re also watering weeds and weed seeds. You can use soaker hoses or DIY your own watering system to direct water to the roots of your plants to encourage a weed free garden.

The Cobrahead Weeder & Cultivator is a popular tool for weeding, but also for loosening soil, digging planting holes, and making seeding furrows.

4 Tools for a weed free garden:

Having the right tools for weeding can make this dreaded chore quick and easy. In my main garden, I like to use a hand weeder like the short-handled Cobrahead, but with the low beds in my greenhouse, it’s more comfortable to use a stand up tool like a long-handled collinear hoe. Here are my essential weeding tools:

Cobrahead – For almost twenty years, gardeners have been using the Cobrahead Weeder & Cultivator to pull out weeds, even stubborn, deep-rooted weeds like dandelions. I use mine for weeding but also for loosening soil for seeding and transplanting.

Hori Hori knife – Gardeners who use a Hori Hori knife quickly fall in love with this Japanese gardening tool. It’s part knife, part trowel with a serrated edge on one side. They’re great for removing weeds but are also handy when dividing perennials, digging holes for bulbs, or trimming small branches.

A Hori Hori garden knife is a super useful tool in the battle against weeds.

Hand trowel – The classic garden tool, a hand trowel can also be used to dig and lift weeds from garden beds. There are many different styles of trowels with some having wide blades, and other quite narrow. Some are made from steel, others from plastic. If you have arthritis, you may wish to buy one with an ergonomic handle to make weeding more comfortable.

Collinear hoe – If you prefer long-handled tools, you may be interested in a collinear hoe. I have the 3 3/4 inch collinear hoe from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and it makes very quick work of surface weeds.

Planting ornamentals close together, like the shady perennials in this bed, helps create a living mulch to reduce weed seed germination.

Should you use landscape fabrics and weed barriers to create a weed free garden?

Does landscape fabric or weed barrier cloth work for preventing weeds? Good question! These materials are supposed to be laid on the soil surface to prevent weeds. Ideally, they would be covered with a layer of mulch and any plants – like shrubs or trees – would be planted in a hole cut in the fabric. The problem is that weeds can still grow on top of the fabric because as the mulch breaks down it creates a growing medium for weeds. Plus, aggressive perennial weeds, like goutweed or Japanese knotweed can eventually poke through landscape fabrics.

Landscape fabrics are said to allow water to pass through to the roots of your plants, but I’ve found that water runs off quickly with little penetrating the tightly woven fabrics. This leaves the roots of your trees, shrubs, and perennials dry and the plants prone to drought damage. I have seen weed barrier and landscape fabrics be effective when used in outdoor pathways and patios where they were then covered with a thick layer of pea gravel. Generally though, they cause more garden problems than they solve.

For more reading on reducing garden weeds and maintenance, check out these articles:

Do you have any strategies to share on creating a weed free garden?