When your farm grows enough to take on volunteers you find yourself teaching things that you take for granted. One of the skills I have often puzzled over is weeding.
For quite a while I would check over a volunteer’s work after they had gone home and found myself having to do the work all over again. At first I was frustrated and couldn’t understand how this kept happening. In the past couple weeks, we took on a new crop of volunteers and as I looked over the beds I realized I needed a new strategy.
In thinking about the problem I began to see things in a new light. Perhaps people no longer really know how to weed. We live in an age when weed killer is prevalent. Drive down any suburban street and you will see homeowners walking down their driveways holding a lightweight tank and pointing a sprayer at their problems. Weed and feed is distributed from a sprayer on the lawn mower. We can prevent seed germination with a few shakes from a plastic spout. It suddenly occurred to me that this was not a lack of attention to detail, but a simple lack of knowledge.
How I Learned the Art of Weeding
When I was little I learned how to weed at my grandmother’s knee. June Garman had the most beautiful flower beds you can imagine. Walking into her backyard you were presented with a wide variety of colors and textures; everything was there except even one tiny weed. She was scrupulous about her weeding and did not allow me to take any shortcuts. How many other little girls and boys learned to keep their yard looking tidy by getting down in the dirt through this type of hand to hand combat with the plant world?
I’ll admit that I grew up with a different view on the weeds. I have so many weeds on my property that my grandmother, were she alive today, would only be able to giggle and shake her head in consternation. I use my weeds for food and medicine. But every once in a while it becomes important to clean up a bed and then it is done to her exacting standards.
5 Tips for More Effective Weeding
Here are some tips from my grandmother on how to weed properly:
- NEVER leave the root. It is not effective to just pull what is above ground. The plant in question will only grow a new shoot. It often becomes even stronger. This means that you need to firmly grasp the plant just above the soil level and pull steadily until you feel it loosen. If it snaps off you will unfortunately have to use a hand tool to dig it out.
- Don’t weed just after a rain. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it! If you have clay soil like I do, the soil is softer but you will pay the price. Even if you pull the main root of a plant there are often small side roots that remain. If the ground is moist it can encourage whatever is left behind to send up a new shoot. If you weed when the ground is dry it will encourage the roots to wither instead.
- Mulch immediately after you weed an area. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you leave a bare space she will find something to fill it. In most cases you won’t like her choice of plants.
- Pull a weed before it goes to seed and remove it from the area carefully so as to avoid leaving its babies behind.
- Get to know the rooting habits of your most common weeds. Thistles have a tap root and a single stalk. Grasses spread by way of runners in a shallow pattern just under the soil. Knowing how they grow will help you to be sure to get all the roots.
Finally, be sure to keep good posture while weeding. Squatting is very effective and keeps your back straight and supported. Be sure to switch hands from time to time as well; weeding is hard work and you’ll need those hands again tomorrow!
This year I’m taking a new approach with my volunteers. I’m no longer going to assume that everyone knows how to weed. There will be a tutorial for each new member of the crew. My grandmother is somewhere smiling, and shaking her head at all the weedy beds!
Need Help Identifying Weeds?
Note from Matt & Betsy: If you’re in the middle of weeding chores and are having trouble differentiating between weeds and plants, you may want to check out one of these guides on weeding:
- Weeds: Friend or Foe? – An Illustrated Guide to Identifying, Taming and Using Weeds
- Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What to Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance