Learn How To Weed Properly: A Lost & Needed Skill

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How To Weed

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Pull a weed before it goes to seed and remove it from the area carefully so as to avoid leaving its babies behind.
  5. 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:


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

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  1. Dawnde Rohrback says

    When my daughter was around 6 years old she planted her first flower bed. While at school one day I thought I’d surprise her and weed. I was feeling pretty proud of myself until my grandfather stopped by and asked what I was doing, after replying(with much pride) he said “then why are you pulling the FLOWERS NOT THE WEEDS?” (I learned that day, wait til the tops are showing on flowers before weeding lol). When I told my daughter what I had done she replied”mommy I love you but PLEASE don’t weed for me anymore!” Mommy had to buy her new flowers…not seeds after that lol

  2. Lorraine L'Abbé says

    I need help in eradicating a most noxious weed that we inherited when we bought our new home. It is known as goutweed, bishop weed, elder weed to name just a few of its monikers.

    It is terribly invasive and I do not want to use chemicals. Any ideas?

  3. Joy says

    One thing I have learned over the years is that some weeds cannot be pulled without leaving something behind, namely dandelions and nutgrass. To effectively diminish them, you have use a safe weed killer or make your own with vinegar. Of course, you can eat dandelions, but unless you want your lawn full of them, you have to rid them from the undesirable places. As far as nutgrass goes, I have just learned to live with it and try to keep it somewhat under control, since it’s resists all weedkillers, except the really dangerous ones I would never use.

  4. June Lane says

    Loved your weeding rules. As a very young child, my Auntie taught me to weed and I helped with her rose garden. If you broke a weed off at the top of the ground, sometimes, you had to use your fingers to make sure you got all the roots! This was long before we had all the neat tools available today! Thanks for a good memory of my youth.

    • Linda says

      My dear Grandmother taught me to weed…on a 137 acre farm w/7 barns & buildings! All hand pulled weeding! It was along her side pulling all those weeds, where she taught me about God & The Bible! What a wonderful time I had w/her…starting at age 5! I think of her & Bible verses w/every weed I pull to this day, even tho it’s been 55 yrs ago!! Thank u Grandmother….