Whether it’s garlic mustard, morning glory, or an invasive ivy sprawling all over your yard, just about every gardener struggles with a variety of unwanted plants that invite themselves into our gardens and overstay their welcome.
While some major infestations may only be managed, not cured, there are several practical ways for organic gardeners to reduce, eliminate, and prevent many common weeds and minor invasive plant problems.
And, while we’re on the topic, come vote for the worst! Which is your greatest plant problem? Which invasive plants keep you up at night? Scroll down to the poll at the bottom of the page and have your say!
Related: 6 Common Garden Mistakes
I may receive a commission if you purchase something mentioned in a link on this post for sites including Amazon.com. Other links may go to websites including eBay where I have been paid to write a blog or article. See the entire disclosure here.
This post is sponsored by Fiskars who also provided the garden tools shown here—all tools that I use and highly recommend.
The content and opinions are entirely my own.
Oh My Weeds
Every so often I ask Empress of Dirt readers to name the unwanted plants—weeds or invasives—in their gardens that drive them nuts. The list is long and varied but there are about a dozen or so that get mentioned over and over again and deserve a special place in the Invasive Plant Hall of Shame.
The highly invasive ones that cause the most serious problems are often introduced species that, free from the checks and balances of a native growing environment, creep and sprawl like there’s no tomorrow, gradually choking out the rest of the plants in their midst.
The rest are often common, native weeds that we can control, without causing harm to the environment, if we approach it the right way. I’ve listed tips for this below.
If you have been haunted by an aggressive, invasive plant or weed, be sure to tell us what it is in the poll at the bottom of the page.
7 Weeding Tips Every Gardener Should Know
1. Weed after it rains.
- If I could only share one tip, this is it. It is far easier to remove plants—and get all of the roots out— when soil is moist, not dry.
- I know drought is a problem in many areas, but, if you do get rain and the weeds are abundant, get out there before the soil dries again. The whole job will be much easier, faster, and thorough.
2. Know your plants.
- Before taking action, find out the identification of the plant.
You need to know if a plant is dangerous to touch, a known invasive, or perhaps an endangered species or essential habitat for some other animal, bird, or insect species.
- Here in Ontario, Canada, I rely on Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program. There should be a similar authority site for your area.
It’s also important to learn about truly dangerous plants like Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). Scary stuff!
- I also use phone apps like My Garden Answers (you can download it here). It’s super handy to snap a photo of any mystery plant or weed in the garden and ask the app to identify it. I find it gets it right about 3/5 of the time. The other 2/5 are quite amusing.
3. Understand how the plants spread.
- If you know how a plant propagates, you have key information for stopping it.
- For most plants, propagation is by roots or rhizomes, on-ground runners, or by seed.
- If a plant spreads by seed, you need to remove it before the flowers die off and seeds form.
Forget-me-nots are a perfect example. They are so beautiful in the spring until those sweet blue flowers dry up and turn to seed. The following year there will be thousands and thousands popping up wherever the wind carried them.
- If a plant spreads by runners, you’ve got to cut off its pathways.
I have English ivy that should probably wear a Fitbit for how far it can spread on any given day. Because the plant is intentionally growing in my neighbour’s yard and trying to sneak into mine, I use a Billhook (more on this below) to severe the roots at the fence line and cut back any runners that are reaching out to new destinations.
- Some common weeds produce enormous tap roots or rhizomes. Digging up deeply-rooted weeds often seems like a logical solution but it can backfire. Sometimes the loosening of the soil actually encourages further growth of any roots left in the ground.
Again, this is where plant identification helps. Read up on how the plant spreads and the recommended ways to beat it at its own game.
4. Protect your skin and clothing.
- We have a lot to think about out there! Sun protection, ticks, mosquitoes, poison ivy and oak, are just a few. Beware of possible allergic reactions as well.
- When weeding or clearing brush, wear gloves, long sleeves and pants, a garden apron to cover your clothes, and wash them (including your shoes) in separate loads as soon as soon as you’re done. Even if poison ivy doesn’t touch your skin, you might pass the oil along with your clothing.
- Also, take off your gloves before scratching your nose! Been there, forgot to do that, got the rash to show for it!
5. The right tools make the job way easier. And possibly enjoyable.
- Which tools work best will depend entirely on the weeds you have to deal with.
- I have about 10 different weeds and invasive plants that routinely haunt my garden and I have a couple of favourite tools for managing all of them.
- The Softtouch Weeder is ideal for long, narrow roots.
- The Billhook works beautifully for uprooting bulbous roots and rhizomes. I push it into the soil, alongside the roots, and then leverage it gently until I can feel the roots release from the soil. Pop! Good-bye, annoying weed! You can see it in action in the video (above).
- If there is a mass of tall weeds to pull, I lop off the growth with PowerGear2 Pruners (they are very easy on the hands) or shears, making it easier to access the roots with the Billhook.
- In some cases, I will dig out entire patches with a shovel, place everything on a tarp, and then chop out the weeds (cowabunga!) and bag them for disposal.
6. If pulling doesn’t work, you may need to smother.
- This sounds so sinister, and it’s not a quick solution, but, when weeds are invasive and the problem is widespread, you may need to smother the entire growing area.
- The entire garden bed—plus a few feet of the surrounding garden bed— is covered in thick layers of UV-stabilized plastic and weighted down with heavy weights, bricks, or rocks, cutting off everything a plant needs for survival—water, air, and light.
- Depending on how feisty the plant is, it can take months or even years for the smothered plants to die off. The key is to wait it out and never give up! You can win this.
7. It’s not over until the pulled weeds are dead.
So, you’ve pulled the weeds out of the ground. Now what?
There’s still life in there! And all of those weeds are just plotting and scheming to come haunt you again.
- Disposal options will depend on what’s permitted in your area. The goal is to isolate the plants until they are truly toast and unable to regrow.
- You might place them in their own waste pile, bag and ‘cook’ them for a few months in the hot sun, burn them, or haul them to a yard waste depot.
Again, it depends what is safe, ethical, and permissible in your region.
8. If all else fails, rent a goat.
Did you know goats are immune to the harmful oils of poison ivy and have a fondness for the taste of these nasty vines?
While we really don’t want hungry goats grazing in our backyard gardens and eating everything in sight, this may be an option for a rural property with an infestation. And—bonus—you can rent a herd on Amazon! Of course you can!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛