How to kill weeds


If the hoe doesn’t get the job done to kill weeds, try a rototiller. (istockphoto)
Contributor July 17, 2013

The summer began with a fine resolve. Weeds were held at bay by cultivating garden beds frequently with a lightweight sliver of a hoe, skimming the surface of the soil and dispatching them before they could amount to much. But a few rainy days can easily turn the tide in a weed’s favor.

Cultivating works best when the sun’s rays can wither severed weeds where they lie. Cultivating in the rain, on the other hand, is as futile as it is unpleasant. You merely stir around wet clods, leaving much of the weeds’ roots systems intact, spoiling the soil’s structure to boot.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

After weeks of mostly rainy weather, weeds often win. Where is the crop? Often invisible, reduced to an understory species beneath the canopy of a weed forest. Stronger, noisier, less elegant tools are called for. At such times our garden rototiller’s nickname becomes the Eraser, because for some beds the best treatment is a wipeout. A plot where most of the lettuce heads have been harvested is not missed if a newer, less weedy one is coming along. The tilled soil looks comforting, and restores our illusion of control.

For beds that are still producing, there are several coping strategies. If the garden is not too large, you can pull by hand and maybe catch up. But where annual weeds have developed strong enough root systems that yanking them might do more harm than good, you can cut them at the soil surface with hand pruners and thereby give the crop an advantage. This also keeps the weeds from going to seed, which they are threatening to do, maddeningly.

The paths look horrible, too, and the bigger the weeds, the harder it is to wrest them from compacted, trodden soil. If you catch the weeds when they are young, a scuffle hoe, with its powerful swinging blade, would do a fine job.

But when they get big, even a heavy-duty wheel hoe version might find it a tough go. If you have (or can borrow) a string trimmer, use that on the paths, or any other area where you won’t risk harming the crop. Then try the scuffle hoe blade or another tool that avoids the use of herbicides: a flame weeder, which is fueled by propane. There are cane-style models that are just right for blasting the weeds in a path, if the weeds are not too tall or have been cut down to stubble.

Another treatment for any area where weeds have been cut but not uprooted is to lay down landscape fabric, which will prevent the weeds from regrowing this season. It’s hideous. You can cover it with mulch, but remember to remove both the mulch and the fabric in late fall so the soil can resume a normal life in which rain falls on it and worms and beetles happily range through it. Smothering perennial weeds may take longer.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath. With any luck, next year’s weather will alternate perfectly between wet and dry and you will be vigilant with your hoe.

Tip of the week:

Continue to plant basil transplants to provide a fresh stock for early fall when spring-planted basil gets seedy. Thrifty gardeners can sow seed in an eight or 10 inch pot, kept in a sheltered spot outdoors. Separate and plant the seedlings in the garden in about a month. Use a seed-starting mix and keep the pot moist.

— Adrian Higgins

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