The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Are the weeds winning?

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Why do the plants we don't want appear to grow better than the plants we do want? Is it just nature's way of rebelling against our desire for orderliness? Are our gardens being overtaken by anarchists?

Realize we are outnumbered. Just one lambsquarter plant can produce 72,450 seeds in one growing season. If we all devoured lambsquarter or were awe struck at its beauty, this information would be good news. Perhaps we should be shifting our culinary cravings and aesthetic preferences. However for most of us weeds compete with our garden plants for light, nutrients and water. Weeds are plants out of place.

Familiar weeds possess a few common attributes. They go through their life cycle rapidly, flower quickly, produce vast quantities of seeds and have some seed adaptation for travel by wind, water or animals. By mid-summer weeds can produce a waist high fortress and you're ready to surrender.

As garden author Roger Swain says "there are no pacifist gardeners". Once you decide to grow anything, whether it's for food or beauty, you will at one time or another find yourself in literal hand-to-hand combat with weeds.

The battleground is bare soil. Bare spots in the lawn next to the driveway. A new tilled garden bed is prime area for weeds to grow. Weed seeds that were dormant for years now have open territory to conquer.

Once you have decided a plant is a weed, your first task is to identify the plant. Knowledge of a plant's life cycle is the key to control. Annuals such as crabgrass, foxtail, lambsquarter and buttonweed live one growing season and must come back each year from seed. Biennials such as burdock and poison hemlock live two years producing the seed in the second year. With perennials such as dandelions, creeping Charlie, and quackgrass the same plant comes back each year and they also produce seed. Weed identification websites include and Or bring plant samples to our office and we can help you identify them.

Identifying Weeds in Midwestern Turf and Landscapes is a great booklet for $8.50 available through University of Illinois Publications or phone 1-800-345-6087.

Got weeds? Here are some weed management options.

Hoe, till or hand pull – This method must be continued throughout the season and best done before weeds flower. Hoe and till shallowly to protect the roots of desirable plants and to keep weed seeds deep and dormant in the soil. Perennial weeds will require frequent cutting until food reserves are depleted.

Whatever you do, do not let weeds go to seed. Be relentless. Weed too big to pull? Then cut or mow off the tops. Remember, "One year of seeding equals seven years of weeding".

Mulch - Mulching controls weeds by preventing light from reaching the seeds or seedlings. Organic mulches include wood chips, straw and dry grass clippings. A thick layer of wet newspapers covered with wood chips can smother existing weeds.

Plant something such as cover crops, ground covers or grass in bare areas - Scalp the lawn and weeds will germinate before the lawn mower enters the garage. Reseed or resod bare areas in the lawn in August. After harvesting early season garden vegetables, plant buckwheat to help deplete weed seeds in soil. Winter rye can also keep weeds from overtaking bare soil and when tilled under in spring it enriches the soil.

Herbicides – Herbicides are one more tool in weed management. They should be effectively combined with the plant management techniques I described above. When using herbicides, be sure to read and follow all label directions. Pay particular attention to appropriate crops and landscape situations and the weeds they control.

In next week's article I will discuss organic and inorganic herbicides and their uses in the garden as we battle weeds.

View Article Archive >>