Controlling Weeds

Weeds in the vegetable patch can be a real nuisance - they compete against your vegetables for light, water and nutrients so it's important to keep on top!

Removing Weeds In The Vegetable Patch

Weeds are the most powerful enemy of a healthy vegetable garden.  By avoiding weed problems from the start and tackling them as they occur, you’ll be surprised at how less time you’ll spend removing weeds from the vegetable patch.  It’s the key to healthy vegetable crops too.  Not only do weeds rob crops of water, nutrients and light, they also attract pests and harbour fungal diseases as well.  

Types of Weed?

Perennial weeds - weeds that re-grow every year in the same spot. Even if dug up, they will re-grow from a small piece of root.  These include thistles (spiky leaved), bindweed (tiny heart shaped leaves), couch grass (long rooted clump), dock (long tap roots), stinging nettles, and dead nettle (white flower but doesn’t string).   

Annual weeds - these grow, flower and seed in the same year; sometimes several times within one calendar year as they spread by seeds.  Varieties include chickweed (a rapid grower) and hairy buttercress (small rounded leaves with whites flower that explode on touch).

When’s Best to Weed?

  • From the start.  Save an awful lot of bother later on by removing perennial weeds in preparation of the soil before you plant vegetables out.  It means you will only have weed seedings to deal with during the season, far simpler and less back breaking!   
  • Little and often.  It is much easier to regularly weed for short periods then to wait until the vegetable patch needs major weeding once you start growing.  Just five or ten minutes weeding a week should keep even the biggest vegetable patch largely weed free.  Weeding also breaks up the soil to maintain healthy air, moisture and heat which aids positive chemical processes that helps to produce a bountiful harvest!
  • Weed in moist soil.  A great time to weed is a day or two after rain or watering because they will come out by the root easier without breaking off.  This ensures the unwanted plants won’t grow again.  
  • Don’t just leave it!  You really won’t appreciate the daunting task of tackling a weed infested bed weeks into the growing season.  Not only will the weeds take away the needs for vegetable plants to thrive but their removal at a later stage can risk further damage.  This normally has to be done by hand and pulling a large weed clump with an established root out of the soil can disturb those of the vegetables you are growing.  

Dealing With Weeds

  • Hand pulling - This is ideal when weeding close to vegetable plants, particularly in small gardens and raised beds because there will be little plant disturbance.  A small hand fork will help loosen the soil whilst deep rooted weeds like nettle, dandelion and thistle should be dug out carefully using a hand trowel without interfering with the vegetable plants.  Make sure that no scraps of root are left in the soil otherwise they will re-grow.  As a rough rule of thumb, you can add leaves to a compost bin but never roots or seed heads.
  • Hoeing - It’s best to hoe in between rows of vegetables, and if there is enough space between the vegetables as well but be careful not to cut through their stems.  Hoeing cuts off weed stems just beneath the soil surface and disturbs the soil making it harder for weeds to grow.  Both annual and perennial weeds can be hoed.  Annual weeds will have their stems cut whereas perennial weeds with their longer roots will have their tops removed.  This weakens the plant and eventually it will wither and die if the process is repeated.  To kill perennial weeds instantly, the entire root must be removed too.
  • Set up a weed station - Simple but effective, this involves having two tub trugs handy at all times at the side of your vegetable patch.  Then you will be able to pick up the odd weed and put it straight into the tub trug – 1 for compostable weeds and the other for non-compostable weeds/debris.  This saves having to take random weeds all the way to the compost bin or dustbin when instead you can take tub trugs when they are eventually full.  You also won’t be tempted to throw an uprooted weed onto a garden bed which runs the risk of spreading the seeds of those weeds.  
  • Involve the family - If you have children, a great way to get them involved is to empower them with ownership by making them take turns to be team leaders of “Weed Patrol”!  Draw up timetables for inspection/removal, get them interested in identifying the types of weed they’ve found and reward them for their hard work.  It’s a great learning process and think of the time it’ll save you!
  • Mulching - An effective way to prevent weeds from the outset is to apply a 2-4 inch deep layer of organic mulch to the surface of the soil after you have cleared it for vegetable planting.  By doing this you effectively smother any future weed seedlings as it blocks out the sunlight that they need to grow which will half the amount of time you spend on weeding!  Any weed seedlings that do prevail are then easily plucked from the surface.  Organic mulches are best and provide other benefits besides.  Try wheat straw , leaf mould or even sheet mulch .  All of these biodegrade in the soil afterwards to replenish it with nutrients that will promote healthy plant growth.
  • Closer planting - A good idea is to plant your vegetable plants close enough to each other so that they will shade the soil and prevent the growth of weed seedlings by blocking the sunlight.  Put a bit of thought into your raised bed or vegetable plot planning by working out the spacing of the plants you are growing and position the planting so that the foliage of plants in the opposite row touch to form a closed canopy when they are at a mature stage.   Read more about plant spacing for popular vegetables in our section
  • Grow in raised beds or containers - One of the distinct advantages of growing in raised beds or containers is close planting which means there isn’t much sunlight to promote weed growth.  If you struggle for time to maintain a vegetable patch then choose to grow this way, it may suit your circumstances better and you’ll still enjoy great success.  Read more about growing this way in our section.