Tips & Techniques
For Betterdays in Full Swing.

Weeds: Stop Them In Their Tracks


By Jane Milliman

When’s the best time to pull a weed? Yesterday. What’s the second best time? Now. This is a tired old joke, but its point is nonetheless valid—the earlier you eradicate a weed, the less of a chance there is for it to reproduce, by seed or by root.

Fall is a great time to kill broadleaf weeds with herbicide, because when they are active and growing they take up the poison along with water and nutrients, whereas when they are dormant or nearly so, herbicide does little good. It’s also a good time to apply pre-emergent weed killers, which prevent seeds from sprouting in the first place.

2-pulling weeds

Plenty of weed killers exist out there, but if you are of a more natural bent, there is still much that you can do to keep unwanted plants in check. The easiest and most common way, of course, is by pulling. But fall can be a time of scorched, parched earth, and weeds that have had all season to grow in place probably have substantial root systems. It is much, much easier to pull weeds from moist ground—so do yourself a favor and let a sprinkler run for a while before you dive in.

Another school of thought is that it is better to cut weeds to the ground over and over until they run out of steam. This also prevents weed seeds from coming to the surface when the ground is disturbed by the roots coming out. A third method is to smother the area with black plastic, cardboard or thick layers of newspaper—just make sure not to let the latter two dry out, or they’ll blow away.

Whatever your method, bear in mind another garden-y cliché: Nature abhors a vacuum. That means that when you have cleared the area, by whatever means, you must cover it up again. Plastic, again, works, as does weed cloth. But they are difficult to plant through when you eventually do want to put something in the space, so a thick layer of mulch is probably your best bet.

Weeds that are growing between pavers present a frustrating problem—they are generally small and difficult to grasp, and given that they usually spread by seed, there can be thousands in a modest area. There are a few home treatments that seem to work well—boiling water is one, vinegar another. I have experimented quite a bit with propane torches, and they work pretty well, although you usually have to hit the plants at least twice, a few days apart, before they succumb.

Most recently, I’ve had great success using the Gilmour Heavy Duty Power Jet Wand. A friend approached me with suggestions for her brick patio after it had become completely overrun. We soaked the area with a sprinkler for an hour or two, and then blasted the weeds out of the crevices with the jet wand. After they were allowed to shrivel in the sun, they were easy to sweep up. My friend then covered the area with fine sand, sweeping it into the cracks along with some pre-emergent herbicide granules for good measure. After another session with the sprinkler to let it settle in, her patio is as good is new.


Here’s another old-timey aphorism: A weed is just a plant out of place. There are many “weeds” that are easy to control, pretty or tasty, and you might consider leaving some of those. Knapweed, forget-me-not, perilla and Johnny jump-ups are attractive and easily thinned if not wanted, and the succulent purslane is absolutely delicious when pickled, as our early American forbearers often ate it.


Even turfgrass, if you don’t want it, can be a weed—that’s why I am such a big fan of deeply-trenched edges and mulch, mulch, mulch. Want a new garden bed? Spread several layers of newspaper on the ground, cover with straw or some other organic material if desired and water well. Soon you’ll have a new place for planting, and the soil will probably be pretty loose already, broken up by the grass’s roots.

With true weeds, remember that they most importantly must not be allowed to spread. Plants that are forming seeds must be your first priority, and plants that are forming flowers your second.

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