Shut Up and Dig

A Better Way With Weeds

I have a love/hate relationship with weeds. Perhaps love is too strong a term, but I do greatly admire the persistence of weeds and the role they play in preserving disturbed soils. Indeed, a number of years ago, I wrote an article for The New York Times Sunday Magazine about the beneficial role that weeds will play in our era of rapidly changing climate.

The hate is easy enough to explain: weeding is, at least for me, the most annoying and least rewarding of garden chores. Friends speak of the sense of accomplishment they feel when they survey a neat, freshly weeded garden bed. I feel mainly a sense of hopelessness in those circumstances, for I know that merely disturbing the soil in this fashion will prompt the germination of some of the tens of thousands of weed seeds that lie dormant there and that soon the bed will be as disheveled as ever.

Don't pull such weedy intruders -- snip them at the base

Don’t pull such weedy intruders — snip them at the base

This is why I was so intrigued by landscape designer Larry Weaner’s approach to weed control. He taught me his techniques when we were working together on our recent book, Garden Revolution.

As an ecologically oriented designer, Larry is keenly aware that disturbing the soil in any fashion invites the appearance of weeds – thus, pulling a weed out by its roots, because it disturbs the soil, merely incites the growth of more weeds in the same spot.

That’s why Larry advocates dense planting with desirable species and then snipping most weeds that do appear at the base rather than pulling them. This is quicker than pulling; in an informal test, Larry found that he could snip four weeds on average during the time it took to pull one. Snipping is also more effective. It sets the weed back, allowing more desirable neighbors to close in over it, without creating any weed-inciting disturbance. A persistent weed may return once or twice from snipping, but eventually it falls prey to exhaustion and the unequal competition with its neighbors.

Selective cutting with a string trimmer enabled the native woodland ground cover here to gradually crowd out undesirable brambles

Selective cutting with a string trimmer enabled the native woodland ground cover here to gradually crowd out undesirable brambles

This technique does not work with all weeds. It is clearly unsuited for mat-forming weeds, and it will not work with really aggressive, rhizomatous weeds such as mugwort, which are proof against anything other than prolonged smothering or herbicides.. For the great majority of weedy invaders, however, snipping provides a more efficient and effective means of control.

This technique can be adapted to larger expanses by mowing or string trimming at a height just above a desirable ground cover to disadvantage taller weeds.

So remember, when it comes to weeds: snip, don’t rip.

Posted by on December 20, 2016 at 8:57 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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2 responses to “A Better Way With Weeds”

  1. Joe Schmitt says:

    In my experience, that eventual shade by neighboring plants is key to successfully controlling weeds by snipping. Not so much in sunny wide open spaces. One might say that when you go low, they go lower, and will succeed in setting seed on shortest of stumps unless kicked out of the gene pool by a bully fall frost.

  2. Ellen Stay says:

    Has anyone tried this with bishops weed in a perennial bed? I’ve dug it up again and again to no avail. Never occurred to me to try snipping it.

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