The Meaning of Weeding: Definition and Control Methods
A weed in one person’s garden might be a valued plant in another, because weeds are simply plants that are growing where they aren't wanted. However, many common plants have characteristics that make them undesirable to most gardeners.
These are usually invasive with the likelihood that they’ll smother other, more desirable plants, and they offer little or no value—usually because they aren't edible or considered attractive.
What Is a Weed?
Ralph Waldo Emerson had many famous sayings, among them, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” And just so. But many gardeners agree that certain plants are weeds.
Weeds are plants growing where you don’t want them and are undesirable for a reason. They are usually invasive and can take over more desirable, intentionally cultivated plants. They can be bullies in the garden, robbing the soil of nutrients and moisture and making it tough for less robust plants to get what they need.
If weeds are left to their own devices and allowed to take over a garden bed, you’ll notice that your veggies and ornamentals in flower beds grow less abundantly. They may be shaded by overly tall weeds, or they might succumb to diseases that the weeds host or transmit. Not to mention that all your hard work in sowing, planting and fertilizing more desirable plants is going to waste.
Weeds in Language
The term “weed,” pronounced “wiːd,’ in case you didn’t know (while weeding is pronounced “wiː.dɪŋ"), has been the source of multiple idioms over the years, especially in British English. Here are a few.
Like many challenges in life, weeds have inspired a range of idioms. Just for fun, here are a few example sentences provided by the University of Michigan:
- Ill weeds grow apace (similar to “Ill news comes apace").
- One ill weed marrs a whole pot of pottage.
- A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.
- He that bites on every weed, must needs light on poison.
The Old English wǣd vs. Middle English wēod
Among fun facts is the way the meaning of words evolves over time. In regards to the term “weed,” Old English and Middle English had two forms:
- The term "wǣd" which meant clothing, as in “widow’s weeds,” evolving to "wede" in Middle English.
- The Old English "wēod," also used in Middle English, equates to the term as it relates to undesirable plants.
Three Primary Methods of Weed Control
Weeding is a fact of daily life for any gardener, and there are several types of weeding. The first line of defense is usually the manual removal of weeds, along with trying to smother them using groundcovers or other means. If you cannot control weeds using these methods, various herbicides are at your disposal.
Sometimes an important line of defense in a weed control program is to change how you look at your garden. Perhaps you don’t really need a completely pristine garden bed with no weeds in sight. You and your plants can coexist with some level of weeds if it means avoiding using dangerous chemicals that can endanger wildlife, children or pets.
Manual Weed Removal
Manual weed control usually starts with hand-weeding, the sometimes backbreaking work of squatting, crouching, stooping or crawling through your beds with spade, trowel or another weeder tool in hand, seeking and destroying unwanted growth.
Try to remove weeds when they are still small and have not flowered and produced seeds.
You can also call on a multitude of tools that allow you to stand, including tillers and hoes. If using these, hoe or till only about 2 inches deep—just enough to dislodge the root while avoiding damage to nearby plants.
Avoid deep digging or hoeing, which is likely to bring more weed seeds to the surface. Most weed seeds are in the upper 2 inches of soil.
Cultural Weed Control
To augment manual weeding, take advantage of the many methods that smother weeds. These include mulches that also help the soil retain moisture, doing double duty in the garden. Effective mulches can be straw, bark, leaves or compost.
Plastic sheeting can work well, but make sure it is black rather than clear; otherwise, the seeds will get the light they need to germinate and grow. If you’re using plastic, avoid covering up the soil close to more desirable plants so they can still receive the sun and moisture that they need.
The Last Resort: Chemical Weed Removal
Experts in horticulture and home gardening recommend using chemical controls only as a last resort. Many of these are harmful to pollinators, and their use almost always requires precise timing, because some are designed to be “pre-emergent” while some are “post-emergent.” The former are effective only before the weeds germinate; once they are actively growing, the latter type is effective.
In addition, most herbicides are also nonselective, so they harm your desirable veggies and flowers in addition to weeds.
Some organic formulations are available, but even these can harm plants if used at the wrong time. Consult your local university extension office for recommendations regarding herbicides based on your location, the other plants in your garden and the types of weeds you are targeting. Be sure to read all labels before use.
I garden in the Pacific North west, previously Hawaii where I had an avocado orchard. I have a Master Gardeners certificate here in Eugene, Oregon.