weeds in wheelbarrow

Weeds Happen. What Can a Gardener Do?

Is there anything more frustrating to gardeners than weeds popping up overnight (night after night) in their beds and yards? In many areas of the Southwest, gardens look pristine, if not as colorful, before summer monsoons begin to deliver much-needed rain. The problem is what’s good for your ornamentals also is good for weeds.

monsoon clouds nm garden
When summer monsoons hit, plants get much-needed rain and weeds grow … like weeds!

We don’t believe we’ll ever fully win the weed battle, since we have four acres in an open, windy area of New Mexico, but we have a few approaches that work for us and save some time.

weeds in wheelbarrow
I like to pull weeds out of our old irrigation ditch after a rain. Fighting weeds can take years.

Prevention is the best cure for weeds. Take time now to prevent as many weeds as possible. Consider these prevention efforts:

weeds in gravel path
Eventually, weeds make their way through thin landscape fabric.
  • Try to prevent soil compaction and depletion of nutrients if possible. Often, weeds grow best in poor soil, so keep garden bed soil healthy, which will help the plants you actually want in your yard or garden.
  • Water only desirable plants when you can, which is much easier to do with drip irrigation.
  • Use heavy-duty weed barrier in paths and walkways. The fabric should be air and water permeable but let in little to no sunlight.
landscape fabric
We redid the paths like the one above, using this heavy-duty landscape fabric and overlapping at borders. Weeds find breaks in the fabric.
  • In beds, use the same fabric in portions where you won’t be planting or with large areas of gravel. Use organic mulches closer to most plants (but not right up against their main stems). Layer the mulch three to four inches thick if possible to prevent weed seeds hiding underground from taking on life. Bare soil is open to weed invasion, and we are working on covering more of our soil with fabric and gravel or organic mulch.
Pecan mulch covers plants close to the house and rocks with weed barrier help prevent weeds in this dry river bed.
  • Crowd weeds out. Often, plants need air between them to prevent diseases, but you can plant edibles like lettuce close together or use a xeric groundcover to help keep weed seeds from blowing into garden areas or getting enough sun to grow.
  • If you’re planting a new area, try soil solarization ahead of preparing soil and planting.
tarp on ground for solarizing weeds
We are solarizing an area in our orchard to try to replace weeds with native grass.

Choose your battles. Some people embrace dandelions and purslane, which have edible value. So, if you can’t fight every weed, choose those that are the most unsightly, compete with or wrap around your plants (I’m talking to you, field bindweed!) or are otherwise troublesome. Our priority weed is the goathead, which gets stuck in our dogs’ paws and migrates into the house so we can innocently step on them in the middle of the night. Weeds are survivors; they can grow in cracks of sidewalks or under rocks. A dandelion produces up to 15,000 seeds per year and some purslane seeds can remain viable in the soil for 20 years. Some spread by underground runners and some have tap roots. If you leave any portion of root, the darn weed grows back, so use a weeding tool or shovel to dig deeply, especially on large or perennial weeds. Weed seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years and then pop up when the soil gets turned over or weather conditions are just right.

tilled area of orchard
Tilling deeply can turn up dormant weed seeds. It needs to be followed by solarization.

Keep fighting a little at a time instead of trying to pull every weed at once. Maybe you can address the most problematic weeds only or first. Or try to pull just those ready to go to seed and spawn even more of the same weed next year. I like to pull weeds after a rain, when the ground is damp. If you plan to use a stirrup hoe or other method of cultivating soil to remove weed seedlings, do this when the soil is a little drier.

stirrup hoe
A stirrup hoe is my favorite weed-fighting tool. It can easily pull up most weeds when they are small, before seeding out.

Accept weeds are part of gardening and sit on the patio with a cool beverage. The best strategy for occasional weeds in the garden is acceptance. No garden or gardener is perfect, so make a cool beverage (maybe add some mint to your tea since mint can behave like a weed…) and sit back in the shade to enjoy the view. You might even last 15 minutes before you spot a new weed and get the urge to jump out of your patio chair to pull it up.

garden view after monsoons
After monsoons come, the view is great if I ignore the grass and weeds.
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