This story was originally published in May 2021.
Weeding may be the bane of most gardeners’ existence, but it is important to help the crops that you want to grow thrive without competition. Properly pulling weeds is important to making sure that they don’t come back.
“You can definitely be wasting a lot of time if you don’t address the root of the issue — literally,” said Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “If you don’t address the root of the issue, it will come back and you will be chasing your tail in the garden.”
Eric Gallandt, professor of weed ecology at the University of Maine, said that while preventative measures like solarization, tarping and mulching are by far the most effective and efficient way to reduce weed pressure, knowing how to properly pull weeds is an important skill to make sure they are removed.
“If you don’t occupy the space your other option is to weed it early and often,” Gallandt said. “To pull up weeds is usually the last resort. It’s usually after you’ve done everything else you can and the ones that are still there, you pull them.”
Identify the weed, if you can
The exact best method for pulling a weed will depend on the type of weed that it is. Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said that you should have an idea of whether the plant is an annual or perennial, whether it is a cool season or warm season plant and to consider the architecture of the plant, like whether the plant has a taproot or if it spreads with rhizomes, the underground stems that act like roots.
“If it has flowered and set seed and you’re not careful with it, you could scatter seeds. Some weeds are very well adapted to regrow from little bits of stem or root that get left behind in the soil. In some cases, you might even spread the weed further in your garden than it was initially,” Goossen said.
Depending on the weed, pulling might not be the best method for addressing it.
“It might be a physical suppression method [like mulching],” Garland said. “Galinsoga is an annual weed that produces a lot of weed seeds, but that weed seed doesn’t stay viable for many years, so providing that suppression means that we’re not allowing that seed to germinate because it doesn’t have exposure to light. If we do that consistently for two or three years, those seeds are not haunting us.”
Goossen said that there are increasingly good apps that gardeners can get for their phones to help identify weeds, like iNaturalist. He also recommended that every gardener in the Northeast purchase the book “Weeds of the Northeast” by Joseph DiTomaso, Richard Uva and Joseph Neal to use as a reference.
If you do not have an identification tool handy, you can get a rough idea of whether the weed is an annual or perennial by feeling around the root system.
“If you take a trowel and dig into the soil a little bit and try to excavate the plant and the plant has a root system that’s kind of proportional to the shoot system, it’s probably an annual germinated from a seed and you don’t have to worry about dealing with the roots,” Gallandt said. “If you dig down and you have a green shoot and you have a lot more root mass, it’s probably a perennial.”
Garland said not to fret too much if you can’t identify the weed, though.
“The best time to pull a weed is when you’re standing next to it,” Garland said. “Don’t be too prescriptive about it or anything. Don’t stress about knowing what type of weed it is; just pull it if you have the time and energy to do it.”
Consider the timing
Weeding during the right time of day — and the time of season — will help you to remove weeds more easily and without spreading them.
“As far as timing goes, generally spring is the great time to get the perennial weeds, the ones that overwinter and have those nasty root systems,” Garland said. “In spring, your soil moisture levels are higher and that tends to be a little bit more loose and easier to pull up the root versus in the midsummer or later summer when the soil dries out and solidifies and it’s harder to get the full root system out of things like crabgrass.”
Though a little bit of soil moisture helps to wiggle weeds free, you generally want to remove weeds on a day when it is hot, dry and sunny.
“In terms of time of day, if it’s a sunny day and you’re pulling them out and leaving them exposed, the faster and more thoroughly they’ll die,” Goossen said. “The reverse is true for rain, [though it] can be easier to pull from wet soil. It can help to have wetter soil to pull the weeds, but that also means that the weed is freshly hydrated and takes a little longer to die.”
Regardless, you definitely want to remove weeds before they flower and set seeds.
“Different weeds are going to flower and set seeds at different times of year,” Garland said. If you get a little bit of time on your hands you don’t have time to weed the entire garden, triage the ones that look like they’re going to set seed. You can usually see which ones are in flower and are going to set seed.”
Gather your tools
The right tools will make the process of weeding significantly easier.
“Personally, I love using a garden fork,” Garland said. “If I have a long handed one and I’m working in a ground level garden, that is my go to.”
Gallandt said that he prefers a tool called a scuffle hoe.
“What I would do is run through there with a tool called a scuffle hoe specially designed for weeding and it works on both a push stroke and a pull stroke,” he said. “It only goes a half inch deep or so and doesn’t bring up seeds from deeper in the soil. One of my biggest pieces of advice to a home gardener is they should go get a proper weeding hoe.”
Garland said that the right tool for you is going to depend on personal preference, but in general, any type of tool that helps to loosen the soil will be helpful, like garden spades, trowels and broadforks. You might need to experiment to find the right tool for you.
Remove the root, leave the soil
When you remove a weed, make sure you get as much of the root as possible. Loosen the soil around the plant and get up as much as possible without breaking the plant. This is especially important for perennial weeds or those that reproduce through rhizomes.
“I feel very pained when I hear that snap when you’re pulling up a perennial weed and you need the root,” Garland said. “Perennial weeds mainly have root systems that survive more than one winter. If you have snippets of the system left behind they’re able to generally regenerate themselves. Try to get the whole thing if you can.”
You want to avoid disturbing the soil as much as possible not only for the health of your soil, but also to avoid exposing more weed seeds that are deeper in the soil bank. Garland said that she will take her garden fork, jam it down into the soil and wiggle it back and forth.
“I try not to turn that whole soil over. I am just trying to loosen the soil so I can pull that root.”
You also want to knock off as much soil as possible from the weed back into your garden plot.
“Sometimes you have to hold the soil around it so you’re not pulling up a huge root ball that disturbs your plants,” Goossen said. “Shake as much soil free from the root system as possible to preserve the soil in your garden, but also to make the roots dry out faster.”
Effectively disposing of your weeds is also important to prevent them from spreading. If you are not worried about the plant rerooting, Goossen said you can leave the weeds in the garden upside down, with their roots facing up towards the sky, to dry out the leaves and roots faster. Some weeds can also be composted, but with caution.
“It’s best to keep weeds spreading root systems out of compost piles as well as those that are already producing seeds,” Garland said.
Goossen said that it will also depend on the quality of your home compost.
“If your home compost is managed very well and you’re sure it’s reaching high enough temperatures to kill the weed seeds, you can dispose of it in your home compost, but most home compost doesn’t reach high enough temperatures to do that,” Goossen said.
Maintaining regular and effective weeding habits will help you to reduce the weed pressure in your garden over time.
“The more you can do it before they’re reproducing and the more often you can do it, the easier it’s going to get over time,” Goossen said. “Years down the road, you’ll thank yourself.”