How to Weed a Garden

Weeding the garden is nobody’s favorite task, but it needs to happen in order to reap an abundant harvest. That’s why learning how to weed a garden efficiently and effectively is especially important.

Choosing the right weeding tools in the garden is key. We’ll highlight a few of our favorites below. Additionally, weeding in a timely way, before weeds have gotten large and deep-rooted, will help bring ease to the process. At the very least, weeds should be mown down before they make seeds. This will reduce the weed seed bank in the soil, and therefore the density of future weeds. Organic alternatives to chemical herbicides can be effective in certain circumstances. Finally, learning to identify weeds can change your perspective of and approach to weeding the garden. With this knowledge, you’ll discover that many so-called weeds are edible and/or medicinal plants. Sadly, these herbal allies have simply gotten a bad rap by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To get video-based instruction on weeding, weeding tools, and lots more gardening guidance, check out our Online Gardening School.

sprout, woman with a hoe, basket of vegetables

The Stirrup Hoe (a.k.a. Hula Hoe)

woman using a stirrup hoe hula hoe scuffle hoe

The stirrup hoe or hula hoe (also sometimes called a scuffle hoe) is one of our favorite weeding tools. Check out the picture to get a sense of what it looks like. It’s basically a stirrup-shaped (or hula hoop–shaped? sort of…) loop of metal, attached to a long handle in such a way that the tool toggles back and forth slightly. When you buy a new stirrup hoe, the bottom edge of the metal loop will be quite sharp. Consequently, it’s important to keep the tool sharpened in order to weed your garden most easily.

To use the stirrup hoe, you get to remain in a nice, comfortable standing position. Imagine that, weeding with your back straight! Just use the sharp edge to scrape along the soil, penetrating down an inch or so. Passes like this sever small to medium-sized weeds at their roots and lay them down on the soil surface to desiccate. Since the sides of the hoe aren’t sharpened, this tool poses little threat to nearby crops. Unless, that is, you accidentally scrape too close to the stem of said crops. With a little practice, it’s easy to use a stirrup hoe to weed very close to crops without harming them.

When to Weed a Garden

Weeds are easiest to remove when they are very small. In fact, weed sprouts can be quickly and easily killed with a gentle pass by a stirrup hoe with minimal effort. Another benefit of weeding early is that, as weeds grow, they compete with crops more and more for nutrients, water and light. If weeds are never allowed to get very large, their impact on crops will be minimal. This means weeding in the early spring – and/or soon after a new bed is prepared and fresh soil is exposed to the light. Around here, we tend to leave each bed covered with mulch or cover crops until we’re ready to plant. As a result, we weed periodically throughout the growing season.

If you’ve inherited an overgrown garden with large weeds, your approach may be a bit different. How to restore a neglected garden will depend on the level of neglect. You may need to dig out more established perennials, sheet mulch to kill dense turf, and/or weed several times as the soil weed seed bank cashes in on years of accumulated weed seeds.

Annual vs. Perennial Weeds

Some weeds are annuals; others are perennial (click to learn about annuals vs. perennials). Annual plants set abundant seed, and then perish after their first year of life. For these kinds of weeds, it’s extremely important to get rid of them before they sprinkle seeds all over your garden. After all, allowing a weedy plant to make and spread seeds in your garden is basically like direct sowing that same weed everywhere its seeds land. For this reason, we sometimes simply mow down overgrown annual weeds with a kama, weedwacker, or other fast and easy tool. It’s better to at least remove the seed heads, rather than lamenting the fact that you haven’t the time to pull the weeds entirely.  

Tools for digging weeds

Perennial weeds don’t necessarily make seed each year, but they will continue to come back from their roots. That’s why actually digging out this kind of weedy plant is more effective than simply cutting them back. Furthermore, most perennials are hard to remove with a stirrup hoe after their first year of growth. That’s because their roots grow large and deep, in order to store energy so they can overwinter underground. So, sadly, digging or pulling are the best ways to control perennial weeds.

Some tools we use for this are a hand cultivator, a cobrahead weeder, and a hori hori (Japanese garden knife). In the case of larger weeds, a digging fork is also super helpful. Fortunately, if you weed the garden effectively on a regular basis, many perennials won’t have a chance to get established.

Edible and Medicinal Weeds

The definition of a weed, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a plant that isn’t valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth” (emphasis added). In fact, lots of weeds are species of plants that are valued when they aren’t growing in a garden bed. So, learning to identify wild plants can be a great help in getting the most out of weeding a garden.

Lots of weeds are edible, delicious, and at least if not more nutritious than the crops we grow. Some examples of these are dandelion, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, oxeye daisy, and pigweed. Many weeds also have medicinal properties, and can be used to prepare herbal remedies. Some examples of medicinal weeds are yellow dock, stinging nettle, burdock, dandelion and plantain.  

Oxeye daisy edible weed
oxeye daisy, an edible and delicious “weed”

Weeding the garden feels like less of a chore when you can simultaneously harvest useful plants. After all, it feels extremely satisfying to gaze upon a beautifully weed-free garden bed while holding a basket full of nourishing food and healing medicines. Add to that the pleasure of a back that isn’t sore (since you used a stirrup hoe and didn’t have to hunch over). You see, with the right tools and knowledge, weeding the garden can become much easier…possibly even enjoyable.

group of people weeding a garden