When you first start gardening, you’ll soon find out that weeds are relentless. They compete with our beloved seedlings for nutrients, water, light, and space, and if you let them do their own thing, weeds will most likely win that competition.
Keeping a weed-free garden is possible, but it requires a lot of dedication. Stay on top of weeding in spring, use mulch to suppress weed growth and plant your vegetables as close together as possible. Avoid using landscape fabric, as even eco-friendly ones stop water from absorbing into the soil.
There’s no such thing as a perfect garden and no such thing as a 100% weed-free garden, but getting your garden to 90% weed-free is enough for your plants to thrive and your beds to look nice.
But you have to be willing to put in the work because when you first set up your garden on soil that used to be overrun with weeds, getting rid of them will be quite a process.
Weeds spread in a multitude of ways – through seeds, spores, runners, roots, or fragments of roots in the ground, and you’ll always be dealing with some sort of invasion.
Our goal for becoming “weed-free” is suppressing the roots of persistent weeds that have developed a web underneath our raised beds and always being on the lookout for young weeds that the wind or birds brought.
Here are 10 things to be mindful of when keeping your garden pristine:
1. Disturb the soil as little as possible.
The first year of gardening is when all hell will break loose in your garden in terms of weeds. That’s mostly because, for the longest time, this area was their turf, and they won’t give up without a fight.
If you’re creating a new garden, it will most likely involve a lot of digging. Digging disturbs the soil. It may awaken roots and seeds that lay dormant and bring them closer to the surface.
Even with laying cardboard underneath your raised beds, some persistent weeds will manage to break through.
You may choose to use your own soil for gardening, in which case you’ll have many weeds to deal with in the first year, or you may decide to outsource better quality soil. This soil may contain weeds if it’s not from a reputable source, so keep that in mind.
The best way to create a new garden, if you can afford it, is placing 2-3 layers of thick cardboard directly on top of the weeds and adding a thick layer of organic compost.
The following years will already get easier, as there won’t be any reason to disturb your beds. Amend with compost in the autumn, and you’re done.
2. Rotate the beds when weeding.
Let’s face it: weeding is not easy. If you do it for too long at one time, it will hurt your back and deter you from coming back to your garden.
You may feel hopeless when seeing all the work you need to do, but there’s no reason to become overwhelmed. Weeds may be fast-growing, but you don’t have to get to all of them in one day. Many of them will grow back, so consistency is key.
Don’t just cherry-pick the biggest weeds from your beds and call it a day. The best way to keep your beds looking clean is to become laser-focused on one area at a time when you’re doing your weeding.
The way I do it is to pick one to two raised beds to focus on every day and do a very thorough job of eliminating all weeds. I usually have a podcast in my earbuds and regularly stop to stretch my back and sip from my coffee.
With this method, it usually takes me about a week to tend to all my beds. Then, I repeat the process all over again, as many times as necessary. This may seem like a lot of time to spend every day, and it sometimes is – about 1 to 2 hours per day – but when you have a weed invasion problem, you have to do whatever it takes.
3. Spring is the most important time to weed regularly.
When your plants first germinate, figuring out the difference between a weed and a seedling can be confusing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to wait for a couple of weeks until you can tell what’s your precious plant and what’s a weed.
That’s why I love starting my seedlings inside module trays – by the time I transplant them in the ground, they’re already one month old, and the soil has been prepped and weed-free.
However, we can’t do that with all plants. With carrots, for example, you need to sow them directly in the ground. So when those thin, blade-like leaves start popping up, you need to start weeding immediately.
If you let weeds get out of hand in spring, they’ll grow much faster than your vegetables, shading them and depleting the soil of nutrients. As plants grow larger in the summertime, many will develop large leaves and create a canopy above the soil, leaving the emerging weeds with little chance for survival.
Spring is when you want to concentrate all your efforts towards weeding. By summer and autumn, the established plants will take care of themselves.
4. Use a Dutch hand hoe for very tiny weeds.
When you’re dealing with tiny weeds, they never come alone – usually, there’s an entire field of tiny green seedlings. Pricking them one by one can be a frustrating task and an inefficient one at best.
When weeds are tiny, in most cases, their root system isn’t well established, and pulling them out of the soil is quite easy. There are faster ways to kill them than handpicking: enter the gardener’s best friend – the garden hoe.
We’ve already decided that digging is bad for the garden, but a Dutch hoe disturbs the first one to two inches of the soil’s surface. Its fine blade runs through the weeds’ delicate roots and displaces them from the ground. After hoeing, let the weeds dry and decay back into the soil.
If you’re using an intensive gardening method, like I do, running a regular Dutch hoe through your garden can prove to be a difficult task since plants are placed so close together. This is why I recommend using a hand hoe instead, with delicate and precise movements.
5. Use mulch that’s best suited for your climate.
Just like any living green thing, weeds need light to survive. Mulching is the best organic, non-invasive way of suppressing weeds by depriving them of light.
But not all mulch is created equal. Mulch is mainly used for two purposes: keeping moisture in and suppressing weed growth. However, there can be such a thing as too much moisture, and that’s why you need to choose your mulch wisely.
If you live in a cold and wet climate, using mulches like straw or even wood chips can create a breeding ground for slugs and snails, so this option is better suited for hot climates.
Most areas will do well with compost acting as a mulch and using straw only in the heat of summer to trap moisture in.
If you’re using mulch as a weed suppressant, make sure you’ve added a layer of at least 10 inches, otherwise light can still go through, and weeds can have enough vigor to shoot through a smaller layer of mulch.
6. Don’t use landscaping fabric.
I know it’s tempting, but whatever you do, don’t use landscaping fabric in the same beds you’re planning to plant vegetables in.
Even biodegradable, paper landscaping fabric is almost impossible to penetrate by roots in its first year, and if you use it on top of the soil, water will not seep through effectively
The only place where using landscaping fabric would be okay is your garden pathways. I’d still recommend using cardboard on your pathways as well, but if you really must, using sheets of biodegradable landscaping fabric underneath mulches like woodchips, sawdust or gravel is probably harmless.
7. Use the intensive planting method.
Planting vegetables close together is not only a great way to get a bigger harvest, but it also suppresses weeds as well. After your vegetables are established, they will create shade and spread their roots deeply – young weeds won’t stand a chance competing with your older plants.
Use intensive planting mindfully, wherever possible. This means often ignoring the seed packet recommendations, as they’re mostly directed to industrial agriculture. You won’t need wide spaces between rows as you won’t have to run a large garden hoe or a tiller.
Some plants need adequate space to thrive – like cabbages, zucchini, or tomatoes for better ventilation. But most leafy greens and root crops can be planted much closer than recommended.
Try it and see what works for you. When growing my multi sown beets, the soil in between them was completely shaded, and at some point, weeds stopped growing entirely. The same happened with kohlrabi, carrots, chard, and other plants that form thick, bushy leaves.
8. Use the space in between plants to grow a shorter crop.
Some plants, like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, runner beans, will grow tall, supported by stakes, rather than form a shady, cool environment underneath them. They also require that you pay more attention to proper spacing.
The soil will always do its thing if left unattended and grow weeds for protection because there’s no such thing as bare soil in nature. By understanding this principle, we can provide the soil with a cover that’s of a better use for our garden.
Apart from mulching, you can grow fast-maturing crops that are short, have shallow roots, and thrive in the shade provided by the taller plants.
Plant head lettuce that’s heat resistant, radishes when the weather cools off, mustards, mizuna – nothing is really off-limits.
You can do the same in-between onions or garlic where you have space – as their leaves are thin and tall, the sun reaches the soil, encouraging more weeds to grow than in other parts of the garden. A lettuce plant here and there will benefit both you and your onions.
9. Don’t let squash, cucumbers, or sweet potato sprawl on the ground.
We’ve mentioned certain plants that grow vertically, and now it’s time to touch upon the vining vegetables like squash, melon, cucumbers, or sweet potatoes.
Cucumbers are typically grown on sturdy vertical structures, and we train them to climb vertically for ease of picking so that the fruits don’t rot on the ground.
Squash has the same climbing abilities, yet we often let it sprawl on the ground, resulting in a jungle of vines and plenty of weeds underneath that are impossible to get to. This isn’t efficient or pretty.
Some gardeners use heavy-duty weed barriers and burn a hole where the squash plants are supposed to go. But when gardening in a small space, we don’t really have the room to allow squash to occupy so much space. That’s why it’s essential to train them up trellises to better manage the soil around them and avoid weeds altogether.
The same goes for sweet potatoes. Few people know that you can train sweet potatoes to grow up. If you want to know more about vertical gardening, I’ve written more extensively about it in this article.
10. Mind your garden paths
Having a weed-free garden applies to garden pathways as well. Often, we ignore weeding our paths because they aren’t a priority, and there are no precious vegetables on them.
But if ignored seeds grow to maturity, they can go to seed and spread everywhere. They can spread their roots deep into the neighboring raised beds, making it impossible to remove them completely.
Weeds are also unsightly and give your garden paths an unkempt look, which may overwhelm you and discourage you from working in your garden.
For weed-free garden pathways, it’s important to create them the right way so that you suppress most of the weeds in the first year and then continue the upkeep throughout the season – more information on weed-free garden paths in this article.
I hope you’ve found this information useful. Remember, weeds are nature’s way of keeping everything lush and green. As long as we understand this and use our own “greens” and mulches to offer cover and protection for the soil, weeds won’t stand a chance.
Create a weeding routine adapted to the season you’re in, leverage spaces in between plants, practice vertical gardening, and your garden will look and feel spectacular.