How to kill weeds
July 14, 2013 3:08 AM   Subscribe

I have a small patch of "yard" in front of my house. It's about 10msq total. I would like to get this to an absolute minimal maintenance little plot and had the idea of sowing a wildflower/grass mix and am happy to leave it fallow or whatever until next spring in order to plant the seeds. The problem is the weeds. I pulled everything up, but within about two weeks their malevolent little weedy shoots come back. I have been running over it with a hoe/tilling it (?) which gets rid of them temporarily. I'm not physically pulling out every tiny shoot. I'm concerned that when I go to plant the wildflower seeds next spring that they will be overpowered by these pesky gd weeds. If I keep hoeing/tilling it intermittently, is this going to work? What else should I do between now and then to get rid of them and get it ready? Is this a scenario where I should be putting down plastic sheeting? Obviously, I don't know anything about gardens. Here are pictures of before everything got pulled up. (I know some of this is not weeds). Thanks folks.
posted by bimbam to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would use "Roundup" to kill everything. It will work. Get it at your local box store such as Home Depot or Lowe's.
posted by JayRwv at 3:21 AM on July 14, 2013

Okay, here's what you can do:

1. Rip up everything, and leave it on the ground.

2. Cover it all up with plastic sheeting, hold it down with rocks.

3. Let it sit until spring.

4. Take up the sheeting, till it like a mofo, add fertiliser, and plant your seeds.

Now with a wildflower/grass mix, it's likely that around half of what comes up will look like weeds. But at least you'll know that you're starting fresh.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:42 AM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

You don't need roundup. Really. That stuff is toxic evil and this isn't a farm.

Katemonkey's mulching approach will work. Look up "mulching for weed control." There are many options.
posted by spitbull at 4:18 AM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

No roundup, it's not necessary. Either cover everything with plastic until the spring, the heat from the sun will sterilize the soil, or cover everything with a nice layer of AGED mulch, which you can then work in in the spring.

Of course, most of what is helping the weeds is actually your tilling, you're bringing weed seeds up the surface to germinate.

The ideal thing, which is a little more labor intensive but will do wonders for the health of your dirt, is to cover everything with thick newspaper or cardboard, cover that with lawn clippings and manure, cover that with mulch, and let it sit until you need it in the spring, when it will be nice and decomposed. Then don't till, just work the mulch into the ground a little and sow your seeds.

But please, no roundup.
posted by lydhre at 4:23 AM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

You've got a lot of dandelions there, which have long tap roots that go deep into the ground, and they will regrow from even a small piece of root left in the soil. I'm not sure even covering it with black plastic now will be enough to kill them off by spring. You can attempt to dig them out, and I would try to do this is if was you, to get as many of them up as possible. But just accept that you'll rarely get the whole root.

The good news is insects love the flowers and birds love the seed heads, so if you can thin them out and keep them at some level of manageability, then they will fit with your wild flower plans.

I think you have bluebells, if you're in the British Isles, you might want to check if they are Spanish ones and also dig them up and replace them with native ones: Now's a good time to do that, before the leaves die back and you can't find them again.

A little bit of work now, will really pay off when you put the wild flower seeds in.

Also, when you come to sow the seeds, make drills in a zig zag pattern, that way when they germinate you'll be able to spot what is a weed and what is a something you put there. Once they've grown you won't notice the zig zags...

And remember a weed is only a plant in the wrong place :)
posted by Helga-woo at 4:23 AM on July 14, 2013

Don't bother with plastic, just put sheets of cardboard down over the soil. The nice thing is that you probably won't even need fertilizer next season, because the worms will turn it into a nice compost.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:24 AM on July 14, 2013

One of the tricks I use for weeds (especially singlets) on our patio may well work for you: the teakettle. Boiling water will nuke them effectively without the poison. It's not foolproof, of course, and it's not surgical, but for troublesome spots it does the trick for a while.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:42 AM on July 14, 2013

There are thousands of dormant seeds in the soil so realize you will never get rid of all the unwanted seeds in your plot. Roundup will kill the seeds this year and barriers like plastic or paper will prevent germination this year but will not prevent you from having weeds next year (they will prevent your weeds from flowering and creating more seeds).

Here are some weeding tips I learned from my father (a farmer):
-Tilling the soil brings more weed seeds to the surface so only work the top few inches of the soil.
-Keep the top inch or so of the soil 'fluffy' - seeds need both soil contact and light to germinate.
-Use the correct hoe for the job - he prefers a scuffle hoe for weeding (like this one). Most people incorrectly use planting hoes for weeding. Here's a great MetaFilter discussion on hoes!
-Keep ahead of the weeds by weeding often and you'll have less work to do overall.

If you were planning on buying plants next year, I'd recommend something like Preen to manage the weeds. I've used both the original (Trifluralin) and organic (corn gluten meal) formulas and both work well to stops any seeds from germinating for a few months. But this will not work if you plan on planting wildflower seeds unless you apply after the wildflowers seeds have sprouted.
posted by bCat at 4:50 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Next year instead of planting wildflowers, plant a ground cover. Ground cover like ivy or vinca can do a lot to keep the weeds out. You'll have to research the best kind of ground cover for your area - just walk around your neighborhood and see what other people have planted. Another think you could do is place some nice pieces of slate tile or bricks in a pattern - that will look decorative and block weed growth.
posted by yarly at 6:52 AM on July 14, 2013

Adopt a 2 year plan:

Year one:
Dig everything up down to 2-4 inches and dispose of it all including the dirt.
Power wash the brick area to wash away any weeds or seeds and might as well since you have a blank slate.
Layer on black plastic landscape material (or just cut open a couple of heavy duty black plastic trash bags since the area isn't that big but the key is 'heavy duty' as you want a thicker ply plastic).
Add a layer of very clean mulch* or something like this epoxy aggregate. Leave it a good inch below the rim to cut down on scatter.

If you chose a lighter cover material, you may want to add a layer of colored landscape cloth over your plastic. DeWitt makes one, available on Amazon. It just looks nicer if you can't see the black plastic and you may use less cover material. (You could also just layer on some brown paper grocery bags but that will break down and look tatty after a year - which won't matter if you decide to replant later)

Walk away for a year. If you do this this year, you may want keep the area covered until Spring 2015 so you have 1 full summer helping you kill everything off. You might also discover that you like the look w/plants.

Year two:
Carefully remove the works, add some clean soil and plant. Personally, I would plant miniature Mondo grass for that small of a space. Some wildflowers get tall and leggy and with a mix, you may end up with a mess.

Also If your neighbor always leaves his/her trashcans there, maybe consider installing some privacy fence weave to hide all that.
posted by jaimystery at 7:02 AM on July 14, 2013

You can lay a bunch of cardboard down first and then put mulching materials on top.

My husband recently put out a bunch of wood chips over a formerly grassy area. The spots where he put cardboard down first are weed-free whereas the spots where he didn't are already covered with weeds just a couple of months later.

The cardboard will degrade over time on its own so you don't have to pull anything back up like you would with plastic.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:05 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with the suggestions above about how to get rid of the current weeds, but I am going to challenge you on your idea that sowing a wildflower/grass mix will result in a minimum maintenance bed that will look more attractive that what you've got going now.

1. By starting from seed, the plants will start out as tiny seedlings next spring and will still have to compete with newly sprouting weeds from seed next year. Regardless of whether you use Roundup or a barrier, you are still not going to kill off all the seeds that are in the soil, and when you fluff up your bed next spring to allow your wildflowers to sprout, they're going to come back. Now you're faced with the problem of weeds in your garden that you probably can't tell apart from the stuff that you want and that's going to have to be weeded out by hand once everything gets big enough that you can tell what should stay and what should go.

2. The wildflowers that are included in most wildflower mixes are often "leggy," coarse, and weedy-looking up close or outside of their blooming season. They are not, IMHO, the best choices for a small, high visibility bed. Remember, everyone taking pictures of their wildflower meadows or beds is doing so when they look their best.

3. With a grass/wildflower mix, the grass is going to predominate eventually, with a few of the hardiest/happiest-in-your-climate wildflowers persisting in little clumps. The grass will obviously get tall and weedy looking if you don't keep it clipped back.

4. The flowers included in wildflower mixes are often annuals, biennials, or short-lived perennials, so they rely on being able to reseed if they are to persist over the years. This means you can't mulch heavily or apply weed preventer to combat undesired weeds without compromising the long-term viability of your wildflowers.

5. With a random-scattered wildflower mixture you have no way of controlling where your shorter and taller plants are going to sprout up. This is not an issue if you've got a big area to work with, but in a small bed you're not likely to get an attractive arrangement of heights.

I'm not a wildflower hater. This page gives a good, realistic description of the steps involved in establishing a satisfying wildflower planting. I just think that sometimes wildflower promoters have "drunk the koolaid" and downplay the challenges and amount of work involved in establishing and maintaining a nice wildflower planting. Personally, I think you'll get a more attractive small bed that requires minimum maintenance by a planting that combines a few low-maintenance flowering shrubs (knockout roses would be perfect), some smaller ornamental grasses like a dwarf miscanthus or blue fescue, and a few longer-lived, fairly drought tolerant perennials bought as plants from the local garden center, such as coneflower, russian sage, tidy dwarf daylilies like Stella D'Oro, moonbeam coreopsis, non-invasive catmint like "Walker's Low", with some low-growing ones right around the edges like coral bells, mondo grass, or creeping phlox. After you get everything in, then mulch the hell out of it around your plants.

That may involve more money than you were expecting to spend, but one of the golden rules of gardening is that if you want quality results, you can spend less money but put in more effort, or spend more money and put in less effort, but you can't really scrimp on both money and effort and expect pleasing results.
posted by drlith at 7:05 AM on July 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

Solarize your plot and then plant with seeds come spring.

To solarize: Work up the plot, water it, and put clear plastic over the plot. Let the plastic sit there for at least six weeks -- maybe more, depending on where you live. In the spring, plant your seedlings.

Do not "till" up the plot before seeding. Solarizing works by heating up the soil and killing the weed seeds in the top two inches of the soil (you water it before putting on the plastic because water conducts heat better). If you till it up, you'll bring viable seeds back to the surface, which kind of defeats the purpose of solarizing.
posted by retypepassword at 7:23 AM on July 14, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! Helga-woo, you are right. I did have bluebells. They were this kind, I think. But they've been dug up now.

I will try the cardboard and mulch combo, since I have a lot of boxes left from moving house. When you say "mulch", I am imagining like decorative woodchip/mini chips. That can't be right though because I don't see how I could sow on top of that. Is what you guys are calling mulch what I am thinking of as potting compost? Are any of these products what I should be putting on top of the cardboard?

A special thanks to drlith. The wildflower mix I was planning on was this one, the idea being that I would just weedwhack it with a strimmer once a month in the summer and that would be all I would have to do. (You will see that the seller has definitely drunk wildflower koolaid and is now shilling the koolaid to fund his runaway koolaid habit). Do you still think this is a bad idea? The scenario you describe in your first point is EXACTLY what I am afraid of (i.e. I wait a year and put in lots of effort and I still have to do tedious weeding!). I am ok with it looking a bit unkempt/coarse. Thanks for all of the tips, and especially the list of specific plants to put down. I think at this point it's cardboard + mulch (whatever that turns out to be!) and then worry about it in the spring.
posted by bimbam at 8:18 AM on July 14, 2013

Have you thought of planting ivy instead of wildflower mix? Definitely a different look, not wild and rambunctious but sedate and even. I have a huge bed (probably 90' x 40') of it and only have to weed at a few edges as it grows so thick and wide that it chokes out any intruders. Its lushness has multiplied through the years. Shade and full sun tolerant.
posted by Lornalulu at 8:41 AM on July 14, 2013

I've tried the wildflower solution in a couple of spots in our yard and all the warnings are true. The best low maintenance, weed-resistant plant we have now is white clover. You do have to mow it once or twice a year and maybe water it a couple times in the summer but it chokes out almost everything.

Purple vetch is better for complete cover, weedlessness and no intervention but honestly, it looks like your yard is full of weeds because to anyone else, vetch is something that must be pulled.

Mulch can be anything from hazelnut shells to pine needles to ground up tree bark to rocks. Look for landscape bark or landscape rock at your local home center.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:05 AM on July 14, 2013

The post by Lornalulu prompts me to urge -- beg -- you to check the Invasive Species list for your area before making any plant purchases. Different places have different government agencies in charge of this, but they're easy to find online.

In the Pacific Northwest, English ivy is a huge problem, spreading on its own and through bird poop, and killing everything around it. NO IVY! And morning glories -- otherwise known as bind weed around here. And butterfly bush. You'd think you wouldn't be able to buy them if they're so bad, but garden stores continue to sell plants that later require crews of volunteers to spend hours pulling out after their seeds have spread beyond your lovely little plot. (And, just in case you're tempted to believe someone selling you some graceful wisps of bamboo: there is NO SUCH THING as "clumping bamboo.")

Please consider using a mulch that will enrich the soil as it degrades. The better your soil, the better your plants will be. Rocks look tidy, but leave the soil barren. I'm not sure about shells, but I do know that pine needles will greatly increase the acidity of your soil; fine if you want to plant rhodies, but very difficult for most other plants.

I think you'll have a lot of fun with this. It's such a small area, you can make mistakes and easily correct them. But keep enriching that soil!
posted by kestralwing at 9:35 AM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Grass is a good groundcover, and there are many others. Here in Maine, wild (non-hybridized ones will spread nicely) daylilies and hosta, are quite hardy. Most varieties of mint - garden mint, spearmint, lemon, orange, and chocolate mint, oregano, etc., will run rampant and smell lovely. Mint varies in height. Sage doesn't spread fast, but I've had sage plants 15+ years old that were easy care, and they have a pretty bloom in spring. Most grasses are ornamental if you plant 1 variety - most grass seed has a variety. You could have climbing roses that would be easy care, and provide privacy. Go to a local nursery, ask them to recommend plants for your combination of sun, shade and soil type. Tell them you want the lowest possible maintenance. They should be able to help you plan an easy garden.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 AM on July 14, 2013

I'm going to go in the opposite direction here, I and suggest you try growing either some food , or a cover crop of some kind. Or maybe both. Cover crop one season, then food. You don't say where your are, so the advice will vary by location, but in the Pacific Northwest, crimson clover is a nice cover crop that will choke out weeds and feed the bees. When it dies back, till it in and plant food. It's about time to plant winter crops here, so you could think about some kale or root vegetables, or broccoli....
posted by dbmcd at 8:41 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Along the lines of kestralwing's comments about invasive species - please for the love of gods don't plant mint! That is one of the most invasive plants I've seen. I made the mistake of planting it in one of my garden boxes and it not only choked out everything else (except for the equally invasive oxeye daisies) but it's roots go crazy underground and I've had shoots come up a foot away from the box.

I'd suggest weeding as much as you can, cutting back the rest and covering the area with cardboard. Cut holes about six inches in diameter in several spots and plant lavender bushes in each hole. Cover the remaining cardboard with bark dust/wood chips. My lavenders are my favorites - tough as hell and drought tolerant. One they were established, maybe two years, I could mostly ignore them and they do great any way.

You might have do a bit of weeding the wood chips but since they'll be shallowly roots it's not much work.
posted by Beti at 8:42 PM on July 14, 2013

You are in Ireland? I thought you might be! These details can help with gardening questions.

I didn't say, because it wasn't your question, but I have done exactly what drlith suggested with my strip of front garden in London. I'm guessing it's milder and drier in London than where you are, and my patch get's lots of sun in the morning, so what you plant will depend on what grows well locally.

I'm not an expert, I just googled insect friendly plants, made a short list of ones I liked the look of, then went to a garden centre and bought the ones I liked. I wasn't too bothered about sticking to native species, so long as insects like them! I've got a few shrubs and some smaller plants in between to fill in the gap. They are all perennials (meaning they will come up every year) or self-seeding annuals. It's very easy to look after - weeding a couple of times in the year, and then prune the shrubs back once a year. It looks a little raggedy and bare in winter, not helped because I leave the seed heads on for the birds and prune in early spring, but once everything starts growing again it looks fine. I tried to get plants that flower for a long time, and at different times of the year - so from February till about October there is something flowering.

To give you some ideas, the plants I have are: fuchsia, hebe, rock rose, a red salvia which is like some of the ones on this page (I think they might need lots of sun, but it's a great plant that just flowers for months and months and months and the bees love it), lavender, and a buddleia. I also have some spring bulbs - crocuses and daffodils and some ivy for ground cover.

There's other stuff as well, some random things I've picked up over the last few years and 'weeds' that I like - such as wild geranium.

When you go round the garden centre look for the plants with the bees buzzing round them, that will be a good clue they are good for wildlife. Also keep an eye in your neighbours' gardens for things you like - it will help you find plants that grow well locally.

It was a bit of money to spend at the beginning on plants, and it took a year to really look great - although it was pretty good within a couple of months.. Not everything I planted survived, and even though the label gives you some idea of how big the plant will end up, it is really hard to judge when it's in it's tiny. So you will end up with some gaps, and other spots where plants are crowding each other, in a year's time you have to move them around a bit, and buy a plant or two more to fill in the gaps.

And sometime around then you get hooked!

Oh and word of warning if you plant a buddleia - in London at least they're seen as weeds, and I've had at least two neighbours offer to 'tidy up' my garden, even though they know I planted it up - and one even complimented me on it (before offering to destroy it)!

You don't plant in the mulch, you plant in the soil, and the mulch acts like a protective layer on top of the soil. If you put cardboard or something similar down, you will have to cut holes in it plant the plants in the soil. And then the mulch goes in an even layer on top of the cardboard right up to the stems of the plants. Although, if I were you, I would put the cardboard down now, and take up what's left when you come to plant, and then just use a mulch on top of the soil after you've put your plants in. No matter how much mulch you cover it with, as the idea is you have a garden you won't be digging much (or at all), the cardboard won't get worked into the soil and disappear quickly.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:21 PM on July 15, 2013

Other people have described the basics, but here is an article on it: lasagna gardening. Works great, no tilling or weed pulling required.
posted by echolalia67 at 11:46 AM on July 16, 2013

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