If you are a let-it-all-grow gardener, skip this weedy talk—for now. But eventually an unweeded garden becomes an unruly mess, and attention must be paid. Weeds are either annual or perennial. When preparing a new bed, dig up and pull out every last scrap of perennial weed root as you go. Nothing saves more hours of frustrating future work. Each scrap of thistle, bindweed or grass root left in the ground will rise up again to haunt you.
Unless you are sure an area is clean, it may be best to let a freshly dug bed stand empty for a few weeks, watch what sprouts and spot-dig again to round up strays. If patience allows, seed and plant a new bed with annuals the first year; come fall and again in spring, you’ll have a chance to catch the last perennial weeds. A perennial bed infested with grass or weed roots is best turned out altogether, the soil re-dug and cleared before replanting—a big job. Clearly, prevention is far easier than the cure.
The most awkward place to weed is under shrubs, worse if they are prickly roses. The best labour-saving plan is to rake and dump all your fall leaves, and any more that you can get, in a thick layer underneath shrubs as natural weed-and-feed mulch.
And finally, remember the old farm saying “One year’s seeding makes seven years’ weeding.” Nip annual weeds in the bud, before they drop their seeds by the thousands.
Tender feelings are part of gardening, but too much sentimentality leads directly to extra work. Making things easier is sometimes as simple—and as difficult—as foregoing a favourite plant. Every spring, as I’m forking out wide-ranging mats of bee balm—only to put back a few small segments—I wonder why I bother. But by July, when hummingbirds are whirring over the tufty red or rose crowns, I remember. Still, if annual intervention is not for you, it may be bye-bye bee balm. Likewise for shasta daisies, some heucheras and most chrysanthemums—whose winter survival is unpredictable—and patches of bearded irises, so beautiful in bloom but require frequent cleanup and major renovation every four to five years.
With so many options, is there any point nursing along plants that routinely fall ill, succumb to insects or resist your best efforts? As a friend says: “I don’t grow any plant that doesn’t like my garden or appreciate what I do for it.”
Despite the prose of garden writers (who ought to know better) and the fantasies of those who have yet to dig in, gardening is not a sun-hatted swanning around spent scattering seeds, dropping in plants and extracting the odd willing weed from soft soil with barely a bent back or broken fingernail. There’s work involved. And authentic pleasures, too, as you trowel holes in a freshly prepared bed for a collection of new plants waiting on the lawn, and observe changes as some imagined scene takes shape. After a few hours staring at a computer screen indoors, the simple fact of being outside doing something creative and imprecise—something mucky—comes as a balm for mind and body.