How to weed your garden: bring your plot back to life

Don't let weeds take over your garden. Discover what is growing in your garden and the best ways to get rid of unwanted weeds so your outdoor space is at its best this spring.
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How wonderful it would be if our favourite plants grew at the same cracking pace as garden weeds. Sadly, the reality of the long wet winter, coupled with our reluctance to get out and garden in spring's appalling weather, is that reigning victorious in many a London garden are dandelions, dockweed and sow thistle.

But does it matter what they're called? Yes, if you want to get rid of them. You need to know what you're up against, plus it's handy to know you're not digging up the welcome offspring of a nearby lavender or foxglove.

How to weed your garden
© Elke Borkowski/Gap photos/designed by Helen Riches
Keeping the lawn free of weeds takes patience, diligence and sometimes the discriminate use of a spot-weeder. Vacant holes can be filled with soil and grass seed

Watering can
© Pernilla Bergdahl/Gap Photos
You can use dandelions to make wine
An annual weed that spreads itself by seed, providing you pull it out early, isn't a great menace; a perennial that runs underground to pop up all over the place, threatening to become a permanent resident, can ruin the whole plot. Brambles take root if the stems are left to linger on the ground, forming thick and thorny half-hoops that trip you up. Creeping buttercups sashay about by runners, rooting where they fancy; dandelion and dock send down tap roots that are dashed difficult to rout out, leaving what's left to regrow; bindweed, while its flower-clad stems strangle your prize perennials, sends out horizontal rhizomes, and so does the horror that is horsetail: I've moved house to get away from it.

Most annual weeds, when they're small, can be easily pulled up by hand. On a veg plot, a three-sided hoe, sometimes called a swoe hoe, remains the best defence; chopping their heads off is satisfying work once you hit a steady rhythm. In beds and borders, nothing beats the combo of a kneeling pad, hand fork and pointed trowel, though add gardening gloves to the mix if your garden's band of opportunists includes skin-irritant spurge or stinging nettles which, like comfrey, make great additions to a nicely heated compost heap.

Goosegrass left unchecked flings garlands over all and is easy enough to pull away, but be wary of the seeds hooking onto your clothes because you can be spreading while you're eradicating; dandelion clocks can cling in a similar way. Perennial thugs such as bindweed, brambles and couch grass should not be composted because they will come back, like snails thrown over the garden wall, to haunt you. The key word to control them — you can't always get rid of them completely — is persistence.

© Howard Rice/Gap Photos
Use unwanted nettles to make soup
Cut down, dig out as much root or rhizome as you can, and keep a watchful eye. Rhizomes and roots can break into bits that can each produce a new plant, and if the infestation is bad, a weed-suppressing membrane, where light stops play, is the best solution, but it takes at least a year to be effective.

In a border where weeds are hopelessly enmeshed with garden plants, the ideal solution is to remove the lot, temporarily rehousing the plants and removing every bit of weed from their roots before replanting into clean soil.

Don't feel too bad, however, if you can't always follow an organic route. Even the greenest garden designers, when faced with a weed-ridden plot that they need to transform in limited time, have been known to strap a cylinder of glyphosate on their back and get blitzing.

Dealing with lawn weeds — plantain, clover and co — depends on your attitude. Call them wildflowers and let them thrive, spot-weed on a windless day, or get down on your hands and knees with a heavy-duty apple corer, then fill in the holes with soil and grass seed. Scraping out weeds with a knife from the cracks in every paving stone on path or patio is a route to madness; a saner solution is to use a spot-weeder or even a flameweeder on a dry day.

The best way to rid your garden of weeds and avoid hours of toil? Stuff your garden with plants you love, apply a thick mulch around new charges and deploy groundcover such as geraniums, minor, lamium and stachys to fill in the gaps, so there is simply no spare room for unwelcome guests.

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