Easy Weeding for Vegetable Gardens

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Hoeing weeds

Weeding is one of the least popular jobs to be done in a vegetable garden. If the weather is fine and there is time to spare then it can be quite enjoyable. However, during busy periods weeds can quickly take hold and controlling them feels like more of a battle than a leisure activity. So, what are the best ways to keep weeds under control without resorting to harmful methods such as weedkillers?

Prevention is Better than Cure

The first rule when considering weed control is to minimise the amount of work. Use the following methods to stop weeds growing in the first place:

  • Exclude light from unplanted vegetable beds.  Placing sheets of cardboard, weighed down with bricks, over a vegetable bed before planting will ensure that weeds don't get the light they need to grow.  There will still be some persistent perennial weeds that survive such as horsetail (mare's tail) but the problem will be much reduced.
  • Mulching with cardboard
  • Add Mulch.  Once plants have grown beyond the seedling stage and are established, you can add mulch to suppress weeds, retain moisture and feed the plants.  See our Mulching article for details.
  • Consider using deeper beds: Deeper beds (often raised beds with sides of 30cm or 12 inches filled with high-quality compost mixture) give plants more room for their roots to extend downward.  This means you can usually space plants closer with less space for weeds in-between.  Many low-maintenance systems such as Square Foot Gardening use this concept combined with sterilized weed-free soil on top.
  • Grow the Weeds First: If you are using home-produced compost then it often contains weed seeds (if the compost pile didn't get hot enough to kill them).  When preparing a vegetable bed with compost I will sometimes water it for a few weeks to encourage the weed seeds to germinate.  They can then be sliced off using a hoe or their roots disturbed using a garden hand-fork a week before I put in the plants I want to keep.  This method can be a great time-saver because it is much easier to weed a bed when everything in it is weeds and you are then left with almost weed-free soil.  Just ensure you don't disturb the soil too much as that can bring fresh weed seeds to the surface.  Unfortunately it doesn't work so well in areas where weed seeds are being blown in from neighboring fields or gardens.

The Seedling Stage

This is the most important stage because weeds compete with young seedlings for water and nutrients.  Weeding by hand is often necessary because small seedlings have shallow root systems which can be easily damaged.  It is important to weed carefully round young plants to ensure that the roots remain undisturbed at this critical stage in their growth.   If you are thinning out plants that are close together then it can be better to cut unwanted seedlings off at the base as pulling them up can disturb the plant you want to keep.

Weeding is the primary reason I grow most vegetables in rows because it helps me to spot what is a weed and what is a seedling I want to keep.  To make this even easier it is often worth marking the row after sowing  the seed by using string between two stakes or adding a small line of darker commercial compost on top.

An alternative solution is to raise many of your plants in pots and trays of sterilized soil whilst leaving the vegetable beds covered.  Raising more plants in pots does require more vigilance but can be less effort than lots of meticulous hand weeding.

The Right Tool for the Job

Weeding between mature plants is easier because there is less risk of damage to their root systems.  At this stage I like to use a hoe to slice off the weeds just below the surface of the soil.  When I first started gardening it was a while before I realised that a hoe is essentially a knife on a stick and not for churning up the soil!  Because of this hoes should be light to use and their blade should be kept sharp.  As most hoes are sold very blunt this will often involve sharpening the tool using a grinding machine (best done by someone with the right equipment and experience).  Once this has been done properly it can be kept sharp by hand using a whetstone.  Professional gardeners sometimes talk about 'keeping the soil moving' as the best method of weed control and a good hoe is perfect for doing that.


Which hoe to use is a very personal choice.  I personally love the Wilkinson Sword Swoe which is light and easy to maneuvre around plants but there are many other choices available.  For deep-rooted weeds you need a tool that can lever out as much of the root as possible.  My new-found favorite is the Cobra-head weeder which is a great all-purpose tool for hand weeding but I will often use a standard garden hand-fork too.

Over Winter

Once plants approach harvest the weeding eases off.  Because your plants are now well established you can usually let the weeds coexist with them as they will be much smaller.  Just make sure that the weeds don't grow too large and produce seeds - there is a lot of wisdom in the saying "One year's seeding makes seven years' weeding"!

Weeds can in fact be very useful over winter.  They prevent bare soil being exposed to the elements which can cause erosion and loss of nutrients from water run-off.  Many weeds also do a good job of bringing nutrients up to the surface and can be dug in or added to the compost heap in the same way as a green manure (cover crop).

Other Ideas?

Of course, there are many other ways to speed up weeding and I have just mentioned my favourite methods.  If you have tips or ideas to share then please do add them as a comment below.

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Show Comments


"When you are a beginner it can be really difficult to tell the difference between a weed and a seedling. Because of this I prefer to sow seeds in pots first and plant out but this is not possible for carrots and other basic veg. I have sown some mustard, crimson clover and phalecia in areas I will not be planting in until later in the year. I like the look of quick green patches and know these will be useful for the soil when dug in."
J Third on Friday 7 May 2010
"J Third - For the seeds that can't be grown in pots such as carrots I find that if you make a drill, then put a layer of potting compost (or I tend to use the contents from a growbag -its cheaper), plant the seeds and then cover with a further layer of compost. You end up with lines of compost a different colour from the surrounding soil. Hoe the soil to your hearts content (there are no seedlings there) but dont hoe the compost lines you have. This gives your seedlings a change to germinate and once grown easier to tell from the weeds. "
M Clarke on Saturday 8 May 2010
"J-Third - This year was the first year I found carrots started at a garden center in 4-cell packs. I have had trouble the last three years getting carrots to germ, so I bought a pack and was so surprised how well the transplanted. I took a spade and turned over the soil so the roots would be able to have loosened soil to easily grow. I was surprised the roots were 2-3 inches long. I used my finger to make a hole in the fluffed up soil and dropped them in. They are doing wonderful. Looking forward to having carrots this year! This is my first year for covering my seed rows with compost/garden soil with miracle grow to help keep prevent weeds. It does make it easier to see the where the rows are and the seedlings seem to have an easier time coming up. It worked great for my peas....no weeds in the row!"
J Taylor on Saturday 8 May 2010
"I just purchased a little flame thrower for weeding purposes. I'm planning to sear those weeds that grow in prepared beds so I can minimize disturbing the soil and bring more weed seed to the surface. (I got the mini dragon from flameengineering.com)"
Carla on Sunday 9 May 2010
"If your looking for a weed free garden with minimum of effort hoe before the weeds arrive, every time your walk around the plot take the hoe and the weeds are stoped before the grow, if they dont seed there are less and less to deal with. A trick learnt from my Grandad "
Martyn Berry on Monday 10 May 2010
"Thanks to everyone for your comments and ideas. I will try them all!"
J Third on Friday 14 May 2010
"J third - I grow my veggies and herbs in raised beds with square foot gardening as my guideline for how close I can put my plants. Knowing exactly where I put each seed within the grid really helps being able to distinguish between weed and wanted plant and having the plants close together discourages weeds from growing."
Kimmy on Friday 14 May 2010
"I'm still struggling to turn a poorly maintained gravel and concrete slab front garden into combined veg and ornamental garden. (I have problems with my back, so am doing it very slowly.) The "one year's seeding makes seven year's weeding" is SO true. As well as perennial weeds, I'm dealing with self seeded bluebells, two types of poppies and violas in the oddest of places. If I only have five minutes, I go round and remove any flower heads that have popped up, even if I don't have time to get the whole weed. It's starting to make a difference! I also gave bluebells away in large quantities - everyone in my office got 3 or 4 pots!"
Sarah D on Thursday 20 May 2010
"I bought a cobra-head weeder - fantastic thanks "
di green on Saturday 19 June 2010
"Why not grow your carrots and the like in plastic tubes filled with compost, Put a ring of vasoline/grease around the tops to deter slugs and bugs from climbing up the tubing. Weeding then becomes a doddle. ;-)"
D.Wilson on Monday 21 June 2010
"Thanks for all of your comments. It is still way too early here (N'east US) to plant but I am preparing my 4x8 raised bed garden for the 2nd year. I made a number of mistakes last year which I now know to correct (and I'm sure I'll make some new mistakes this year, lol) I have 4 varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, 3 varieties of lettuce, and a handful of herbs started indoors.....I sent off a soil sample to the local agricultural co-op station for analysis and can't wait to hear back from them. Going to cover the raised bed once I do another weeding with dark soil cover to help hold in heat. It is still FREEZING here, literally down into the low 30's (F) at night and only 40's-50's daytime."
Space on Sunday 17 April 2011
"Another good type of hoe to have is a hula hoe. It has a closed loop on the business end which cuts the weeds odd below soil level. "
Marilyn Wilkie on Monday 18 April 2011
"Have you tried an organic weed pre-emergent called Corn Glutten Meal? It's not regular corn meal, this one will keep seeds from sprouting. I'm trying it for the first time this yearand was curious about other people's results."
Demetria on Monday 18 April 2011
"spent the morning weeding with my cobra-head weeder-so easy -I love it"
di green on Tuesday 21 June 2011
"I have this year tried Mexican Marigolds, Tagets Minuta, and they are now in full bloom (Nov 2011)to attempt to eradicate Horsetail (marestail) from my allotment. There are mixed feelings on our site as to whether this will be a successs and unfortunately I will not know until next year when the dreaded perenniel weed may indeed re show it's head! I will of course let you all know if indeed it has been a success. Has anyone else tried this method and if so was it a success?"
Mick Boydell on Saturday 19 November 2011
"Hi Folks,Tony from Tolworth today nice and sunny but what did you do last week when it rained and rained stay inside and moaned.I went weeding after a shower, I think thats the best time to weed.If you weed when it's dry the soil just holds onto the roots,but weed after a shower and the roots just slip out no special tools no hoes just hands grip and pull.And now is the time just before the weeds flower and spread more moaning. "
TONY WOODS on Tuesday 8 May 2012
"I think best way to make weeding easy is to have lots of humous in your garden soil. I have a heavy clay soil and without incorporating lots of humous into the soil it is next to impossible to get the weeds out of the concrete like clay. Also get them when they are tiny don't wait til you need a backhoe to haul them out. "
Bill on Tuesday 8 January 2013
"Great article! Another idea for fewer weeds: SEEDING SQUARE is a great tool to use on planting day to reduce weeds for later on. It optimizes garden space giving up to 5 times the yield, which in turn reduces the number of weeds that come in, as there simply isn't room for them. It's a color-coded seed spacer based off the Square Foot Gardening seed spacing method. Highly recommend!"
Jennifer Pratt on Monday 2 July 2018
"Perform your weeding at night. I've incorporated this a few years ago and discovered that weeding during dark nights (no heavy spotlights or full moons!) with a flashlight will activate FAR less weed seeds than cultivating soil in the daytime. There are a few articles on the web about this which shocks me. Stubborn perennials will come back like Johnson grass and tie vines, but annuals cannot. I use an old 3 tine cultivator and scratch the top 1 to 1 1/2" of the soil with a headlamp or flashlight. 10 minutes a night for a few nights during the dark-of-the-moon and your in business. A little round-up with a paint-brush during the day will easily wipe out the perennials. I was forced to find a way to battle the weeds using less herbicides when I accidentally burned a couple of my wife's tomato plants. Your neighbors may look at you funny, but it works!!"
Bryan on Monday 20 April 2020

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