The arrival of autumn sees so many of our ornamental plants and crops become dormant or go into tick over mode for the coming winter, but you can be sure the weeds will keep growing and we need to keep on top of them to limit their advance next year! Whether it’s daisies in lawns, nettles at the back of borders or groundsel on the allotment, the most unwanted plants in our gardens and veg plots have the ability to grow during the coldest and darkest of days. After all that’s what makes them so successful and means that we spend our time removing them.
While most of us do the weeding regularly in summer, it’s a job we often neglect in the ‘dormant season’. Gardens often get a tidy and are ‘put to bed’ for the winter. After all it’s not really the weather to get out there is it? But checking up on the beds and borders only a few weeks later will often reveal a pale green haze of tiny weed seedlings or the tufts of dandelions poking through the soil.
Why weed in late autumn and winter
It is often said that ‘one year’s seeds is seven years’ weeds’ and stopping the unwanted and prolific weeds from flowering and setting seeds is understood as good horticultural practice in the spring and summer. But there are plenty of weedy plants that are able to produce flowers and seeds in the winter too. And if it is a mild winter, things like groundsel, bitter cress and chickweed can grow almost unseen and produce at least one extra batch of seeds. It only needs one or two flowers to produce 20-60 seeds and that is enough to get the spring off to a weedy start.
Meanwhile the perennial weeds, most of which have vigorous or deep root systems, have the ability to continue rooting through the soil despite cold weather above ground. This allows clumps to increase in size and for roots to spread to new areas of the garden. Come the spring and early summer, these weeds can have become very well established without you realising. And this means more major work to get rid of them.
So autumn and winter weeding are really beneficial for reducing weed problems in the following season. But one of the biggest pluses from doing the job at this time of year is that the top growth of many cultivated plants will have died back allowing you to see what you’re doing.
How and when to weed
Timing is all important with autumn and winter weeding. Don’t attempt it after very heavy rain as the soil will be saturated and liable to becoming heavily compacted by walking on it. Equally, weeding after a frost is not advisable as it will be difficult to get the roots out of the hardened ground. And even when the frost melts, the soil is often left very sticky and can be easily smeared. Far better to leave the weeding until dull, but dry days once the soil surface has had chance to dry out a little.
The techniques for removing weeds are also likely to be different in the autumn and winter than those used in summer. Wetter soil means that hoeing is much less effective. Not only will the hoe become clogged with mud as you use it, but the slicing action – cutting the top growth cleanly from the weed roots – will be inefficient. Hand weeding, using a hand fork will involve effort, but will also be more successful at getting to the root of the problem. And don’t obsess about every tiny weed seedling. Remember that growth will be slower and you can always come back for another weeding session in 6 weeks or so when they’ll bigger and easier to get rid of.
So the gardener’s efforts shouldn’t stop for the dormant season. A few days concentrating on evicting weeds now will save time and effort next year. And as long as you wrap up warm and do a bit at a time, winter weeding needn’t be too much of a chore. Ultimately it goes with the territory!