Hero Image

Getting a Handle on Your Weeds

Lambert Yuri, Unsplash
Lambert Yuri, Unsplash

> Types of weeds
> Life cycle of weeds
> How to identify weeds
> Managing weeds
> What to do when you already have weeds
> What you should know about weedkillers
> How to prevent weeds

Weeds are generally defined as any plant growing in a place where you don’t want it, or a plant that is undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome. No matter what definition is used, weeds are plants whose undesirable qualities outweigh their good points. Weeds are naturally strong competitors and can dominate other plant species. 

Knowing what types of weeds you have can help in managing them. UC ANR
Knowing what types of weeds you have can help in managing them. UC ANR
We often think of weeds as the dandelions growing in a lawn, or grassy plants popping up in our vegetable bed.  Weeds can be any plant type – tree, shrub, vine, grass, perennial, or annual plants. In Marin, consider blue eucalyptus and black acacia, Scotch broom and bamboo, English ivy, pampas grass, or wild onion as some of the unwelcome plants that may pop up in our gardens. For some, these may be desirable plants, while for many, they are considered weeds, and even worse, invasive plants. Learn more about invasive plants  and how to prevent them from getting into your garden.


Types of weeds
Broadleaf Plants with relatively broad leaves with branched leaf veins
Grasses Plants with narrow leaves with parallel veins and small, inconspicuous flowers
Sedges Plants that resemble grasses but have a triangular stem
Mosses Small, flowerless plants having stems with leaflike structures and growing in velvety clusters in moist, shady areas
Woody Plants with woody trunks or stems

Life cycle of weeds

Queen Anne’s lace takes two years to complete its life cycle. Wikimedia Commons
Queen Anne’s lace takes two years to complete its life cycle. Wikimedia Commons

It is helpful to understand the life cycles, growth, and reproduction of individual types of weeds in order to effectively manage them.

Annual weeds - a plant that germinates, flowers, sets seed, and dies within a single year. All annuals spread only by seed.
There are two types of annual weeds:

Summer annuals emerge as soon as soil temperatures warm in the spring or early summer. Examples: crabgrass, knotweed, and creeping spurge
Winter annuals germinate from seed in the late summer or early fall. Young winter annual plants live through the winter then flower, set seed and die out the following summer. Examples: common chickweed, and annual bluegrass

Biennial weeds – a plant that usually lives for two years. In the first year seeds germinate and grow without flowering. The plant flowers and dies in the second year. Examples: Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot), evening primrose, and common mullein.

Perennial weeds - a plant which lives for many years and does not die after flowering. All perennials have underground parts that store food over the winter and allow them to reemerge in the spring.
There are two different types of perennial weeds:

Simple perennials these plants grow singly. You may sometimes see several plants close to each other, but the plants have separate root systems and are not joined underground. They spread only by seed. Examples: curly dock, plantains, and dandelion
Spreading perennials these plants begin life as a seed but are also able to spread by vegetative reproduction. They send out runners, or horizontal stems known as rhizomes or stolons. Examples: Yellow nutsedge, bermudagrass, and white clover.


How to identify weeds

The UC IPM Weed Photo Gallery includes many, though not all, weed species commonly found in California landscapes. You can simply look for a photo that matches the weed you want to identify. You can also use the UC Weed Identification Tool.  It is a stepwise process that asks questions about the weed you want to identify and provides a list of the “most likely” weeds based on your answers.


Managing weeds

If your weed management approach is “let them be,” knowing they’ll eventually die back, think again. Some weeds are aggressive and invasive; tops may die down, but roots remain alive until conditions are right for them to grow. Many spread by seeds; that one little dandelion plant in your lawn can produce nearly 2,000 seeds during a single growing season!


What to do when you already have weeds

A hula hoe is an efficient way to remove weeds. UC ANR
A hula hoe is an efficient way to remove weeds. UC ANR
Get them while they’re young – weeds with tender leaves and less developed roots are easier to remove.

Pull while the soil is still moist – as soil dries out it tightens its grip on roots. Irrigate a day or two before you start pulling.

Yank them out before they develop seeds - if you’ve got tall weeds and can’t pull them, use a string trimmer to cut them down before they flower.

Get the whole thing, roots and all – grab the weed close to the ground, twisting the plant slightly as you remove it. Leaving even a portion of the roots is enough for them to regrow, especially those with deep taproots like dandelions, or the lengthy stubborn roots of bindweed.

Use tools for difficult spaces – an old screwdriver can help pry out those nasty ones shooting up between pavers or in the cracks of a driveway. For areas blanketed with tiny weeds, try a stirrup/hula hoe. Push and pull the hoe just under the soil surface to loosen weeds for easy removal.  

Sheet compost – after cutting weeds back and moistening the area, place a layer of cardboard topped with a thick layer of compost and/or mulch. This process takes a few months to complete, but it can simultaneously eliminate weeds and improve soil quality. It can be used for a small patch of weeds or a large area. Learn more here. 

Woody or invasive weeds like poison oak and wild blackberries may require more aggressive tactics. Here’s more information on managing woody invaders.  


What you should know about weed killers 

Consider using a weed killer ONLY as a last resort. Herbicides (weed killers) are pesticides designed to control undesirable plants.
The main types of herbicides include:

Nonselective kills most plants they contact
Selective controls some kinds of plants but not others
Preemergent controls the germinating seeds before plants emerge from the soil
Postemergent controls weeds that have already emerged

Nonselective herbicides can damage anything they touch. UC ANR
Nonselective herbicides can damage anything they touch. UC ANR
If you do choose to use an herbicide, try the least toxic types first. Many newer products are made from plant oils such as clove, lemongrass, eugenol, and other oils that are less toxic options.

When using any herbicide, follow label directions precisely. Otherwise, products may fail to control the weeds, damage desirable plants, or limit your ability to replant in that area. Applying too much herbicide in an area also wastes money and can lead to it running off site and contaminating creeks and streams. Weed Control Using Herbicides provides information on types of herbicides and the plants they are formulated to control. Learn more about handling pesticides and their safe disposal before using them.  

How to prevent weeds

The easiest way to prevent weeds is to cover soil with plants or mulch. UC ANR
The easiest way to prevent weeds is to cover soil with plants or mulch. UC ANR
Don’t disturb soil unless necessary  – dormant seeds brought to the surface and exposed to air and light will be ripe for germination.

Block their growth by covering open areas with landscape fabric (weed block) and topping it with soil or mulch. Water and air gets through, but weeds can’t easily penetrate the barrier.

Crowd the weeds out by planting densely; keep ample space for air circulation, but minimize exposed soil.

Mulch, mulch, mulch!  Cover the surface of soil with two to four inches of organic material such as fir bark or wood chips. 

Deprive them of water. Water the plants you want, not the bare soil around them. Deprive weed seeds of moisture they need to germinate by using drip irrigation


Here is more detailed information about managing weeds in your landscape or lawn