Whether you’ve planted vegetables or flowers in your yard lately, you’ve likely noticed some dismaying intruders: weeds.
Whether they’re dandelions, bindweed, spurge, or some other growth, weeds rob nutrients and sunlight from the plants you want to grow—which is why weeds must be eliminated!
But how? Before you grab some weedkiller and douse your lawn with it in frustration, there are a few factors to consider. Just be sure you’re not making these common mistakes while trying to tackle weeds in your yard.
1. Not reading the label on the weedkiller
If you’ve ever looked closely at your weedkiller bottle, you’ve probably noticed there’s practically an entire encyclopedia printed on the label. There’s so much fine print it can be overwhelming. But before you start spraying this way and that, it’s worth your time to sit down and read everything on the bottle. Yes, everything.
This information explains exactly what you should and should not do while using the weedkiller. This is important, since you’re working with highly toxic chemicals.
The label will explain whether your weedkiller is harmful to pets, birds, and other wildlife that frequent your yard. It will tell you the optimal conditions for spraying, including what temperature is ideal. It will also explain what precautions you should take to protect yourself from any harm, as well as harm to your neighbors and the environment. (For example, never, ever spray weedkiller when it’s windy.)
2. Not wearing protective gear
Yes, it’s hot outside and humid, depending on where you live. While you might be inclined to just pop outside in a tank top and shorts to kill a few weeds, think again. This stuff is toxic—it is decimating your weeds, after all—so just imagine what it can do to your skin, lungs, and eyes. It may seem like overkill, but wearing protective gear is paramount when spraying herbicides.
At a minimum, you need a mask that covers your nose and mouth (you should be used to this by now), safety goggles or large sunglasses, long pants, a long shirt, closed-toe shoes, socks, and gloves. These coverings help prevent the weedkiller’s potent, harmful chemicals from reaching any part of your body.
Anyone who’s outside while you’re spraying herbicides also needs to take these measures. And it’s probably best to keep children and pets indoors, says Karey Windbiel-Rojas, associate director for urban and community integrated pest management at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
3. Spraying herbicide everywhere
Weedkillers will, unquestionably, kill your weeds. But if you’re not careful in how you use them, they will also kill grass, flowers, hostas, and any other plants they come in contact with.
Selective herbicides, which are designed to kill only certain types of plants, can help with this, but they’re not perfect. They may be less toxic to the plants you want to keep, but they’re definitely not harmless, so be conservative no matter what you’re spraying.
“Herbicides like Roundup kill all plants and grasses without discerning one from the other,” says Jay Greene, a lawn care expert with Truly Nolen Pest Control. “Spraying products like these produces a dead area in the lawn, which allows for sun-to-soil contact. In situations with sun-to-soil contact, the most likely new growth will be weeds. It creates an endless cycle, which eventually spreads and makes the intrusion worse.”
4. Assuming that natural weedkillers are safer
You may have heard that Roundup and other herbicides that use glyphosate are bad for the environment and your health. Maybe you’re looking into some natural weedkillers like vinegar, which is sold in high concentrations as “horticultural vinegar” at your local home and garden store.
Even though these natural weedkillers are technically better for you and the earth, that doesn’t mean they aren’t potentially harmful. You should still take all the necessary precautions you would with a traditional weedkiller, including wearing protective gear and reading the entire label on the bottle before you start spraying.
5. Not pulling weeds out by the roots
Every week you whack your weeds into submission, but within a few days, the weeds are back, just as tall as they were before you mowed. Why? Because you didn’t do anything to address their roots. By simply cutting off the top of the weeds, you’re merely forcing them to grow again.
To really address the problem, you need to yank or dig them out by their roots. It’s a long, arduous process, especially if you have a yard full of weeds, but it’s the only way to prevent them from growing back at full force.
“In order to remove weeds thoroughly, the root must be pulled,” says Greene. “By not doing so, you’re allowing for regrowth and potential spread of the weed in the area.”
6. Pulling weeds when the soil is dry
On a related note, you’re not doing yourself any favors when you try to yank weeds from bone-dry soil, since small pieces of the roots can break off and remain—and regrow. Instead, wait until after a good rainstorm or consider softening the affected area with your garden hose. You’ll thank us later.
7. Forgetting about the weed seeds
Pulling weeds out by the roots or smothering them with weedkiller will work just fine, but only for those weeds that have already sprouted. You’re probably forgetting about the thousands of tiny weed seeds buried deep underground, just waiting to turn into full-blown weeds.
To destroy weed seeds, you also need to use what’s known as a pre-emergent herbicide, which helps prevent weeds from sprouting in the first place. These herbicides are most effective when applied to your yard in early spring or fall, when weeds are more dormant.
8. Waiting too long to tackle weeds
Don’t wait until the middle of summer to start addressing the weed problem in your yard. In fact, you can get ahead of weeds during the dead of winter by applying a layer of mulch in areas where you don’t have grass or other ground cover.
“A deep layer of mulch prevents weeds from emerging in the first place,” says Elle Meager, a master gardener and the founder of Outdoor Happens. “The weeds that do poke through are easy to remove because the mulch keeps the soil moist. Mulch also conditions your soil and encourages earthworms and microorganisms, a win-win situation.”
When spring arrives and the inevitable weeds start to appear, get outside and tackle them right away. Don’t wait until they grow into huge eyesores—they’re much easier to pull when they’re younger and smaller.Sarah Kuta is a writer and editor based in Colorado.