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What to Do When Your Garden is a Lost Cause

Suddenly noticing your beloved flower bed or vegetable garden has become an unwieldy mass of weeds is almost as depressing as watching it happen. The good news is you aren’t alone, it happens to all of us. The better news is you can bring it back.

Right now my herb garden is home to several alpine strawberry plants, two rugosa roses, volunteer cosmos and five-foot tall thistles. That’s about it.

Ok, not really, there’s a lot of random weeds too. Not to toot my own horn but I have a fantastic crop of burdock this year.

I’m not sure when it happened but the whole garden got away from me. Oddly enough, it’s closer to the house than the vegetable garden and it’s the only one with outdoor lighting. So you’d think I’d be out there all the time.

I really wanted to put up an actual fence around it this year, to keep the chickens from digging up everything and to keep my kids safe from the rugosas. Well, that didn’t happen and at the moment the old temporary fence is a tangled mess of wild morning glories and ironweed.

At this point in the year, there isn’t a lot I can do to save the garden. It’s too hot to direct sow anything right now but I can get ready for a few quick fall crops, more likely I’ll just get it prepped for next year.  To start things off I had to rip out the front part of the fence, it didn’t make it in one piece. RIP fence.

You’re here reading this so I’m going to guess you’re in a similar position. Maybe you had a sick kid or baseball tournaments or you got sucked into painting your best friend’s aunt’s boyfriend’s next-door neighbors kitchen cabinets. Life happens, I get it.

Accept it and Move on

No point crying over spilled milk, unless it’s breast milk, you can totally cry then because pumping sucks. The damage is done, your garden sucks. Dig out your Elsa wig and let it gooooooooooooo.

That’s one of the great things about gardens. You always get another shot. In my vegetable garden, I have 2 whole 4×16 ft garden beds sitting empty.

Those two beds look about as good as my herb garden, nothing but weeds. Seriously, I could have entered some of those thistles into the state fair and got a ribbon!

Since we’re in the summer lull I’ve got a few weeks where I’m not planting anything so I wanted to try and reclaim them along with the herb garden.

Is there anything worth saving?

sage plant surrounded by garden weeds

First step is a recon mission. The more you want to save the longer it’s going to take to clean out the garden. If you look closely in the picture above you can see a sage plant.

While the vegetable garden beds are empty I do have a few things in the herb garden that I’d like to keep. Before I went on a garden murder spree I wanted to make sure those plants would be safe.

Go through your garden and find anything worth saving. Look carefully, you might be surprised by how much of that weed pile is actually a healthy tomato!

sage plant with dirt around it

Put on some garden gloves, grab a pair of pruners for the thick stuff and your favorite weeding tool for the rest. That’s the same sage plant from above, looks a lot bigger without the competition!

I’ve always got my trust Cape Cod weeder with me. Check out my post on my favorite garden tools for more ideas. A bucket or wagon is also helpful to clean up the mess.

Go around the plants you want to keep carefully removing the weeds. Remove everything in a 1 foot radius. After you’ve got everything you want to keep marked it’s time to bring in the big guns.

Check out my Favorite Garden Tools for the Home Gardener

War on the Weeds

My usual process for weeding my garden is to go through and remove anything going to seed and anything dangerous. That means it’s time to get rid of the thistles.

overgrown garden bed with cosmos and unidentifiable weeds

Take all that stuff and toss it in the fire pit, or the woods or wherever you get rid of your garden waste.

Then we’re gonna pull out the big guns. I had to get rid of tall weeds and grass. For the grass I used my push mower, very very slowly along the fence row where it had crept into the garden.

Read more about Weeding Your Garden When You’re Overwhelmed

I ended up mowing down the whole front section taking out some smaller weeds along with the grass. I did leave some of the cosmos because they’re pretty and the bees like them.

Then I put on a podcast, sat down and went to my happy place. I love gardening and being in the dirt. I worked across the garden, pulling out the big weeds, digging out roots and getting the garden back under control.

semi cleaned out garden bed with large pile of weeds in the front left and a wagon filled with small weeds and roots in the right front

I worked in sections moving around the center ‘patio’ section where I laid down cardboard and landscape cloth. There are also lots of bags of mulch that I picked up during the Lowe’s mulch sale.

In the 4 foot wide garden beds I like work down one side and up the other. That way I don’t have to do a lot of reaching and I can pull my wagon along with me to hold the weeds.

I ended up working on this over a few days. I pulled out the big stuff and tossed it in a pile. Then I put all the small weeds & roots into my dump cart and put them in the chicken run.

Chickens hate  piles, anytime you need to keep them busy give them a pile of something to destroy. Wood shavings, a flake of straw or a giant pile of weeds.

After I finished a section I dumped in few buckets of chicken coop… material. I have a dirt floor and use the deep litter method so there is never a shortage!

I lightly worked it into the soil and then covered it all with some of the dried-out weeds I’d pulled. If I had straw I’d use that but I don’t.

Keeping the soil covered will cut back on the weeds popping up and encourage the earthworms to work all the chicken bedding into the soil. At this point I’ve pulled off two sides of the fence and let me tell you, the chickens have noticed.

This is my garden buddy, she’s a Dominique and always around when I’m in the garden. Mary loves to toss her earthworms and she’s always hanging around waiting for more.

I ended up pulling out a section of portable net fencing I bought to keep the geese in the orchard. I haven’t made a house out there for them yet so they’re still living wild and free.

The fence was long enough that I could fence off the grapes along with the herb garden. Hopefully I’ll actually get to eat some grapes this year! This was the first year I got to eat any of my currants so maybe I’ll get lucky again.

overgrown garden with green plastic temporary fencing strangled by weeds

How to Reclaim a Feral Garden

This ended up pretty wordy and your situation will probably be at least a little different than mine so here’s a condensed play by play:

  1. Find anything worth saving
  2. Remove anything going to seed or prickly/dangerous and get rid of it
  3. If there’s nothing worth saving mow it all to the ground
  4. If there is some stuff you want to keep weed around it carefully then mow/rip out anything left
  5. Add compost or rotted manure and work into the soil a little
  6. Cover with straw or some dried weeds (nothing going to seed) to encourage the earthworms to work your poop into the soil
  7. Fence out the damn chickens

You can do this all in one go, or break it up over a few days. After you’ve got the soil covered up your job is done. Just walk away.

Reflection

Now that we’ve gotten rid of the weeds, salvaged a few plant it’s time to look back on what caused the garden to go feral.

Was your garden too big? Bad location? Do you hate gardening? Does the sun hate you so you have to hide away 5 months of the year thanks mom for the redhead genes?

Some problems are easy to fix, you can always make your garden smaller or pick things that need less hand-holding. Zucchini, rhubarb and daylilies seem to thrive on neglect.

Other problems, like a bad location, are harder to overcome. Look into plants that can solve you problems, like shade lovers for areas lacking sun and swampy plants for wet areas.

I can’t help you if it turns out you hate gardening but if that sun example hit a little close to home, check out the Sun Protection shirts from Duluth Trading. I was skeptical but I bought one last summer and it saved my life (and my skin).

Gardening is a learning process, don’t beat yourself up! There’s always next year!


Check out my Garden page for more ideas or start here:

how to weed your garden hand pulling weeds
A Death and New Life on the Farm
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Isadora

Sunday 7th of March 2021

I had to laugh at your spilled milk comment. I'm pumping right now and I agree, it sucks!