Weeds -- those unbidden volunteers that compete for nutrients with the flowers, herbs and vegetables you plant -- are an inevitable part of any garden. Chemical methods for controlling them aren't always feasible or desirable, and when they aren't, you have to do it manually. Tools can make the job easier, but often the best approach is to use your own opposable thumbs and some clever and effective weed-defeating strategies.
1. Work in Wet Soil
A wet working environment isn't very appealing, but wet soil is great for pulling weeds. It tends to be very loose, and easily lets go of roots that seemed immovable when the soil was dry. Plan to weed within a day or two after a good, soaking rain. If weather refuses to accommodate your plans, wetting down the soil a day or two before you plan to weed will give the water time to soak in and penetrate to the roots so they'll come out easily. It's particularly important to soak dry, compacted soil, especially if it contains rocks. If the soil isn't wet and loose, there's a good chance that only half the root will come out when you pull a weed, and the weed will survive.
2. Use Good Tools
A variety of useful weed-pulling tools are available at garden centers, and using at least one of them could save your fingers and your back a lot of discomfort. With a good trowel -- not the inexpensive ones that bend -- or a Japanese soil knife, you can dislodge a weed's taproot and pull the weed in the same motion. More heavy-duty weed pullers use a scissors-like motion to dig and cut the cut when you push down on a foot lever. Like hoes and dandelion diggers, the weed puller has long handles, so you don't have to pull while bending over.
3. Get the Taproot
It's tempting to grab a clump of weeds in one hand and pull them all out at the same time. This may provide temporary improvement, but the weeds will probably come right back, because you didn't pull the taproots. To do that, you have to grasp each individual weed at the base of the stem, and give it a little twist as you pull on it. If it doesn't pull out easily, use a trowel or knife to loosen the soil, and try again. If the weeds are seeding, handle them carefully and drop them into a bucket rather than piling them on the ground. You don't want to be the source of next year's weed problems.
4. Posture and Gear
You won't last long as a weed puller if you work bent over at the waist -- your lower back will be screaming for relief in no time. Veteran weed pullers work on one or both knees, and they wear knee pads for comfort. They also wear gloves, because time spent weed pulling can leave bare hands blistered. Good weed-pulling gloves have non-slip material on the fingers, but they are porous, letting your hands breathe. If you're working in an area that has been recently sprayed with chemicals, it's wise to wear a respirator.