The variegated form of goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’) is the form most commonly seen in gardens.

Whether you call it goutweed (as we will here), ground elder, bishop’s weed or any one of over its dozen other common names, Aegopodium podagraria is one of the most common groundcovers used in our gardens… and also one of the most pernicious weeds known to man. Once established, it spreads out in all directions thanks to its numerous horizontal underground rhizomes. It’s a very domineering plant, choking out other vegetation and even preventing trees and shrubs from germinating. In addition, it readily leaves gardens to invade nearby fields and forests, causing inestimable damage to the environment in countries where is it not native. And it is terribly difficult to control once it does get loose!

Know Thine Enemy

First a description.

Goutweed is native to Eurasia where it commonly grows in the dense shade of forests. It’s a umbellifer, that is, in the Apiaceae family. It’s closely related to the carrot and, in fact, damaged roots and leaves of goutwood give off a characteristic carrotlike odor.

The upper leaves are twice ternate. Each of the three leaflets is divided in turn into three leaflets.

The lower leaves are divided into three toothed, pointed leaflets while the upper leaves are twice ternate (each of the three leaflets is in turn divided into three more leaflets). While the species, A. podagraria, has plain green leaves, the form most commonly grown in gardens is A. podagraria ‘Variegata’, with variegated foliage: green leaves are edged in white. When variegated goutweed self-sows, though, it gives entirely green plants. That explains why entirely green plants often appear near plantings of the variegated form. The green form is even more vigorous and invasive than the variegated variety and when the two grow together, the green variety may eventually smother out the variegated one.

Goutweed in bloom: the flowers look a lot like wild carrots.

Goutweed can reach 50 to 100 cm tall when in bloom in mid-summer, topped par domes (umbels) of tiny white flowers. Its stems are hollow. Its roots can dig down deeply into the soil, sometimes to a depth of several yards (meters).

Goutweed rhizomes.

Goutweed mainly spreads via its creeping rhizomes and, like many plants that have chosen vegetative propagation as their main means of reproduction, rarely self-sows. That’s good news for gardeners, because at least you don’t have to worry (much) about having to suppress the plant’s flowers to prevent it escaping by seed.

Since goutweed will grow in almost any environment – sun or shade and soil that is rich or poor, moist or dry, acidic or alkaline, etc. – and has no natural enemies outside of its native Eurasia, once it has escaped, you can’t count on Mother Nature stopping it.

Controlling Goutweed

The very easiest way to get rid of goutweed is to move away. Yes, change houses. That may seem excessive, but I assure you that more than one gardener has sold their home because of an uncontrollable goutweed infestation that made gardening impossible.

I’m not a fan of herbicides and hesitate to use or recommend them. Even so, goutweed is amazingly resistant to herbicides and even non-selective herbicides, such as glyphosate (RoundUp), that kill almost everything  green, are not very effective on goutweed, so multiple applications will be required if you use them. In addition, non-selective herbicides are not easy to use in a garden setting, as they kill everything, not just weeds, but ornamentals as well.

Hand pulling is rarely effective. Goutweed is one of those plants you can’t simply pull up: the roots reach down deep into the soil and simply won’t let go. In addition, any rhizome that escapes your control will result in a new plant. Even if you try your best at hand pulling, goutweed will generally soon be growing as densely as before.

Cultivating to control goutweed just makes things worse.

Cultivating does an even worse job than hand pulling. It tends to chop the roots and rhizomes into pieces, some too small to be readily noticed and which are therefore left in the ground. And yet each piece will soon be a new plant. Cultivating therefore tends to create an even denser patch than the original one.

Rototillers and other motorized cultivators are probably the worst way to try and eliminate goutweed. Not only do they chop rhizomes into pieces (and we know what result that will give!), but then they also spread them far and wide!

It is possible to eliminate goutweed by deep digging then sifting the soil to remove all roots and rhizomes. Dig down to a depth of 2 feet (60 cm), then screen the soil using a soil sieve: ½ inch/1.25 cm screening will do. While there may well be roots going even deeper, the plant is very unlikely to regenerate from such a depth. Of course, this is a major job, even if you use a bulldozer or excavator to remove the soil (recommended), because properly sifting soil is a very slow process..

Mowing short, to about 1-inch (2,5 cm), will also eliminate goutweed, as this removes the plant’s access to its sole source of energy, sunlight: by chopping the plant so far back you’ll eliminate its leaves entirely, you’ll prevent any photosynthesis. However, you’ll have to repeat the process regularly, as the plant’s reaction to having its leaves cut off is simply to produce new ones as soon as possible. Even mowing to a more moderate height, one appropriate for lawn grasses (2 ½ to 4 inches/6 to 10 cm) will at least weaken goutweed considerably. That’s one reason it rarely spreads very far into closely cropped lawns.

Why not try eating your enemy? Goutweed is a popular vegetable in many countries. Spring shoots are soft and tasty, cooked or raw. One the plant starts to bloom, though, the leaves become bitter.

My Favorite Method

Use black tarp to cut off all light and goutweed will die.

I find the easiest environmentally friendly way of getting rid of goutweed (other than moving) is to cover the sector with black tarpaulin. Without light, the plant will be unable to carry out photosynthesis, causing it to weaken and die. You’ll need to cover about 3 feet (90 cm) beyond the goutweed patch’s original spread, however, or it will try to creep out from under the tarp. Make sure the tarp lets in absolutely no sunlight. Some geotextiles, for example, are not effective, because they let some light through: before you buy it, hold a piece to a light to make sure it is opaque. Sometimes good ol’ black plastic tarp, available in any hardware store, is the best choice.

Place the tarp in the early spring, before or as the leaves come up. Leave it on for a full year to totally starve the plant of any light. You can cover the tarp with mulch and or put flower pots on it if you want to beautify the area as the treatment proceeds.

When you remove the tarp in the spring of the second year, the goutweed will be dead, having exhausted all its reserves. If you find one or two pale shoots still alive, just cut them to the ground: they’ll be so exhausted they won’t grow back.

Really thick mulch will also shade out goutweed all on its own. Not just a few inches, but a good foot (30 cm) of it. Mow the plant down first and pour it on. Again, a full year of darkness, starting in spring, will be needed.

A Vertical Barrier

Eliminating goutweed from your yard is not however enough: you also have to keep it from coming back.

An extra deep lawn border will keep goutweed out.

The problem is that goutweed rarely stops at property lines. If you have a goutweed problem, your neighbor is likely to have one too. And if he doesn’t collaborate in controlling it, the plant will simply cross back over into your yard. If so, install a vertical barrier into the ground between the two lots… before you start your treatment. Although goutweed roots can grow deeply down into the soil, its rhizomes usually run horizontally within a mere 2 inches (5 cm) of the surface. That means a simple lawn border could theoretically stop them. But not just any lawn border! The rhizomes tend to grow downwards when they hit an obstacle, although not very deeply. A 4- or 6-inch bordure (10-15 cm) will not be deep enough. Use an extra-deep border, 8 inches (20 cm) or more.

A horizontal barrier, such as a sidewalk or a driveway, between an infested area and a clean one can also be fairly effective, but sometimes a few rhizomes will make it across over time and, if so, will need to be controlled rapidly before a new colony starts up.

Should You Try to Save Plants From an Infested Bed?

Since treating goutweed usually means covering or digging up an entire garden, one question that always comes up is how to save any plants that are growing in the sector being treated. Can you dig up and save shrubs, bulbs, perennials, etc., planting them somewhere else temporarily?

Yes you can, if you’re very, very careful. Dig up the plant and rinse off all its soil. Remove any goutweed rhizomes you see growing through its root ball. Now pot it up. Do not plant it in another part of the garden until it has undergone a 3-month quarantine in its pot. If no goutweed has appeared after 3 months, you’ve successfully eliminated it and you can replant the potted plant.

Often divisions of the plant are easier to control for rhizomes (with fewer roots, you’ll better to able to see them) and are therefore a better choice than trying to save the mother plant.

Easier yet, take cuttings. You can take cuttings of most perennials, shrubs, and even conifers, and since the cuttings grow aboveground while goutweed rhizomes grow below, there will be no risk of them hosting goutweed rhizomes.

Should Goutweed Be Banned?

Banning goutweed: an idea whose time has come.

Despite the environmental devastation caused by goutweed in North America, Australia, New Zealand and other countries where it has escaped from culture (it’s easy enough to find entire forests where there is no regeneration whatsoever of local trees and where all native understory plants have been entirely eliminated by goutweed), goutweed, and especially its variegated form (A. podagraria ‘Variegata’), is still widely sold to unsuspecting gardeners in nurseries throughout the temperate world. In some American states, however, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, the import and sale of goutweed is now banned, a step that at least helps slow the plant’s invasion.

Isn’t it time for the sale of goutweed to be banned in your area as well? That’s certainly something worth thinking about.

43 comments on “Getting Rid of Goutweed

  1. I live in California. One day I was digging chips into my asparagus patch, and I noticed many white shoots. Nothing on top. I thought, at the time, they were some odd Asparagus shoots.

    I have come to learn it is Ground Elder/Gout weed. In a few years this stuff is over 1400 square feet of yard or more. Who can say?

    What is odd to me is these came from underground prior to any light. Given this, HOW is it possible to eliminate?

    I’m wondering if anyone in fact destroyed ground elder depriving it of light. I don’t see how that’s possible, as the shoots I found were quite long, perhaps 8 inches of white and thick.

    Perhaps, I’m thinking that the covers are depriving the weed of water. But light? These things do not need light, it seems to me.

    • I’ve had no trouble killing it this way. Of course, you’d think the thick black plastic tarp I used would also exclude moisture, but I live in very rainy climate and the soil underneath (at the time of removing the tarp) was damp, obviously from water seeping in from either the sides or below. Two weakened plants did come up. I dug those two up. And that was the end of that patch.

      • Thanks! I will try it. I can’t do it to the asparagus patch, but am thinking of salting it. Any thoughts on that? (Asparagus is salt resistant, and I’m hoping Ground Elder/Goutweed is not).

      • I don’t think it is salt tolerant.

    • It worked for me. After 1 year, a huge patch was down to 2 weak plants. I put a square of plastic tarp over those two. They didn’t come up the following year. The soil under the tarp was moist (the water table is not very deep here).

  2. Certainly the worst weed in my garden. I have had limited success with glyphosate (Round-Up) but, as you mention, this stuff is tough and it takes multiple treatments to put a dent in it. Like you, I have neighbours who won’t try to control the weed in their property, so keeping it out of mine is a never ending battle. Just found it growing in my newly emerging Siberian iris…arrgghhh! So I guess I dig the whole thing out and replant the cleaned iris…sigh. Any updates on new and more effective approaches for killing this pest would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Hi! Thank you for the great info! We moved into a house with goutweed. We’re planning to tarp an area for a year following your advice. Do I need to dig any of it out first? Other tutorials say to dig out a few feet, solarize for a year, then add new dirt. Have you found that solarizing alone is enough? It does seem temping, and the area we’re looking at has lots of tree roots and other features which would make digging difficult. Thank you!

  4. Mary Sprinson

    We bought a house 8 years ago with a very large flower garden infested with goutweed. Like others who have written, I’m worn out with the effort of controlling the goutweed. I’m thinking about covering the whole area (including three feet around the edges of garden) with black plastic before we leave for the winter next Monday. Or is it better to wait till the spring as you suggest? Also, others offering advice on getting rid of goutweed say the soil will need to be covered for at least 2 years and one says as much as five years! I hope not!

    • Not much comes directly by covering it in the fall, as it won’t be photosynthesizing. One year in the dark usually seems to work, but conditions vary. Remove the plastic in the spring of year two but keep it on hand should you need to repeat.

  5. Nancy Mirshah

    This summer my 2 largish goutweed infestations were treated with monthly with Triad Select (dimethylamine salts of 2, 4D, MCPA and Dicambra). All leaves are gone but I find roots in the soil. This fall I’m thinking about laying down sheets of cardboard and some plywood I have, then cover with 4-6 inches of dead leaves to block light in the Spring (when I may be out of town). Edges are a problem–goutweed coming in from 2 neighbors’ yards. How can you dig an 8″ vertical border if white pines are growing in the area. I’m afraid of damaging their roots. When sufficiently eradicated I will plant grass that can be mowed and geranium macrorrhizum (big root), tiger lilies and wood poppy or other plants that will resist encroaching goutweed from neighbors.

    • Don’t worry about the pines: they’ll readily recover from root damage. But digging a trench to insert the barrier is hard work when the soil is full of tree roots.

  6. I have been fighting goutweed all summer. I dug up half the garden, down about a foot to a foot and a half. In the other half of the garden placed the soil I dug up under black plastic tarps which Is held down with rocks. I laid cardboard, new soil and mulch over the areas I dug up. I planted new perennials because I dug up the old ones. Every day I go out and scout: I do find some new shoots, about 10 a day. I cut them below the soil line then spray with an herbicide. My gardens are surrounded by stone walls and woods where the goutweed also sprouted. We’ve been spraying those every few weeks and again find a few sprouts. Even though it’s drastically reduced from complete ground cover to a few sprouts, I’m worried what I’ll find next spring. Is there anything else I can do now or through a New England winter?

  7. Kristine Swaren

    One of the headings says “Moving Short” but I think you mean “Mowing Short”

  8. I’m devastated, sounds like moving is my only way but I know that can’t happen. The goutweed destroyed my rock garden, it’s surrounding my property and one side is a small ravine and it’s loaded. We even found it growing in our little greenhouse between the plastic and the boxes, we blasted it with 3 rounds of Roundup and it’s still there. It’s making its way around to the front of my house where I have massive flower garden and I’m petrified I’m going to loose it. Any help for such a large infestation would be greatly appreciated for this ole gal gardener

    • It’s a horrible monster. First, get a barrier in so it can’t go any farther. Then try covering it, section by section.

      • Thank you Larry, much appreciated. This is going to be an incredibly huge challenge but I guess I have to try something.

  9. I bought a torch and trying to burn it out! Every time it grows leaves I burn them up! So far so good!

  10. I have a battle against gout weed in a small 20 x3 feet area that I feel I am close to winning ( I might be delusional ). I want to adopt the cover method. I want to dig and pull up the major clusters before I apply the clover. When I make sure all the rhizomes are dead (probably by next year?) then I will put in new soil to rehab the area.
    My question is: Where can I dispose the dug up soil full of rhizomes? I’m in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I understand soil is not collected on yard collection days. And I certainly don’t want to just dump to public lands. I have a small property but I don’t have a place to let it dry up in a pot to sit for weeks/months… How can I properly get rid of these evil soil 🙁 ?

    • Yeah, that’s a problem. Could you put out the soil in black plastic bags and “bake” them in the sun (solar sterilization)? That would work better as the weather warmed up.

  11. Bruce Macinnis

    We have a nasty infestation in our yard and prefer to call it, “the weed from hell”. It has adapted to being mowed short, and those areas do not grow anymore than a couple of inches at most. It is in our hedge and both neighbours have it as well as the school in our back yard. We have built raised gardens lined with plastic vapor barrier with a slit in the bottom center for drainage and it has worked for several years. The 8″ barrier would not stop this variant as I have seen it go about 14″ down to get under barriers. We have found that salt will kill it, but that has its own issues, but by salting under the plastic it prevents the weed from getting in the garden under the drainage slit.

    We plan to move away from it in a few more years as I do not plan to continue the fight past retirement.

    • I can sure understand your feeling. I have a problem with goutweed crossing over from a neighbour’s year and it’s a battle I’ll never win!

  12. There are enough like-minded gardeners to influence garden centers, I think … we just need to coordinate and express our views. The “I will not buy things from your store unless you stop selling the following invasives:” line might be a nice way to pitch email or a petition. Not sure of best strategy but it seems like something could be done.

    • It should be doable, but how to coordinate gardeners from all over?

      • One option might be for native plant groups (or pages) on Facebook to mention a that a local nursery sells goutweed. If that nursery has a Facebook presence then the mention will call attention to the issue rather quickly. Others can then weigh in and perhaps sufficiently so that nursery changes policy. I’ve never seen this done but it might be fun to try.

  13. Chuckers

    By the way, I have found one weed that goutweed cannot stop from growing – Sticky Weed (aka Sticky Willy, Velcro Weed). I have it growing all through a couple of my goutweed patches for the past 2 years. I hate it with a passion. I’ll take controlled patches of goutweed any day over sticky weed. The only thing good about Sticky Weed is that it has an extremely shallow, small and weak root system so pulls out of the ground with almost no effort.

  14. Chuckers

    I used goutweed to my advantage…

    I’m an avid vegetable gardener & my property does have small and large patches goutweed in several places. They’ve been there fore almost a quarter of a century (my property has been in my family since the 1940s). I think my great uncle must’ve been the one to plant it. It is situated only in shrub beds and around the house (between the foundation and the sidewalks), except I do have a patch in the middle of the lawn were it surrounds a large birdbath area.

    I make sure every mid spring that I go around and pull all it’s flowers before they seed. Then, later in the fall, I mow it down for use in my compost pile. People think that goutweed cuttings will grow in compost, but that’s not true. Goutweed can only be propagated by it’s rhizome roots and it’s seeds. The stem and the leaves are benign and can be used as nitrogen for compost or even laid on the soil as a green mulch (like grass clippings).

    In a way, I’m kind of glad I have goutweed because otherwise I would have very little nitrogen ingredients (greens) for my compost pile. But goutweed solves that problem for me. I actually don’t mid the way it looks – I think it’s a good looking plant, especially the variegated flavor.

  15. I got rid of goutweed by using cardboard and bricks. It took 2 years of smothering it and constantly weeding out the new shoots. Don’t give up gardeners!


      I agree on the cardboard. It smothers the goutweed and eventually wi compost, unlike black plastic. However, you have to be vigilant to destroy any new goutweed sprouts.

  16. Louise d'Entremont

    good advices Larry, having goutweed in my house and fighting it, some part do have heavy carpet on top of this garden section, it does help, now I decide to do gardening with elevated boxes…3 Feet high, glad to know they do not reseed, just migrate by their roots.

  17. I think I need to head to the yard and start digging. 🙂

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