Organic weed control tips for gardeners
by Jessica Walliser • Comments (9)
I suspect that most gardeners make a promise to themselves at the start of every growing season to not let the weeds get the best of their garden. They swear they’re going to stay on top of the bittercress, chickweed, dandelions, spotted spurge, and henbit. But then reality strikes. Life takes over, and somehow there never seems to be enough time to stay ahead of the weeds. Well, after years of making the same promise to myself, I’ve finally found a way to have a weed-free garden every year – without resorting to synthetic chemical herbicides. To do it, I employ a whole arsenal of organic weed control tips to keep my garden free of weeds.
Safer weed control
When I started my career in horticulture twenty-plus years ago, I sprayed a lot of chemical herbicides. They were a quick-fix to many weed problems, so I understand their appeal in that regard. But, since that time, I’ve come to understand how these products persist in the soil , make their way into ground water , and may potentially impact beneficial soil life , as well as the humans and other animals that are exposed to them. I’ve chosen to avoid using synthetic chemical herbicides for the last fifteen years because I don’t want to be around them, and frankly, I’ve found other methods of safer weed control that work just as well.
Managing weeds, like this garlic mustard and chickweed, without resorting to chemical warfare requires thoughtful planning.
I also avoid using those homemade herbicide concoctions so often promoted on various websites and social media platforms. They almost always involve salt, vinegar, Epsom salts, soap, or other household items, and the sad truth is that these mixtures can be downright dangerous to soil health. Yes, they might kick the weeds back a bit (they seldom kill them completely), but that’s certainly not worth contaminating your soil when there are far more effective organic weed control tips you can use. Not to mention that these products have not been properly tested for their safety or effectiveness.
Here’s how you too can keep your garden weed free every season.
12 Effective organic weed control tips
Tip 1: Design the weeds out of the garden. Start your foray into earth friendly weed control by using good design to prevent weeds from moving into the garden in the first place.
Choose fungal disease-resistant varieties of plants that can be spaced a little closer together, giving weeds less room to find a home.
Design the garden so you don’t have a lot of empty spaces for weeds to take over.
Use different heights of plants to build layers that shade the soil, making an unwelcome environment for weed seed germination.
Use mixed ground covers to blanket the bare soil many weeds love.
Organize the vegetable garden so you have low-growing plants covering the bare soil around taller species.
Grow a thick, healthy lawn that has no room for weeds.
A thick, healthy, organic lawn has no room for weeds.
Tip 2: Careful cultivation. Though cultivating your soil too often can destroy its tilth and texture, using a hoe to chop off young weed seedlings soon after they sprout keeps them from reaching maturity. Just don’t till or cultivate too deeply or you risk bringing buried weed seeds up to the soil’s surface where they’ll quickly germinate. Simple, old-school weed cultivation is one of the easiest organic weed control tips there is. Here are some of my favorite tools for weed cultivation:
I use a swan neck hoe to cultivate small weeds that grow in between perennials.
Tip 3: Topping. Among the easiest, yet most important, of my organic weed control tips, topping is all-too-often ignored by gardeners who, despite their best efforts, still can’t seem to stay ahead of the weeds. It’s a simple rule: Don’t ever let a weed drop seed. Topping involves cutting off weed flowers and seeds before they shed, even if you don’t have the time or energy to dig out the entire weed. This is especially important for reducing the number of weed seeds present in the soil (known as the weed seed bank). Whether you’re dealing with annual weeds, such as crab grass, trefoil, lambs quarters, and purslane, or perennial weeds like Canada thistle and dandelions, topping is essential. Mow or weed whack the plants before they develop seeds, or use a hand scythe to cut off the developing seed heads.
Tip 4: Mulch matters. Suppressing weeds with a layer of mulch is without a doubt one of the best organic weed control tips out there. But, mulching only works if you do it right.
Apply mulch early in the season, before annual weed seeds germinate. I spread my mulch in late March or early April in my Pennsylvania garden. If you wait too long, weed seeds with already have germinated and they’ll grow right up through the layer of mulch.
Don’t mulch until you get rid of all existing weeds first. This means taking the time to pull or otherwise remove any and all weeds, not simply dumping the mulch on top of them. A layer of mulch doesn’t usually smother existing weeds; they’ll just grow up through it as the season progresses.
Only use mulches that are weed free and come from a reliable source, otherwise you could end up introducing more weeds to your garden. I use commercially produced leaf compost in my vegetable garden and perennial beds, and shredded hardwood bark in my shrub beds.
Use straw, not hay, for a mulch. Straw is the dried stems of wheat or other grains and is typically weed free, but hay is mixed forage and often contains many weed seeds. I love to use straw to mulch the paths of my vegetable garden.
Never use treated lawn clippings. While collected grass clippings make a great mulch in the vegetable garden, do not use them if the turf was treated with herbicides or chemical fertilizer products.
Don’t over-mulch. No matter what type of mulch you use, two to three inches of it is enough. If you pile too much on, you risk inhibiting air exchange with the soil and the roots of your plants.
Though I use many different mulches, my favorite for mulching shrub beds is shredded hardwood bark.
Related post: A simple winter mulch for easy winter harvesting
Tip 5: Newspaper barriers. A simple layer of mulch, as described in Tip 4, sometimes doesn’t do the trick, especially in places where weeds are very prolific or where the weed seed bank contains a massive amount of seeds. In this case, I always employ newspaper among my top organic weed control tips. Before spreading mulch, I cover the bed with a layer of wet newspaper, ten sheets thick. Any matte newsprint will do, just don’t use the glossy inserts because the ink may contain heavy metals.
Each year, my entire vegetable garden is covered with newspaper, then I cover the paper with a two-inch layer of leaf compost before planting. I simply cut a hole or slit through the newspaper and plant right through it. I don’t weed my vegetable garden all summer long. Again, just make sure the mulch you’re using over the newspaper is weed free. By the end of the growing season, the newspaper will be broken down by soil microbes. Here’s more on this technique .
Using newspaper for weed control is a great way to prevent weeds from taking over the vegetable garden.
Tip 6: Compost monitoring. If you plan to use homemade compost in your garden, one of the most critical organic weed control tips is to carefully monitor your compost pile and its ingredients. Do not add any weeds that have gone to seed to the pile, unless you plan to turn the pile at least once a week. If you just dump ingredients into your compost pile, and you don’t turn them regularly to introduce oxygen to the microbes, the pile will probably not reach the 160 degrees F necessary to kill most weed seeds. Here’s more on how to make weed-free compost .
Related post: A simple compost how to guide where science reigns supreme
Tip 7: Watch for imports. Lots of weeds come into the garden accidentally. Don’t accept plants that were dug from a friend’s garden until you make sure they don’t have a weed issue that you could end up inheriting. I once planted a daylily division from a friend only to end up with a nasty mugwort infestation due to a few root pieces hanging out in the daylily pot. You should pay the same careful attention to plants you purchase from the nursery.
Tip 8: Tarping. For particularly tough-to-control perennial weeds, this is the only one of my organic weed control tips that I’ve found to be effective. I’ve used it to eliminate a clump of Japanese knotweed, a patch of Canada thistle, and an infestation of bindweed. First, cut any existing weeds in the area all the way down to the ground, then spread a dark-colored tarp over the entire area, completely pinning down the edges with soil. Leave the tarp in place for several months to “starve” the roots of the weeds. This is not a technique I use lightly as it can negatively impact soil life; save it for only the toughest of weeds.
Canada thistle is managed with a weed control technique known as tarping.
Tip 9: Flame weeding. This is probably the most fun of all of my organic weed control tips! And, it’s particularly effective for weeds growing along fence rows or in the cracks of a patio or driveway. Flame weeders are hand-held or backpack-style propane torches designed to zap the weeds with temperatures high enough to burst the plants’ cell walls. The flame can be adjusted to a very narrow, targeted range, so with care, you can even use them between rows of vegetables. Though they don’t completely kill the roots of perennial weeds, they do an excellent job eliminating annual weeds and keeping perennial types from setting seed. Plus, using them is lots of fun!
Related post: Serious garden gear for hardcore gardeners
Tip 10: Organic pre-emergent herbicides. If the weeds you battle are primarily annuals, like crabgrass, chickweed, henbit, purslane, and others, using an organic pre-emergent weed killer often takes care of the problem. Made from corn gluten meal, these granular products are sprinkled over the soil surface where they’ll form a layer that prevents all seeds from germinating (including desired seeds, so be careful not to use them where you want things to grow from seed). If they’re applied according to label instructions, organic pre-emergent herbicides greatly reduce weed seed germination. Brand names include Concern Weed Prevention and Espoma Organic Weed Preventer .
Organic pre-emergent herbicides based on corn gluten meal keep the seeds of weeds like this bittercress from germinating.
Tip 11: The right kind of hand-pulling. I know most gardeners don’t think hand-pulling weeds is much fun, but if you use the right tools, it is! Yes, you can get on your hands and knees and use a trowel, a hori hori , or some other type of hand weeder to dig up the weeds, but that’s backbreaking and no fun at all. Instead, there are some very useful tools that make pulling weeds actually fun (and you get to stay upright!).
My favorite is the Fiskars Stand-Up Weeder , which has a set of stainless steel serrated claws coming out of the base of the weeder. You simply position the claws over the weed, step on the foot pad to press the claws into the soil, and then bend the handle back to pop the weed out. The claws grip the weed and a simple slide of the handle ejects the pulled weed into your collection container. I use this tool all the time! It works like a charm.
This dandelion was removed using my Fiskars Stand Up Weeder. Look at that tap root!
A similar tool, called the Lee Valley Dandelion Digger , is equally as useful, though you have to bend over to pick up the pulled weed. It has a forked blade at the end of a long handle. You sink the blade into the soil next to the weed and pry the weed out by bending the curved back of the blade against the ground and using it as leverage.
Tip 12: Commercial organic herbicide spray products. While I don’t spray anything in my garden (even organic stuff), many gardeners will find these products to be a useful replacement for synthetic chemical-based herbicides. Most organic herbicides contain a combination of acetic acid, citric acid, clove oil, citrus oil, and other ingredients. They get rid of established annual weeds and grasses in a snap, but repeat applications may be necessary for tough, perennial weeds. These products are non-selective and will work on any plants they come in contact with. The acids contained in organic herbicide sprays are very aggressive, so follow all label instructions carefully and use eye protection to keep droplets from getting in your eyes. Brand names include Avenger and Burn Out .
Another newer group of organic herbicides are those based on iron. These products kill only broad-leaved weeds, not grasses, so they’re perfect for managing dandelions, plantains, spotted spurge, and other weeds in the lawn. You can spray them right on the lawn and they’ll only kill the weeds, not the turf. I love having lots of weeds in my lawn, including clover, violets, and speedwell, because they’re good nectar sources for the pollinators, so I don’t ever worry about trying to get rid of weeds in my lawn, but I’ve experimented with Whitney Farms Lawn Weed Killer and Iron X just to see if they were effective. Both worked on my lawn in the small area where I trailed them.
As you can see, there are many organic weed control tips you can employ to help cut down on weeding chores this season. Use as many as you can to have a weed-free landscape that doesn’t require hours and hours of upkeep.
Do you have other organic weed control tips? Tell us about them in the comment section below.
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