One of the challenges of gardening is the weed control. There are many organic weed control methods that will help your garden grow, flourish, and produce an abundance.
Whether you grow a garden, or just a lawn, weeds are part of life. The difference between a garden and a lawn though, is that lawns have more freedom to use weed killers while gardens need to stay away from most herbicide type products. Herbicides kill indiscriminately, and herbicide drift is a real danger and challenge for many residential gardeners.
Many of our common weeds actually have secondary uses, are beneficial as greens or herbs, and can tell you about what your soil needs. For instance, deep tap rooted weeds, like dandelion, bring minerals up to the soil surface and help break up compact soils.
Working in a garden, being able to either prevent weeds from growing, or being able to remove specific targeted weeds, is the best bet. But, hand weeding isn’t always the best choice. Organic weed control methods also help with controlling weeds on paths, pavement cracks, or in rock based landscaping, while being safe for kids, pets, and pollinators.
Mulching is one of the easiest methods of preventing weeds from growing, especially in gardens. A good layer of spray-free hay, straw, or wood chips can help prevent weeds from growing in amongst vegetables and flowers. Mulch also helps conserve moisture, and provides fresh nutrients for your garden plants as it breaks down. Mulch also provides food for earthworms, and for the soil microbiome.
For paths, a heavy double mulch layer can prevent many weeds from proliferating. I like using a layer of cardboard, and then topping it with a one or two inch thick layer of wood chips. This provides a clean and smooth surface for walking, and using wheelbarrows or tools on. The path can be refreshed with new cardboard and new wood chips every few years to continue keeping down the weeds. Remove the old path mulch when it’s over 50% broken down and add it as brown material to the compost pile.
Sheet Composting or Lasagna Gardening:
These methods of organic weed control are great for creating rich garden soil, that is largely weed free. The composting method can be done in connection with the gardening method, or both can be done independently. The basic premise is layering green and brown composting materials, on top of a thick layer of cardboard or similar weed suppressant, and letting it break down.
These two methods are often used with no-till gardening, as a way to reduce weeds and to encourage the natural soil processes to create light, rich, and loamy soil.
There are a few natural herbicides that can be helpful, especially for weeds growing on stone or cement paths, in cracks, or on landscape rocks. Some natural herbicides include salt, boiling water, and vinegar or acetic acid. Other homemade herbicide mixtures can include some chemicals, like dish soap.
If you want to make an organic weed killer, a solution of vinegar or boiling water may be the simplest and most accessible solution. A citric acid solution can also work in place of vinegar, for a lower pH mix with limited ingredients. Avoid using boiling water or any pH changing mixtures within a garden, or near plants you want to save. However, they are great for use on paths and walkways. Borax and clove oil are also sometimes used as ingredients in organic herbicides.
Another effective weed removal method is a hand torch. This is usually a portable, propane torch that is used to burn off weeds. You can manually aim it, so it’s more selective than the average commercial non-selective weed killer products. The torch can be used in a garden or on a lawn, it is best to use on paths, generally clear ground, or on rock hardscape. However the heat from the torch can kill desirable grasses, or plants you want to keep. If the ground is too dry, it can also be a fire hazard. Be very cautious with torches meant for weed control around dry leaves or dead grasses, as the flame can run away and cause structural damage to buildings and fences.
When using this organic weed control method in a lawn, or herbaceous area, do the torching immediately after a rain when the target weed can be dried out and burned, but the surrounding ground and plants are wet and somewhat protected. Avoid using a hand torch when there is a burning ban in effect.
Organic Weed Control: The Smothering Method
The use of weed barrier fabric is one form of weed smothering. Another method is natural mulches, or natural mulch over weed barrier fabric. Over time weeds can get into the top of the barrier, but normally these weeds are easy to pull, as they lack a strong root system and don’t come up from the ground.
Solarizing weeds is a similar method to smothering them. However, solarizing is done with clear plastic, over newly tilled ground. The clear plastic concentrates the sun’s rays and heat and helps kill young weeds and many weed seeds. Avoid using black plastic as the light blocking prevents some weeds from germinating and you want the weeds to germinate so that the sun’s trapped heat will kill them.
Another method of smothering weeds is out competing them with other plants. This can be done in two methods, either planting cover crops like clover that will add nitrogen to the soil, as well as preventing weeds like crabgrass from proliferating freely.
You can also smother out weeds with closely planted desirable plants, using methods like the square foot gardening method. In this high intensity planting methodology, plants are planted at their ideal distance with no space for rows. This helps crowd out and smother out weeds, without having to do a ton of weeding or mulching.
Dead Head the Weeds
One weed that goes to seed can produce hundreds of seeds, that will be next year’s weeds. After five years of consistently preventing weeds from going to seed, there should be a sharp reduction in the number of new ones growing.
Dead heading won’t completely eradicate weeds, as tilling will disturb new seeds each year. Combining deadheading with no-till or lasagna gardening can greatly reduce weed growth.
Even weeds in your driveway or sidewalk can contribute seeds to the garden, so watch out for flowering weeds in small areas.
Organic Weed Control: Eat Them
Lambs quarters is very similar in texture and flavor to spinach, and lambs quarters is usually a few inches high and ready to weed well before the spinach is established enough to harvest. Dandelion and chickweed are powerhouses of springtime nutrition, and very tender greens that are ready well before planted lettuce.
One year we had strawberry spinach growing in our garden as a weed. That winter, we found out that that weed was actually an heirloom vegetable, and highly valued for it’s nutritious leaves and bright, if flavorless, berries. Ironically, that specific weed never volunteered again, once we wanted to find it. Be sure to save seed for the weeds you do want in your garden, so you can move them to an area away from your other vegetable plantings.
At Joybilee Farm, we also encourage some annual and biannual plants to self-seed including parsley and dill. This helps get the herbs established each year, and gives plenty of flowering dill and parsley to encourage beneficial insects to come visit the vegetable garden. Encouraging self-sown herbs, acts as weed prevention for some of the other weed seed types.
Disrupt the Weeds Early:
The earlier a weed is disturbed in it’s life cycle, the easier it is to eradicate it. Applying heat, or a quick pass with the hoe, when weeds are just emerging in the spring is just as good as using a commercial emergent herbicide.
Corn gluten meal is recommended to apply to the surface of a garden bed, as a pre-emergent anti-sprouting compound. Usually applied after your desired seeds have sprouted, or you’ve transplanted established plants.
Goats, Pigs, and Chickens:
It’s not a weed, it’s chicken feed! Goats, pigs, or chickens can be great weed control. Let them into the annual garden areas to clean out spent plants, weeds, and the early spring weeds, before starting the garden preparation process in spring. Pigs can even do the garden tilling for you, as can chickens. Goats will be happy to eat broadleaf weeds, and may even eat thistles and nettles, especially when they’re tender and full of spring nutrition.
Organic Weed Control Needs Diligence:
No matter which weed control method you use, yearly efforts and diligent monitoring will be needed to keep your yard, garden, or flower beds weed-free. The best defense against overwhelming weeds is dealing with them early and often.
Trim during flowering phases, keep the weeds from self-seeding and re-seeding, and encourage plants you want to grow to self-seed and volunteer.
Gardening is not a one size fits all approach, and the weeds in your garden may tell you a lot about your soil. Tap-rooted weeds love compact soils, as they loosen that soil and bring nutrients up for shallower rooted plants to come in and thrive.
What Do You Do With Weeds?
What are your favorite natural, organic weed control methods? What other uses to you put weeds to? Leave a comment.