5 No-Nonsense Steps To Fight Weeds Organically

Maybe you like to forage on your garden's unexpected plant visitors—but if in your book, they’re just weeds, it’s time to take action.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

As the gardening season begins, many gardeners are already dreading weeds. But, with a little planning and a few spare minutes a week, it’s possible to control them effectively without turning to synthetic chemical weed killers.

The key to weed control is in both the strategy and the timing. For years, regular tilling was the most common practice for controlling weeds in the vegetable garden, but we now know that this technique disrupts beneficial soil life and breaks down the good soil structure most gardeners work so hard to create. So instead of tilling your garden every few weeks or being overrun with weeds all season long, here’s a better plan for controlling them.

Step 1: Mulch Early

The best weed control happens before the weeds actually arrive. Mulch all garden areas by applying a 2-inch layer of organic matter on the soil surface in mid-spring. The best time to do this chore is before weed seeds have a chance to germinate. Put mulch down under shrubs, around trees and between veggie rows.

Straw, hay, chopped leaves, shredded hardwood, untreated grass clippings and compost form a protective barrier over the soil and prevent weed-seed emergence. Lay mulch between rows and around plants as carefully as possible, being sure to keep it at least 3 inches away from the base of any plant. For extra weed control, put down a layer of newspaper 10 sheets thick or a single layer of corrugated cardboard underneath the mulch to smother out extra-difficult perennial weeds, like thistle, bindweed and others.

Step 2: Remove Established Weeds

For established weeds, manual removal works best. Using a hand tool, shovel or hoe to remove existing weeds is excellent therapy in my book—I actually enjoy weeding. (I know, I know, you’re going to invite me over to pull weeds at your place, aren’t you?) It’s quiet time in the garden, free from the interruptions of technology and telephones. If you don’t like to hand weed and can’t bring yourself to do it on a regular basis, at least be sure to never let any weeds go to seed, because if you do, where you once had one weed, you’re sure to have a lot more. Early-season weed control is season-long weed control.

Step 3: Flame-Weed Fence Lines and Large Areas

Flame weeders use ignited propane to torch weeds by heating plant tissue to temperatures high enough to blow out cell walls. The flame they throw can be adjusted to a very narrow range, so you can even use them between crop rows with a little care. Although they don’t completely kill the root of many of the tougher perennial weeds, they sure do knock them back. Flaming the weeds will certainly prevent them from flowering and setting seed, and it works especially great for weeds growing in driveway and sidewalk cracks.

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Step 4: Use An Organic Pre-Emergent Herbicide

If what you face are primarily annuals that sprout from seed each year, including purslane, wood sorrel, crabgrass, chickweed and others, you can use an organic pre-emergent herbicide based on corn gluten meal. Brand names include Espoma Organic Weed Preventer, WOW! Supreme Pre-Emergent Weed Control, Concern Weed Prevention Plus and Orland’s Safe-T-Weed. These products prevent all seeds from germinating, and if they are applied according to label instructions in the spring, they’ll keep weed seeds from sprouting for many weeks. Do not use these products in areas where you want to grow things from seed, such as in the vegetable garden, as it will stop those seeds from germinating, too.

Step 5: Get Tough

For the really tough stuff, turn to organic spray herbicides. Another natural alternative for getting rid of established weeds are the many clove oil-, acetic acid-, and iron-based organic herbicides on today’s market. These herbicides are non-selective, meaning they will kill any foliage they contact, and with perennial weeds, a repeat application may be necessary.

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