Weeds. I don’t know what other word could make gardeners cringe with as much horror and despair.
Weeds conjure up nightmares of garden beds overtaken with towering and seemingly immortal weeds that seem to choke the life out of all the plants you actually want there.
But most weeds aren’t actually all that bad. You might, in fact, come to love some of them. You just need a little knowledge to keep them in check.
Whether you’re trying to grow organically or just want to get those unwanted plants under control, there’s a ton of easy, natural, and even regenerative weeding options to keep weeds at bay.
What are weeds?
Weeds are simply plants growing where we don’t want them to grow. There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about the plants we call weeds. Clover adds nitrogen to the soil and dandelion roots make yummy additions to salads and tasty wine.
In fact, a lot of things we call weeds are actually tasty and edible!
However, there are some weeds that are extremely invasive and noxious to humans and animals, like Japanese knotwood and giant hogweed. Bindweed (or morning glory) will strangle other plants as it grows and can regrow from any tiny segment of root, making it a nightmare for many farmers.
You definitely need to get rid of these weeds for your safety and the environment. Depending where you are and your regional legislation, you may have a legal obligation to do so.
How can you get rid of weeds permanently?
Don’t reach for chemical weeders just yet! There are plenty of natural ways to kill weeds that are just as easy and are way better for your garden and the planet.
Identify the weed
Before you do anything, identify the weed. Knowing what weed you’re dealing with will help you choose the most effective methods and avoid costly mistakes.
For example, if you try to pull morning glory/bindweed like you would a dandelion, you’ll leave a bunch of root fragments and your garden bed will suddenly be full of it.
What’s growing in your garden may completely surprise you. For example, I grew up seeing this succulent-like weed in gravel schoolyards, but only recently when it started overtaking my garden did I find out that it was purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which makes an excellent addition to summer salads and is loaded with nutrients. And unlike the greens I had to nurture, purslane grew itself. I let it stay.
Prevent weeds before they even grow
Weeds sprout wherever there’s bare soil. This is actually nature’s way of preventing desertification, the complete erosion of your garden beds to sand so nothing can grow there. Weeds pop in to save the day!
Mulching is the best defense against weeds! By applying a layer of material over the soil, not only will you keep your soil moist, but you’ll also prevent most weeds from germinating in the first place.
Some weeds will still grow, but a few weeds are a lot more manageable than a garden bed.
The best mulches for weed control include:
- Bark and wood chips. Bark chips are the most decorative option. You may be able to get free wood chips from your local arborist. All the wood they have to shred has to go somewhere and you’ll save them the trouble of a trip to the dump.
- Compost. Compost pulls double duty! A thick layer between 2 – 4” applied regularly will not only smother weeds but also add nutrients to your soil. Win, win. Keep topping up all-season long as the compost will break down, leaving soil exposed.
- Leaves. Instead of throwing away leaves, put them on your garden beds. Because they’re light, they may blow around. If there’re tree seeds mixed in with the leaves, you may end up with more little seedlings where you don’t want them. Best used to cover your garden over the winter and prevent weeds from sprouting in early spring.
- Straw. Straw is the waste material from grain crops. Like leaves, straw will biodegrade and may blow around. Straw is an inexpensive option. Don’t use hay, as there will be unwanted seeds mixed in.
- Tarps or landscape fabric. Also known as plastic mulch, you can also just apply tarps and landscape fabric where you don’t want weeds. Tarps are best if you have a large area to cover, like an empty vegetable bed. Landscape fabric can be used in between plants, but if soil accumulates above the landscape fabric, new weed seeds can sprout.
Reduce the distance between plants and use companion planting
In addition to mulching, growing your plants closer together will reduce the amount of bare soil.
Instead of having a few key rose plants every few feet, fill in the surrounding area with complimentary flowers.
If you’re growing vegetables like lettuce and peas, sow them much closer together. Or add companion plants, like basil beneath tomato plants. The basil shades the soil to keep weeds down while the tomatoes get enough light overhead. They can take it and weeds will have a hard time growing.
Weed seeds can survive dormancy for hundreds of years in soil. When you dig up soil, through practices like tilling, then you’re bringing those dormant seeds up to the surface where they can sprout.
By applying no-till gardening methods, you’ll reduce the amount of weed seeds that can sprout.
There is good news and bad news to having a weed free garden. Get to know what it is:
How to kill weeds naturally
Prevention is key, but even the best prevention will have a few weeds coming through. Or perhaps it’s a little too late for prevention as your garden bed is already full of weeds. Here are the best ways to kill weeds naturally.
Pull weeds when they’re young
Seedlings are much easier to pull up than older plants, especially when we’re talking about plants with deep taproots like dandelion or that grab the soil like crabgrass.
If you can spend 5 minutes a day pulling seedlings, then you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble later.
You can do this either by hand or with a hoe.
Pull weeds by hand or use a garden hoe
If the weeds are older, you can still pull them. They just may be a little harder to pull. If you’re using no-till gardening techniques and sheet mulching with compost, then the soil will become much looser, meaning that even plants with deep tap roots will come out more easily.
To pull adult weeds by hand, grab the plant by the base (right where the plant rises above the ground) while wearing gardening gloves. Then pull. Try to pull as much of the roots out as possible.
This is best for plants with deep taproots that will come back if the roots remain, like dandelions. For plants like bindweed, which grow from any segment of root left, you’re better off digging up the whole thing.
Using a hoe works on annuals and plants that spread by seed rather than regenerating from roots or spread through the rhizome. If they lose their leaves and stem, the plant dies.
To hoe, use the sharp edge of the hoe to cut plants just below the soil. Remove the residue and leave the plant material in a hot spot to make sure the plant material is thoroughly dead, especially if you’re adding them to compost. Remember to keep your hoe sharp and to clean the dirt off when you’re finished to prevent dulling and rust.
You could also use a hori hori knife or a hand scythe.
If your garden bed looks absolutely hopeless, don’t despair. Solarisation can kill an entire garden bed of weeds in just 4 weeks. Solarisation works best in the hottest months.
Lay a clear plastic tarp over the area, weigh it down or bury the edges to keep it from flying away, and leave in place for at least 4 weeks. The sun will heat up the air trapped under the plastic tarp and naturally kill all the weeds. The weeds will break down in place into compost, providing beautiful soil for your new plant bed.
Solarisation will also help you clear the ground of grass when putting in a new vegetable bed or regrowing a lawn.
Cover with cardboard or a tarp
If you can’t use solarisation because of the season or you need to work around plants you want to keep, then covering the ground with cardboard or a tarp will also kill weeds. It takes longer, but it works.
Pour boiling water over an area
Cardboard and plastic tarps work well in areas not in frequent use, but what about the cracks in between flagstones? Applying boiling water to the weeds will cook them like solarisation.
The boiling water won’t kill roots, so perennials may come back, but all you have to do is pour more boiling water over it.
Just be careful about splashing (don’t burn yourself!) and keep the boiling water only in areas where you want to remove all plants.
Cut weeds before they go to seed
Yes, life happens even in the busy midseason and sometimes you just can’t keep up with the weeds. (This happened to me. I couldn’t weed for a week, and the weeds suddenly exploded all over my vegetable beds.) If you can’t use the above methods, then at the very least, cut down weeds before they go to seed. (Or at least try.)
By preventing weeds from going to seed, you’ll have a better time at the start of the next season.
A scythe or a lawn mower can be quite helpful here!
8 ways to killer weeds naturally for your garden:
How to use weed killers?
As much as I’d love to believe that you can get a handle on all weeds by the above natural methods, there are times when you have to resort to weedkillers.
Weedkillers should never be your first option. They can have a detrimental effect on you, anyone who plays in that area like children and pets, and the environment. Some weedkillers (both synthetic and natural) will kill everything around it, not just the weeds.
Avoid using weed killers in vegetable gardens or near anything you plan to eat! You don’t want to eat weed killers.
And before grabbing something off the shelf, make sure you identify what weed you’re trying to get rid of so you can select the right product for your needs. That way you get the best results while minimising unintended effects.
What are weed killers and how do weed killers work?
Weed killers are chemical-based solutions designed to kill specific plants. They can be synthetic-based (coming out of the lab) or made from natural ingredients.
Different Type of Weed Killer
Residual weed killers poison the soil so that nothing can germinate. They last in the soil for months. DO NOT use these on vegetable beds. Only use them in places where you want nothing to grow, like in between flagstones.
Contact weed killers weaken plants that come into contact with it and are either selective (kills a particular type of plant) or non-selective (kills anything). This type works best for annual weeds, as it doesn’t kill the roots.
Systemic weedkillers are absorbed by the plants through foliage and spread to all the other parts, including the roots. In two weeks, the plant will die. Best for perennial weeds and particularly noxious, invasive species.
Spot treat when possible!
When is the best time to use weedkillers?
Contact and systemic weed killers are best applied on young weeds. Green, pliable skin absorbs herbicides better than thick, woody skin. If you’re tackling something like blackberry shrubs, then cut them to the ground and wait for fresh shoots to apply the weed killer.
If you’re trying to prevent germination, then you want to time applications before the weed germinates (starts to grow).
Apply when you have a few days of low wind and dry weather. Wind can carry herbicide onto plants you don’t want to remove, so apply when it’s calm out. Rain will also carry herbicide onto other plants, and will also dilute or wash away the application.
ALWAYS READ THE LABEL and follow their instructions. Also note how long the weed killer will take and if you’re using a residual weed killer, how long it will last in the soil.
Home remedy to kill weeds
There are several things you can find in your kitchen that can work as weedkillers.
If you want to replant in an area, mix vinegar (1 gallon) and dish soap (1 tablespoon) in a spray bottle and apply.
If you don’t want to replant in an area, add 1 cup of salt to the above recipe. (You will literally be “salting the earth” so nothing can grow there again — at least not until the rain carries the salt away.)
How to remove noxious, invasive weeds
Most weeds you need to deal with aren’t really that bad, just misunderstood. However, there’s some weeds that are so invasive, so noxious, that you have to resort to more drastic methods.
Weeds that fall into this category are weeds that are extremely difficult to remove, can regrow if you leave just a bit of root left, and/or are very dangerous to humans and animals or the surrounding native plants.
Examples include bindweed, giant hogweed, poison ivy, and Japanese knotweed.
As I said above, you may have a legal obligation to remove these weeds from your yard.
First, you need to know what you’re dealing with. Identify the weed, then research the specific plant and what your local government advises you to do (there may be regulations you must follow).
Don’t remove the noxious weeds from your property or put the remains in the garbage or compost. Kill the weed in place and destroy the material without it leaving your yard, as this will help prevent the noxious weed from spreading to other locations. Definitely do not put it in the compost, whether your own or a municipal composting program!
Look for biological control agents and/or approved herbicides. Check for herbicides (weed killers) that work on the specific noxious weed and spot treat. Biological control agents are things like insects, mites, nematodes, and other organisms that will kill specific noxious weeds.
They’ll only work on specific plants, and some may be prohibited in your area as they may become an out-of-control pest depending on the environment, so do your research. Whatever you do, you’ll be killing the weed in place.
Don’t bury the remains and check whether you can burn the noxious weed. Burying the remains may prove counterproductive. Some weeds you definitely don’t want to burn, like poison ivy, as the smoke is just as harmful to humans. Basically, follow expert advice (and fact check that advice against various sources).
How to mix and apply lawn weed killer:
The best way to get weeds under control is prevention.
The second best way is by using natural methods, either soil solarisation, blocking out the light, or even pulling by hand (I promise, it’s not so arduous if you mulch!).
Only then, if all else fails, find the right weed killer for the job, make the weed go away permanently.
And always identify those weeds! A bit of knowledge can go a long way to making your life easier.