First written January 13, 2015, Updated April 28, 2020
Weeds! – Who has time for weeds? Not me that’s for sure! But what can you do about them without reaching for the chemicals?
I’m sure there are better things all of us could be doing besides weeding our gardens.
Tackling weeds is a bit of work in the beginning, but these steps will make your life so much easier and your gardening experience so much more satisfying.
Learning How To Control And Manage Your Garden Weeds.
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Organic Weed Control Plan.
When you are growing an organic garden, you don’t need just one tool, you need a weed control plan!
The key to controlling garden weeds is planning! You can’t wait until the weeds start popping up to think about what you are going to do about them.
What is a weed control plan? It’s a year-round plan that starts before you put the first seed in the ground and ends when you put your garden to bed, by preparing for the next spring. With a weed control plan in place, your weeding chores will become less and less as each year passes.
If you’re a new gardener—or you’re working in a new or neglected space—the first season will be the toughest. Start small and stick with it. I assure you the time you put in now will be time well spent.
What Are Weeds?
A weed is any unwanted plant growing in your garden. Weeds are just plants that have been planted by nature
However, weeds play an important part in nature. First of all, soil is modest. She likes to be covered. Or so says homesteader Justin Rhodes.
Actually, weeds perform many jobs. They prevent erosion, keep topsoil from blowing away, pull nutrients from deep in the soil depositing them on top of the soil when they die, and keep the soil microorganisms moist and cool.
Their roots make air and water passages for worms and other organisms that live in the soil, break up compaction, add organic matter, and so much more.
But, when you are trying to grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers, they can steal precious resources from your plants and not allow them the space they need to spread out and grow properly.
So if you want to grow your own plants and don’t want weeds doing their job in your garden, you have to learn to do their job for them.
There are a few things to know about weeds:
Classes of Weeds
Taproot – some weeds have a long center root, a bit like a carrot. It has smaller roots growing off from it. If you break off the root at or near ground level it will often just grow right back. You need to try to get the whole root out. A dandelion is a good example of this type of weed.
Runners – Some weeds have runners and grow in all directions at once. They will put out the runners (rhizomes) above ground and underground. If you pull up one of the runners all the others will still live on happily. If you cut it up in pieces (say with a tiller) each of the pieces will start a new plant. Alas, poison ivy is a runner type of weed. So is bermudagrass.
What Are Some Ways To Kill Those Pesky Weeds?
Using chemicals to eliminate weeds can do more harm than good.
While I hate weeds in my garden as much as the next guy or gal, using chemicals injures more than the weeds. The bees, worms, and beneficial bugs and microorganisms are harmed by them too. (not to mention, they are not very good for us either.)
Using chemicals to get rid of weeds can throw off your whole soil structure. There are a few classes of herbicides that actually poison the soil and will not let wide-leaved plants (like beans and tomatoes) grow in that soil for years if not decades.
Let Me Count The Ways To Organic Weed Control In Your Vegetable Garden:
No More Weeds – Naturally.
1) No-Till – One way people cause most of their own weeds is by over-tilling their gardens.
One thing to note. Plants need light to grow, so covering them with any material that blocks out that light will cause them to die.
Every square inch of your garden contains weed seeds, but only those in the top inch or two of soil get enough light to trigger germination. Digging and cultivating brings hidden weed seeds to the surface.
I try not to till at all, although there are times you must. I suggest that, if you do, you cover those tilled areas with a tarp and kill the weeds that you just brought to the surface.
2) Mulch – Straw, hay, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and pine needles. Make sure you put down a nice thick layer. This helps keep away weeds, moderates temperatures, holds in moisture, limits evaporation, and reduces splash on plant leaves keeping them cleaner and reducing fungi. As a bonus mulch naturally composts in place putting humus back into the soil.
A word of caution. Many of the wonderful sources of mulch and compost such as straw, hay, and manure (because of the hay the animal has eaten) are now tainted by herbicides. Herbicides kill broad leaved plants…like beans, tomatoes, lettuce & peppers. Some herbicides will remain in the soil for decades! Make sure your source for mulch is organic.
Related: Mulch For Your Vegetable Garden.
3) Newspapers – Put down a thick layer of newspaper on top of your soil. You will need to add a thin layer of mulch to keep it in place, but newspaper is a great weed barrier. Prepare your beds, put your compost on, and your worm castings then put your soaker hose down before you put your newspaper down.
Put your mulch on top to hold down your paper. That ensures your plants get watered, but the weed seeds that land on top, don’t. Then just tear a small hole in the paper where you want to place a plant or seed. By the end of the season, it will mostly be decomposed and it too will add humus to your soil.
Can’t find newspaper? You can use natural biodegradable weed-barrier.
4) Cardboard – Also, like newspapers, cardboard is a wonderful barrier. In fact, it is a most effective way of stopping weeds naturally. However, it is not as easy to tear holes in for planting. And it does not let water through very well. But it’s great for the walkways!
It is tough enough to walk on and really keeps weeds from coming through. Even those perennial weeds with the pesky roots that break apart when you try to pull them out. A little mulch on top and you are good to go for the whole season!
Two extra reasons for using cardboard, the activity of garden critters (the good kind) love to live under cardboard. Beneficials such as earthworms and fungi will love you. Also, the use of cardboard as mulch is permitted by NOP (National Organic Program Standards) Bonus!
5) Plant In Blocks So Plants Shade Out Weeds – If you plant in thin rows, only a tiny area is shaded. However, if you plant close together in blocks the plants will shade out most of the weeds. This will cut down on your weeds tremendously.
6) Vinegar – Plants don’t like vinegar. You can put vinegar into a spray bottle and using a dog cone to isolate the weed you wish to get rid of, spray just the weed. The vinegar will kill it clear down to the root, though you may need to reapply to kill the very strong and persistent weeds. Make sure it doesn’t get on your prize tomato plant though as it doesn’t discriminate between the plants you like and the plants you don’t.
Tip: Vinegar works best in the bright sunlight. It causes the leaves of the plant to dehydrate in the hot sun.
Note: Agricultural Vinegar (20% acidity), as opposed to household vinegar (5% acidity), works much better and quicker.
7) Boiling Water – Yes boiling water. Just pour it on and it cooks the plant. Once again you need to be careful of what is around it.
8) Fire – We all know fire kills plants. But what if you could target just the plants you wanted to kill. A propane torch is a great way to place the fire right where you need it. And Red Dragon flame weeder has a nozzle that makes it easy to use without bending over at all. It makes quick easy work of even the biggest garden.
One great way to use this I learned when I read the book The Market Gardener. Prepare your garden, water it well, plant your seeds and before any can sprout, go over it with the flame weeder. That will get rid of all the weeds and give your new seedlings a head start.
The Red Dragon is an excellent way to kill the weeds where you can’t use mulch too. Like in the cracks of your driveway.
Note: Just be careful that things are watered well or you have a hose nearby, so you don’t set your whole backyard on fire.
9) Eat Them – If you can eat it, you don’t mind if it grows! Dandelion weeds are full of great nutrition. Or feed them to your worms and your chickens or ducks. Of course, make sure the weeds you pick are not poisonous.
When you are practicing organic weed control, you know the plant you pick will be free from herbicides and pesticides.
Many weeds are great to eat while they are young such as dandelions, plantain, yellow dock, violet, wood sorrel, lambs quarters, chickweed & purslane. Make sure you check a reliable source such as this book Edible Wild Plants to make sure they are safe to eat.
Related: How To Solarize Your Garden.
10) Solarize – before your season or after, you can place black plastic on your well-watered, prepared beds. The plastic will keep sunlight out and the water will steam. This results in weeds dying. Weed seeds dying. And solarizing kills off some fungi and diseases too. It is also one of the most effective ways of controlling nematodes for the home gardener. Clear plastic lets in more heat which is better for the nematodes, but black plastic is better for the weeds.
Using a tarp to cover your garden 30 days (longer if you can) before planting will kill off most of the weeds
Plastic – Like newspaper or cardboard, it is a great weed barrier. However, at the end of the season, you will need to pull it off and throw it away. It does have added benefits of warming your soil if you want to start your garden early or you live in a cool climate.
11) Water the plants you want, not the weeds – Weeds need three things to grow. Light, heat, and water. You can’t do much about the heat in your garden, but you can control the light and heat. By using drip irrigation or a soaker hose, you can water where your vegetables are, and at the same time discourage the weeds from germinating. An added bonus is you can add a timer so you never forget to water. Your plants will love you.
12) Cover-cropping- When you are taking a break from growing vegetables you can cover your soil and put nutrients back in at the same time by growing a cover crop.
A cover crop is just a plant you grow that you don’t plan on harvesting. You can cut it off and let it lay right there, as a mulch, on your garden bed, or till it under so it can decompose and feed your soil.
Just make sure you cut or till it before it goes to seed or some of them can become as bad a weed as your other weeds. Another option is to let your chickens or ducks in to eat the cover crop and get some added fertilizer.
Buckwheat (which my ducks love), millet, and sorghum are good choices for hot weather. In cooler weather, crimson clover, Austrian peas (great in salads), tillage radish, winter wheat, and mustard are great choices.
Bonus) One of my favorite ways to get rid of weeds at the end of the season is to let my ducks and chickens into the garden area. They will clean up all the weeds and remove many of the bugs that are overwintering to save you that headache too. All while adding a little extra fertilizer. Ducks and chickens can be great garden helpers.
They will make quick work of removing your cover-crops too so your garden is ready to plant.
And if that doesn’t work completely and you find a few weeds…..
Pull Them By Hand – yes it is a lot of work but what better way of getting into your garden, getting close to your plants, and really seeing what is going on. It’s a great way to keep tabs on pests, diseases, fungi, watering, and the nutritional needs of your plants.
An old Chinese proverb says “The best fertilizer is the shadow of the gardener”. How true, we can’t know what is going on if we are not there. Weeding is a good way to visit our plants regularly.
If you are checking your garden every day or two, it’s really not a big chore to pull a weed or two. If you pull them when they are small, it’s easy peasy.
Don’t Forget To Put Your Garden To Bed.
At the end of the season, your garden should be cleaned and mulched so she is not left bare all winter. This will ensure fewer weeds and healthier soil, not to mention a garden that is ready for planting, come spring.
Organic weed control is not only possible, but you will also find with a little effort at the start, it will make your garden both a place of beauty and a safe place for you and your family to grow the bounty for your table.
Here are some simple steps to help you with the best way to weed:
- Start with a plan of how you wish to eliminate weeds before they begin.
- Don’t wait to weed. Pulling them when they are small is much easier.
- Weeding is easiest when the soil is damp.
- If you keep up with them every day or two, the task will only take a few minutes and you won’t have to fight with those nasty taproots and the runners will be short.
- Never let them go to seed.
- Removal of the whole root is the goal.
- Don’t stoop or bend over too much so you don’t hurt your back.
- Using the correct tool will make your life so much easier.
- When you have pulled them all, they can be fed to the chickens, ducks, or other livestock if you have them, or just put them on the compost pile, as long as there are no weed seeds. Even feed them to your worms!
Not only does this organic weed control plan cut down on weed pressure, but it is also the best plan for growing a great garden.
Related: My Garden Journal/Planner.
Weeding Is Easier With The Right Tools.
- A hori hori is a trowel that makes light work of tough weeds
- A kneeling pad is easier on the knees
- Or you can try a stool that holds your tools. I have one like this that really saves your knees if you have a long day of weeding or planting.
- If you have a relatively smooth surface a scooter makes it so handy.
- A hula ho allows you to cut the weeds below the soil surface without bending. This is good for the little weeds.
- Or the Stand-up Weed Zinger will save your back and pull that root right out of the ground.
- And don’t forget the Red Dragon Flame Weeder. It makes quick work of even large gardens.
Choose well-made tools and they will make your job so much easier and will last for years.
Every garden is going to have a few weeds here and there. But after a few years, your weed pressures will diminish, and you will simply get to enjoy growing tons of tasty edibles and beautiful plants.
But now you know the answer to the question of why you have weeds and what you need to do to fix it!
The best way to organic weed control is proper planning and following through on that plan. Your garden will produce more food, with less time and effort and you will be enjoying a bounty of wonderful vegetables, herbs, and flowers, with hardly a weed in sight.
Here’s to a wonderful season in the garden!
What is your favorite way to eliminate weeds in your garden? Leave a comment and let us know how some of these ideas have worked for you?
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