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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Here’s more on growing a weed-free garden.
Do you have other organic weed control tips? Tell us about them in the comment section below.
Carol Dawson says
Thank you for the article on weed control tips. Excellent
peter prosser says
A whipper snipper (weed whacker) is an excellent tool for rapid weed control most people don’t think of using. It takes some skill not to hit the good plants but is the fastest weeder I know! Wear googles.
I use my Black and Decker cordless weedwhacker in the vegetable garden all summer. Stumbled upon this method when I couldn’t get anyone to cultivate for me… I’m able to go very close to plants and scour the earth.
Carole Coates says
Great piece! Any of those herbicides work on the bane of my existence, horse nettle? Or maybe I just need a bunch of tarps!
Jessica Walliser says
Hi Carole –
Horse nettle is so difficult to control – those spines will get you every time. Not to mention its toxicity. Yes, I do think the organic herbicides will work; just be sure to use them when the plants are still young. I’d do that and then cover the area with ten sheets thick of newspaper and then cover the paper with shredded bark mulch. Continue to “zap” any horse nettles that pop up through the bark and do not disturb the site in any way. Horse nettles thrive in disturbed soils, so don’t till the area. Just put a new layer of newspaper and mulch on top of the old every season. Good luck!
Carole Coates says
A year later and I just saw your reply! Thanks for reposting. This comes just as we’ve spent two back-breaking days getting seriously overgrown weeds out of paths and bemoaning the apparent lack of any long-term solutions. This is the perfect time for us to give every one of your tips a try.
It’s good to know that there are organic methods for weed control such as suppressing weeds with mulch. My wife and I don’t mind the non-organic methods, so long as it’s not used near our food garden. We’ve been having some weed control issues near our garden, so having a company come spread mulch seems like it could be really helpful.
Vita Marianne says
Hi Jessica! I am new to the Pittsburgh area, and am living/gardening in the south hills. I want to mulch with straw and also try some straw bale gardening! Where should I go to find good straw for this?
I have tried both newspaper and cardboard mulch – they worked to some degree to suppress a bind weed infestation but soon were destroyed by the resident raccoons digging underneath. I also have problems with the raccoons digging under my landscape cloth around my raised beds even though I tried to use landscape staples to fasten the cloth down.
It’s also important to clean up your garden of seed heads of flowers (unlike the usual advice given to not clean up and leave them for the birds and butterflies) otherwise you will have many more. Forget-me-nots are especially bad for this.
Jessica Walliser says
Great comments, Marc. Thanks for adding your thoughts. Sorry to hear about your raccoon issues. I haven’t had them dig up my newspaper mulch, but they sure do like to get into the hen house from time to time. As for the reseeding of certain plants, yes, gardeners do have to use their best judgement when it comes to deciding which plants to allow to produce seeds. If a particular plant is a prolific self-seeder, then cutting the spent flowers off goes a long way toward keeping the plant from becoming “weedy.” In my own garden, I allow almost all of my plants to drop seed and spread, though there are a handful of plants I keep regularly deadheaded because otherwise they’ll take over. But, for the vast majority of plants I grow, I’m happy to see them go to seed.
Yeah, don’t pull up dandelions. They’re edible.
I was told by the owner of the property in which I live, there is an infestation of poison ivy in the hedges that surrounds the perimeter of the property. I have 3 small dogs that enjoy the use of the yard, so you can understand the poison ivy concern. Do you have suggestions?
Jessica Walliser says
Hi Beth – Poison ivy is such a problem. Here’s an article I wrote for Hobby Farms magazine a few years ago that should help. https://www.hobbyfarms.com/4-things-you-didnt-know-about-poison-ivy/
geo lambert says
Regarding Tip 5 (using newspaper but not glossy or colored ink), it is amazing that there is so much varied opinion. NCAT’s ATTRA does support your position, but many others disagree. Apparently the glossy surface is created by a clay coating that is natural and benign. While inks previously had petroleum and lead content, both black and color inks are now soy based. Therefore it seems to me that a home gardener need not be concerned about toxicity, so not worth spending time to sort them out. However, they tend to be smaller sheets and glossy paper is slower to absorb water, consequently they take more time to spread and are more likely to blow away before getting soaked which make them undesirable. I wouldn’t use a whole load of just them, and think best to avoid if convenient, but think some in the mix would be inconsequential.
Kayla Doucette says
Great article thank you so much! You mentioned that for example Epsom salt could damage the soil. I has read somewhere that it was good for plants? What are your thoughts on this? Thank you 🙂
Jessica Walliser says
Epsom salts are not good for plants. That is a myth. Here is a great article from Washington State University that explains why: https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/403/2015/03/epsom-salts.pdf
Renee Rinaldi says
Hi my brothers house in Pennsylvania is overwhelmed by wormwood or mugwort? I have started to Hand pull but this will take a lifetime Any suggestions?
Jessica Walliser says
I suggest mowing down the mugwort, covering the entire area with cardboard and then covering that with 3-4 inches of mulch. The next spring, add another layer of cardboard and mulch without disturbing the previous year’s layer. Eventually this process completely smothers the mugwort and will get rid of it.
Carol Simonsen says
Thank you for your tips. I have a terraced area in the yard that is full of morning glory. It comes up between the retaining wall and the garden bed, and before long has covered a large area. There is landscape cloth on the ground covered with lava rock, but it still covers a large area. Any suggestions for that?
Jessica Walliser says
I suggest covering the area with cardboard then laying the mulch on top. Put a new layer down every year and the morning glory will be smothered. Works much better than landscape fabric which has tiny holes in it that weed roots can grow through.
Thanks for the tips! We have inherited a mess of weeds, and our yard is surrounded by a chain link fence. What do you recommend for safely stopping weeds growing under the fence? We get so many mulberry saplings, porcelain berry, etc growing at the bottom of the fence where it is hard to mow. Our neighbor’s yard is much less weedy, but they also use round up which we’d like to avoid. I’ve seen a trench of landscape fabric and mulch recommended, but I’m not sure.
Jessica Walliser says
I suggest using the flame weeder discussed in the article. It works great for under fences.