Control Weeds Without Chemicals


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

One of my main glories as a gardener is that I’m a talented hand puller of weeds. And, the older I get, the less trustful I am of garden chemicals. After all, the world cannot make up its mind whether glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and the most widely used herbicide, is even safe.

We throw around the word “organic” without giving it much thought. Technically, “organic” refers to the presence of carbon in a molecule but when gardeners use the word, they typically are referring to “natural” gardening methods.

Organic gardening and organic commercial growing are two different things: Organic gardening permits the gardener to make decisions in reference to their plants, whereas the organic commercial grower must follow strict federal regulations. Consequently, the organic gardener can use products that the organic grower cannot.

There are many reasons the gardener has to take weeds into account. Weeds compete for finite resources, many weeds are ugly and many have aggressive tendencies that simply overwhelm those innocent plants we have lovingly planted.

Weeds in the grass cause us to turn to pre-emergents and post-emergents, but somewhere along the line we ask ourselves, “Can we prevent weeds without resorting to chemical solutions?”

The sad truth is that organic herbicides are not as effective as the chemical ones. Corn gluten meal is the only organic pre-emergent available and it takes a lot of corn gluten meal to be effective: Approximately 20 pounds are needed to cover 1,000 square feet.

Another drawback is that it can take several years before its effectiveness is made known. The positive advantage is that it’s safe. However, a chemical pre-emergent is not only more successful in weed control but it is also cheaper.

Flaming, an old-fashioned method, can work. Twenty-one days after treatment, weed control was around 80 percent. However, many of us live in communities where flaming is against the law because it can be quite dangerous, especially in dry weather.

Most homemade remedies contain either vinegar or borax. One solution sometime offered is to grind up brussels sprouts; however, unless you have an unexplained urge to grind up your vegetables, you should know that this solution doesn’t work.

Borax contains boron, which in heavy doses is toxic to plants, including Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), the weed that thrives in our grass. While it can be effective, there is a caveat: It’s easy to overdose your soil with boron, making it toxic to all plants.

If you have a large patch of weeds, you may want to consider solarization: Mow the area, spread a sheet of plastic during a warm period and leave it for four to six weeks. This method pretty much kills everything, including the beneficial organisms. Obviously, this method is not suitable when the weeds co-exist with desirable plants.

Regardless of whether you choose a chemical or organic solution for your weeds, please read and follow the instructions on the package. Just because a substance is listed as organic does not mean it’s safe. Remember that nature has given us many natural poisons.

The safest and most effective way to rid your garden of weeds is hand pulling. The best weed suppression — alas, not suitable in the lawn — is to mulch all those areas that aren’t lawn. If the seeds don’t see the light of day, there is a good chance they won’t germinate.

Our soils are full of seeds, seeds that can remain viable for a number of years. Simply put, you must mulch on a regular schedule if this method of weed control is to work.

So, if hand weeding becomes part of your daily garden hygiene, pat yourself on the back, telling yourself that you really are doing something beneficial to your garden.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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