How to Naturally Wage War on Weeds

Author: Robin Horton

dead weeds held in gloved hands

You're down on your hands and knees engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the weeds, sweat pouring down your neck as you pull them out one by one. It’s getting tiresome, but you know that yanking them out by the root is one of the best ways to ensure the suckers won’t return. To make the task easier, you use a sharp trowel to loosen and dislodge the unwelcomed plant roots from the soil.

Grabbing up the pulled weeds, you head to the compost pile before you realize that it’s a bad idea to toss them in there if you’ll be sprinkling that compost back into the garden. Some gardeners use gardening shears to chop up invasive pulled weeds into tiny pieces, then place them on a paved driveway to dry out. Once dry, they toss the dried weeds in a trash can for pickup.

Time for a break.

Garden Weed Control Methods

An Ounce Of Prevention...

It’s ideal to prevent weeds from sprouting in the first place. But controlling weeds can feel like a herculean task that requires attentiveness and diligence, because as we detailed in an earlier post, weeds are opportunistic, aggressive, and very persistent.

  • Cultural (hand weeding, hoeing, and cultivating)
  • Mulches
  • Herbicides (natural or more toxic solutions)

The key to ridding the garden of weeds is to get them early when they are small. Because no two weeds are alike, it helps to identify the particular weed variety, then create a customized battle plan tailored to each intruder. There are a number of ways to prevent and rid the garden of weeds, but most come down to three basic methods...

Manually: Pulling and Topping

pulling weeds with fingers

Old fashioned elbow grease works well but hand-pulling weeds requires a bit of finesse. Make sure to firmly grab the weed from the base and pull slowly to ease it out. “Pull when wet, hoe when dry”–– this common gardener maxim offers the sage advice that pulling weeds from moist soil after watering or a rain shower will make the job easier and lessen the chances that you’ll break off the top and leave the root intact.

If you can't yank the weeds out, consider topping—cutting off the flowers and seeds as soon as they sprout and before they have a chance to shed. In other words, off with their heads!

The aim is to keep the weeds from dropping seeds. Perennial weeds are tougher than annuals to eradicate as they spread through rhizomes or tendrils below the soil surface. To limit their spread and lessen the chances of the weeds reseeding, cutting back the tops forcing them to deplete their nutrient reserves and diminishes their supply of root buds. Topping annual weeds may buy a little time before their seeds disperse via wind or birds and take up residence again in another undesired location. For weeds with tap roots such as dandelions and thistles, dig them up with a shovel or hoe to weaken the root and eventually kill the plant. They will likely return, but prompt, regular hand-pulling and digging out will help reduce their numbers.

Careful Cultivating

Keep cultivation and hoeing shallow. Only those weed seeds in the top inch or two of the soil receive enough light to allow germination. Digging too deep may damage plant roots and may also bring more weed seeds to the surface where they’ll be able to sprout. Cultural methods should begin early in the season before weeds become a problem.

Wage War Creatively

Some effective approaches involve advance preparation to ward off weeds before they have a chance to sprout.

The False or Stale Seedbed Method

This approach requires preparing the seed bed a few weeks prior to planting. See our article on how to do the false seedbed method in your home garden. You can also follow up later by flame torching weeds preferably after seeds have germinated but before plant seedlings have sprouted (see more about flame torching below.)

Corn Gluten Meal

Some gardeners suggest sprinkling corn gluten meal to prevent weed seeds from germinating. Despite the name, corn gluten doesn’t contain gluten like the kind found in wheat. But because this method will bring the same demise to any seed, only use this if you’re not planting other seeds in the vicinity.

Keep in mind that nature doesn’t distinguish between those plants we consider undesirable from those we want to keep. So when you go to battle with weeds, make sure to selectively target only the plants you don’t want in order to spare the surrounding ones you want to keep.

Burn the Hell Out Them

Soil Solarization

This approach works best in areas with full sun. Place a heavy plastic sheet over the weeds for 4-6 weeks to allow heat to collect underneath and basically bake the weeds. They’ll be ready to toss when the weeds turn brown and shrivel up.

Torch Them

Flame weeding is a way the killing of weeds by applying intense heat using a fuel-burning device such as a hand-held flame torch. You don’t actually set the plants on fire, but rather expose them briefly to intense heat. This damages their cell structure and causes them to wilt and die after several hours or days. Torching them works best on small weeds or seedlings that are less than a few inches tall. You can usually flame right up until the seedlings are starting to push the ground up without sustaining crop damage. For the longest-lasting weed control effect, the complete the final flaming of weeds as late as possible, ideally after seeds have germinated but before crop seedlings emerge.

Cover Them Up

Mulch and More Mulch

sweet woodruff as living mulch

Mulching starves weeds of sunlight and smothers them while also trapping moisture into the soil. Blanket the soil with a layer (about a two inches) of mulch, such as wood chips or shredded dried leaves, to help retain moisture and block the sunlight that weeds need to sprout. Consider suppressing weeds by placing wet cardboard or two to four inches thick of damp newspaper topped with three to four inches of organic material such as grass clippings, dried leaves, pine needles or even straw to hold the paper in place.

Ground Cover

Choke out weeds and beautify the garden at the same time with some well-chosen ground cover plants. Select the right variety for the particular site and its level of sunlight. Drought-tolerant cover plants are great for hot climate zones where xeriscaping helps to conserve water (think plants like sweet woodruff and creeping thyme for shade; moss phlox and prostrate rosemary for sun.)

Apply Herbicides

Vinegar, Salt and Soap

combine vinegar, salt, and soap to kill weeds

Combine the ingredients in a spray bottle and for best results attack the weeds when it’s sunny to help activate the mixture.

  • 1 gallon white vinegar
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap

Boil the Weeds

Boiling weeds may be the easiest natural remedy and you don’t even need to buy anything. Like the flame weeding method, boiling water will burn the weeds. Apply the water gently and be sure to avoid plants you don’t intend to kill.

Rent a Goat

using a goat to control weeds

It may sound odd, but it would behoove you to consider this one as the animals cute, non-toxic and they love noxious weeds. Also known as goatscaping, this method is best for properties of an acre to accommodate the herd, and it will set you back about $250-$700 a day. Here’s a state by state listing of goat rental companies.

Don’t forget that even if you succeed at killing 99% of the weeds, the remaining 1% will unfortunately be enough to spread them again. You may win the battle but winning the war will require patience, effort, and you’ll need to be more persistent than the weeds. When all else fails, consider living in harmony with some beneficial and lovely weeds like clover and dandelions.