June 15th 2020
For many homeowners, the idea of going green has taken on a whole new dimension. Environmental impact concerns are matched by an equally strong desire to make the best choices for the health of their families. Organic weed control – an approach to weed removal and prevention that does not involve the use of synthetic chemicals and weed killers – has come to the fore of these conversations. And the common question is always the same – where should I start? The body of knowledge on this topic ranges from recipes for homemade weed killer, pet friendly options for yards, weed thresholds, and even whether or not vinegar will kill your grass. We can help you sort it all out.
Pick One: Cancer. Irreversible damage to plants, animals, and the environment. Contamination of ground and drinking water. Devastating birth defects. Weeds in your flowerbed.
This is what many homeowners feel they face when it comes to the use of commercially available synthetic weed control options. Some fear that these inorganic products, used widely in the farming and landscaping industries, carry many risks that they do not want their families exposed to. An examination of the chemicals that these products are composed of does not inspire much confidence:
Glyphosate is at the center of a major cancer lawsuit initially awarding more than $2 billion in damages to plaintiffs based on evidence it can be linked to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
Atrazine can travel in rain runoff and may cause contamination of drinking water sources.
2,4-D, while not technically the most dangerous chemical used in its production, was one of the primary components of Agent Orange.
Trifluralin has been shown in studies to negatively affect aquatic life and groundwater.
Pendimethalin has been evaluated for its potential to cause increases in both lung and rectal cancer.
And while some studies are available that may disagree with the scary findings about these chemicals, many question the validity and scientific merit of research potentially funded by the very manufacturers of these chemicals and the products that use them. Some are convinced merely by the fact that where there is smoke, there must be fire. And perhaps most simply of all, many people want to avoid the risk altogether – whatever level that risk may be – by finding organic alternatives. We can help.
Our in-depth guide to organic weed control will take you through everything from the philosophies and principles of designing your yards and beds to combat weeds, to growing the sort of grass that prevents weed growth, and certain organic weed killers you can make use of in stubborn cases. The goal is to help you make the best choices for your family, your community, and the environment, while still maintaining stunningly weed-free lawns and flowerbeds.
Take a Holistic Approach – Before you start the process of going organic, understand that there are no quick fixes like you will find with spraying a quick synthetic chemical. Those products work quickly by disrupting the basic life functions and genetics of plants. Many organic weed control and natural weed killing methods are methods that take place over time.
Get the Playing Field Set – If your soil already has a high level of synthetic chemicals lingering in it, is too wet, too dry, or out of balance, you are going to have a hard time setting it up for success. It is a good idea to analyze it before you begin, solve any drainage problems, and get it into the proper PH balance.
Good Plants to Crowd the Weeds – Grow your plants in such a way that the weeds cannot get access to good soil, nutrients, sunlight, or even g growing space. Your desired plants can act as a barrier, fighting even when you are not around to help them out.
Set a Weed Threshold – Understand that there is a natural tipping point where your efforts to remove weeds will surpass the value or gain you get from removing them. Accepting this, many homeowners will choose to introduce pretty or otherwise beneficial weeds, such as Microclover.
Watering on a Schedule – Watering your lawn too much can be tempting, but it is one of the fastest ways to end up with weeds, fungus, pests, and diseased grass. Understand your lawn’s watering needs, have the right tools for the job, and gauge the needed frequency appropriately.
Use the Proper “Chemicals” – Corn gluten meal and vinegar are among the organic chemicals many say can help you prevent and eliminate weeds in your garden. There also are organic products available for purchase that take the place of synthetic chemicals. Along with that, many organic recipes exist for DIY weed killers and pet safe homemade herbicides.
Put Your Back Into It – Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty. There are many tools on the market that make the manual removal of even tough, spiky, and smelly weeds easy and painless. These methods are well more sophisticated than yanking out weeds by hand, and require zero chemicals.
Get Creative – Flamethrowers may not be the very first thing that comes to mind when you are thinking about weed control, but maybe they should be! There are many unusual ways you can remove weeds – from goats, to vodka, to eating them yourself. Just make sure you are always being safe about it!
There is a reason people turned to synthetic chemicals to control their weeds – it is easy. Organic weed control can be too. But it requires a strong, coordinated effort over a length of time and a holistic approach. A professional company can handle all of these details for you, and often at a rate lower than an individual homeowner would pay for supplies alone. However, if you are looking for a DIY approach to non-toxic weed control, here is where we recommend you begin.
Before you start with the plants and the natural weed killer, it can be a good idea to analyze your soil. There are dozens of commercially available soil testing kits available at major retailers that can help you understand everything from its composition (whether it is a bit on the sandy, silty, or clay-heavy side,) its PH levels, to how much water it is going to hold. Different types of plants, flowers, and grasses prefer different types of soil. If your yard or your flowerbeds are being crowded out by weeds that seem to thrive while your desired plants seem to struggle, it could be your soil. And if the commercially available tests are not as appealing to you, a quick search online will net you a dozen DIY at-home tests you can do in as little as an hour, and often without any real need for equipment.
If you are worried about the herbicide or pesticide levels already present and persisting in your soil, there are some tests available for this in stores. However, the most accurate soil tests of this kind are often done in laboratories. If you are taking a DIY approach to organic weed control this step may be a little labor or cost intensive. Many landscaping companies will perform soil tests before beginning any organic weed control regiment, adding value to the service they provide.
And finally, consider the evenness of your lawn. Beyond creating a good opportunity to get a twisted ankle, an uneven yard can also contribute to your weed problems. Soil with pits and divots can create an unsightly lawn, and house pockets of those undesired pest plants. There are a few ways to approach this problem, depending upon the magnitude of the depressions and whether or not there is healthy grass growing.
If otherwise healthy grass is sitting atop lightly uneven ground, you may be able to top it off with a little bit of potting or top soil. Try to limit this to about an inch or less so that the grass can grow up through it. If the depression under healthy grass is much deeper, it can be better to cut out the top layer of sod, fill in beneath it with a proper ratio soil/sand mixture, then re-sow your sod atop it. However, if the section has 50% or more of its surface populated by weeds, it can be best to just remove the top layer entirely and backfill the area until level with good, healthy topsoil, or a soil/sand mixture, then re-seed with a healthy grass seed mix.
It is a well-known truism among those interested in organic weed control that, instead of applying weed killer for lawns, you want your grass to do most of the work of lawn weed fighting for you. But if you are just starting out, this might not be immediately evident. After all, grass is just grass, right? One of the first lessons you will learn is that the answer to this question is actually no. Hearty, thick grass that grows tall and dense chokes out weeds. It leaves them no place to grow by dominating the ground space, filling the soil with root systems that do not give way for weeds, and by soaking up all of the sunlight that the baby weeds need to grow.
If your lawn is patchy, thin, or inconsistent, you are creating free space for weeds to take root. And the causes can be a myriad as the weeds you are trying to prevent. Poor grass type for your area, soil balance issues, yard pests, thatch density, light and water levels, all can contribute to either a healthy or unhealthy lawn. While we address some of these factors in this article, it can often be best to consult with a professional company to determine the best approach to fixing up your yard. Ultimately, keeping your lawn lush and thick is already a desirable outcome for a homeowner. So having it pull double duty and prevent new weed growth is the cherry on top.
How you water your grass should not be guesswork. If you are just taking your best shot every night around 6 p.m. with an oscillating sprinkler, you are almost certainly going to develop issues with fungus and diseases that resist easy organic treatments. But if you water too little, your yard will thin out and you will develop weeds that crowd out your grass because they have been given space to do so. As with most things in life, the answer lies right in the middle. The following tips will help you make a good run at watering properly.
Right Place, Wrong Time – Unless your community is under a water conservation alert (in which case watering your lawn at all may not be a great idea) watering after 6 p.m. is a bad idea. You will keep the grass wet all night. And like most organic substances left moist in open air, it is going to develop fungus. Worse still you will weaken your lawn’s resistance to diseases and pests, such as grubs. Make sure you water first thing in the morning, before the sun is high. For most, the cutoff is between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. You will soak the soil, and any mild excess on the blades of grass will evaporate away in the heat of the sun.
Frequency Should Be Infrequent – If you are watering your lawn more than twice a week and do not have a desperate desire to cultivate a mushroom colony, you are going to be disappointed. Overwatering is one of the best ways to end up with soupy pools of water, fungal growth, and weak, diseased grass. Many experts recommend watering only once a week, while some concede that in dryer months twice a week can be effective. If you are not sure, start with fewer watering sessions, and ramp up only if your grass is beginning to go dormant.
Soak, Don’t Spray – A light spray of water over the blades of your grass can be a beautiful thing, reminiscent of morning dew reflecting a kaleidoscope of dawn sunlight. It also is completely useless to the overall growth and health of your lawn. Most experts recommend you soak an inch to 1.5 inches of water into every area of your grass when you water it. This concept can be hard to wrap your head around, so an easy way to tell is by taking a glass measuring cup outside, noting the 1-1.5 inch mark on it, then watering as normal with your sprinkler. Note the time it took to get to the spot you marked, and repeat that time going forward. If you are worried about an inconsistent sprinkler, setting up a few such tests at various spots in your lawn can help you understand if it is time to get a new sprinkler.
Choose the Right Sprinkler System – It is important you make sure your lawn is getting a good soaking, and you need to make sure your sprinkler is doing an adequate job. The most reliably even-soaking your lawn can get is typically provided by a built-in irrigation system. However, this is normally regarded as a luxury, not necessarily in the budget of an average household. So if you are dealing with a sprinkler attached to a hose and set out in the middle of your lawn, it is important to make sure it is delivering a steady, even soaking. Many oscillating sprinklers will only succeed in coating the exposed blades of grass, not reaching the roots at all. Remember, if your lawn is watered unevenly you will get puddles or bare patches. Neither of these will help you prevent weeds. Find the right sprinkler and the right configuration.
Know When to Call It – If your area is experiencing a drought or is going long stretches without significant rainfall, your lawn is going to naturally go dormant again. This means that dreaded brown shade will wash over your grass and stay there. But sometimes, this is the best option. There are times when efforts to keep a lawn deep green and lush will result in diminishing returns, and might ultimately cause more harm from over-watering. As soon as the weather cools down and the rain returns your yard will bounce right back without the need to spend a lot of effort forcing it.
Flowerbeds Are Not Immune – Remember, the rules and cautions that apply to your lawn can apply equally to flowerbeds. If you are creating an extremely moist environment from over-watering, you will end up with fungus. However, flowers and shrubs can require very different watering schedules than grass. Make sure you know and understand the proper care instructions for each of your different varieties of plant. A local landscaping or gardening company can be a big help here.
Rooted in crop research, weed thresholds acknowledge the fact that eventually the cost and effort of removing weeds becomes greater than the gain of accepting a certain level of weed presence. The concept of a weed threshold sounds somewhat radical to many homeowners. After all, the famous chemical weed killers offer a lawn and flowerbed completely free of weeds, often after only a single application of their deadly cocktail. But if you are interested in pursuing an organic approach to weed control, you may need to accept the idea that at a certain juncture you will reach a point of diminishing returns where weed removal is concerned. And while most homeowners are not evaluating the amount of weeds they can tolerate in their spring wheat, the valuable lessons of weed thresholds apply just as much in the flowerbed and the yard.
One option that homeowners have begun to utilize is Microclover. At about 1/3 the leaf size of regular clover, it can fill in the normal gaps between grass where other weeds might take hold. It tends to stay greener longer than grass in drought situations and provides nitrogen, a fertilizer. And this is just one example. Contact your local landscaping company to see what other helpful “weeds” can provide balance to your yard and give your grass an edge against other, more unsightly, invasive weed varieties.
One big thing that many homeowners miss with weed control is that a large percentage of the weeds introduced to their yards and flowerbeds are due to their own actions. Hikers can pick up and carry seeds of invasive weeds on their clothing even if they stay on pre-defined paths. Bikers on and off the path can carry seeds on their tires and in their bike chains. Dogs are notorious for plowing into the brush and bringing back pests and weeds. And perhaps most obvious of all, people are very willing to bring home a bunch of pretty wildflowers to brighten up the kitchen for a day or two. The methods of entry are myriad.
A certain level of seed transmission is unavoidable. But if you take a little time to clean your own clothes, your bike, your pets before reintroducing them to your own property you can save yourself a lot of headache later on down the line. And while those violets and bluebells might add a splash of color to your home for a few days, they also can establish deep root systems that choke out the plants you want.
One of the best ways to prevent weeds in your flowerbeds is to start your season off right. After removing the weeds from your beds using one of the many methods detailed below, you can begin your season by taking a couple simple actions that will have big payoff. The first method is to put down a layer of weed block. This can either be a weed-blocking fabric, or a homemade version. Store bought fabric is typically sold in rolls, and covers your flowerbed soil completely, trapping any weeds underneath and stopping their growth, while also preventing new seeds from taking root. A homemade variant of this can be made by wetting and pulping old newspaper and applying it over the soil of your flowerbeds. It is biodegradable, so if you have applied enough water it will break down before the end of the season. In both cases, make sure you open up spaces in your cover for your desired plants to grow through.
Once your weed blocker is in place, it is time to lay down a good layer of mulch.
As noted in our comprehensive Lawn Care guide, proper care of the lawn goes a long way. Taking a look through our in-depth examination of lawn care can yield many more tips than are listed here, particularly around proper grass height, the best mowing methods, the types of grass that are best suited to your climate, and fertilizing schedules.
When paired with a good weed blocker, organic mulch can be a total game changer in the organic weed control arena. And the ways that it can contribute to your overall weed control plan might surprise you!
Soil Control and Conditioning – Primarily, people mulch to help their plants grow. Mulch prevents soil from baking and drying out in the heat of the sun, and provides essential nutrients to growing plants. Plus, natural mulches (as opposed to artificial rubber mulches) often decay into a helpful compost that can add nutrient value year over year. Having your desired plants grow bigger and stronger is a very effective way to have them crowd out and steal important resources from weeds.
Weed Blocker – A thick layer of mulch laid over your flowerbeds has the added benefit of preventing some weed varieties from sprouting at all. Essentially, the weight of the mulch smothers the plant, and robs it of sunlight. Just make sure not to over-mulch to prevent weed growth and prevent your flowers from sprouting as well.
Prevention of Root Establishment – Mulch, particularly when paired with a weed barrier, can prevent weeds from establishing deep roots in the soil. Instead, they plant their roots in the nutrient dense mulch itself. The result is that a particularly stiff breeze might knock them over, and a mild tug from a gardener is sure to uproot them completely.
Sourcing this mulch appropriately is absolutely critical. “Dirty” mulch can contain seedlings from weeds, which will sprout anew on your property. On the other hand, when combined with a good weed barrier, this mulch can act as another line of defense against weeds, while still providing all of the beneficial effects you would expect to your “good” plants. This article from Michigan State University can help you understand Mulch in a more detailed way.
Chances are, it is already too late. The weeds are here, creeping up your foundation, emerging from within your hardscaping, and hassling your otherwise beautiful grass. If the invasion has already begun, then it is time to pull out the big guns. Fortunately for you that does not mean potentially harmful chemicals and mass devastation of the local environment. The below items will help you get your yard and flowerbed under control without the potential risk to your family that synthetic chemicals may carry.
Not everything you apply to your yard and your flowerbed to control weeds needs to be a synthetic chemical produced with self-funded research asserting its safety. There are a great many natural substances, with names you can easily pronounce and recognize, that you can make use of in weed control. Here are a few that see common use.
Corn Gluten Meal – A byproduct of the production of corn syrup, corn gluten meal is regarded as an effective way to prevent weeds from growing in the first place – a “pre-emergent” herbicide of sorts. The weeds will begin their growth process, encounter the proteins of the CGM, and struggle to develop roots. And this is where the magic happens because your established plants and grass will not be affected. Beware however – if you apply it at the exact same time as planting new plants, it is going to have the same negative effect on those. And it is not going to have much effect on weeds that have already sprouted.
One other caution – make sure you are purchasing the proper product. True CGM that prevents weed growth will be labeled as an herbicide. Corn meal and other corn related products that claim they are CGM without that label are often ineffective. And be sure not to apply it too early. If the weeds are not trying to sprout and put down roots, you run the risk that the CGM has washed away before it can do its work.
Vinegar – Vinegar may have some effect in killing weeds, but should be used with care as it can be somewhat dangerous at higher concentrations. Household concoctions using vinegar abound – some featuring large amounts of table salt, others common dish soap. Opinions abound, and there does not appear to be one true “recipe” out there. If you are asking yourself “will vinegar kill grass?” you should know that there are competing voices in the organic weed control space that contend that vinegar is essentially ineffective and may actually cause more harm to the environment than to your weeds. As with any “home remedy” option, use this one with care, find a recipe that suits your need, and evaluate its efficacy in your own situation.
Organic Formulations – The market is flooded with dozens and dozens of products that are fully organic and will kill or prevent weeds. Unlike a lot of the standard “home formulas” available, these products are usually tested and proven non-toxic ways to control weeds. Do a little digging on farm store websites, or with organics distributors, and you will find many options you can have shipped to your door.
One caution is to always read the label carefully. Some of these products may contain substances that are only technically considered organic. Some concentrations of “natural” materials have been challenged as much greater in potency than could ever be produced in nature, and may even have cancer warnings associated with them! Do your research, and make a responsible, well-informed decision before buying any product that tags itself as organic.
These commercial organic herbicides are generally considered a best practice by most landscaping companies, particularly over their homemade weed killer counterparts. If you want to be sure you are getting the best weed control product, it is often useful to consult with an expert on the services available. Doing so can help you feel good about the organic weed control product being used, particularly if you are looking for a pet friendly weed killer and one that will not harm your children.
One of the most effective methods of clearing an area of vegetation is a little trick called solarizing. This method uses the natural power of the sun to eliminate essentially everything from a section of soil, big or small. It does take some effort and the proper circumstances. But what it does not take are harmful chemicals. This can be done on any area from flowerbeds to entire sections of your yard.
Remove any plants that you do not want scorched to death and place them in another area of your yard or a separate container. Then, wet the area very thoroughly – almost to the point of it being soupy, if possible. After that, securely stretch a clear plastic sheet over the entire area you wish to be free of plant life. If you need more area cleared than is covered by a single sheet of plastic then make sure there is at least a few inches of overlaps between your additional sheets. Without this overlap, you will have strips between your sheets that will still be covered in either grass or weeds.
Make sure the plastic is secured and as close to the ground as possible. If you are removing a section of grass it is often best to cut it as low as you possibly can before you start. Over the course of six or so weeks you will begin to see the power of the sun bake everything beneath the plastic as the greenhouse effect takes over. Bacteria, weeds, grass, pests, and anything else unlucky enough to be caught beneath your plastic sheet will be reduced to a crispy, baked brown.
Remove the plastic and dispose of it. If you are clearing a flower bed, you are good to go. Use the base that remains after solarizing as a sort of compost in which to plant your new flowers, ferns, and other plants. If you are replacing a section of your lawn it is important to fully remove the old sod and put down new or else properly prepare for new grass seed growth.
It is important to note that this method works ideally in direct sunlight and will not work as well otherwise. It also is not as effective in seasons other than summer when the sun is at its highest and hottest.
There are many methods of weed removal that are 100% organic and do not involve harmful synthetic chemicals. We have listed our top six below. Just remember – completely organic does not always mean completely safe! If you use any of the below methods of weed removal make sure that you are wearing the proper protective attire, are allowed to use them in your area, and exercise an extreme level of caution and care!
Boiling Water – If your weeds are close to your house, a big pot of boiling water can be an extremely effective organic weed killer. This method is best reserved for driveways, hardscaping, and foundation lines, as it is quite indiscriminate. Your begonias will be gone just as quickly as the weeds if doused with boiling water. Boiling water can be as big of a risk to you as to the weeds as well, so exercise very serious care if you decide to use this option.
Alcohol – When mixed with water at a ratio of between ¼ to ½ cup per gallon, alcohol can be effective at killing plant life. Used as a weed killer spray, it can be applied directly to the plants until well coated. Pouring into the soil may be effective, but it also can kill surrounding plants as well. Be careful not to get this mixture on any plants you wish to retain. Isopropyl alcohol or vodka are good options for use in this mixture.
Rock Salt – In what might be seen as a “scorched earth” approach, that leftover rock salt in your garage from the winter months can be employed during the warmer part of the year to eliminate pesky weeds. Rock salt, whether in its crystal form, or dissolved into a water-salt solution, is extremely effective at ending plant life. It is a homemade weed killer that kills everything. Spray the weeds, their leaves, their roots, or place the crystals at their base and apply water. The weeds will die, as will any other vegetation around it. Beware however, in certain concentrations the salt can make it so that nothing grows in the affected areas – sometimes for years. Rock salt or a solution including it can also cause damage to your sidewalks, driveways, plants, and certain types of siding. Exercise caution if you decide to explore this method!
Flame Weeder – Many companies have begun to produce and sell what is perhaps best described as a mini-flamethrower for eliminating weeds. Small open torches attached to a fuel canister, flame weeding hearkens back to some primal time where the best solution to a problem involved fire. And indeed, there is no denying that flame weeding is an extremely effective weed killer, involving very little effort. By targeting short bursts of flame at the base of weeds the fire can disrupt and destroy the plant so thoroughly that it cannot heal itself and dies, all the way down to the roots. This method works best on shorter weeds, and can at times require multiple applications, but can ultimately be effective on almost any kind of plant.
It is important to note the inherent dangers that attend carrying a little flamethrower around the yard and firing it at potentially flammable areas. Beyond the risk of fire that is a natural consequence of this method (with dry mulch, grasses, and conifers being a very serious peril) there are other concerns as well. Burning certain toxic weeds like poison ivy and oak creates a vapor that can cause the inside of your lungs to develop the same symptoms as your skin would. This may even have fatal results in certain susceptible groups. This method also is indiscriminate – the plants you want to stick around will die just as easily if you aim your flame poorly. And also worth noting, certain towns and municipalities have rules which expressly forbid the use of flame weeding. Evaluate the risks, know the rules, and proceed with caution!
Bring in the Goats – If you already raise animals, adding a few goats to your menagerie could be just what the doctor (or veterinarian) ordered! Goats have a voracious appetite and are known to devour weeds, invasive plants like Kudzu, and can clear large areas with ease. And as an added bonus, goats are generally not fond of eating lawn grass when more flavorful options like weeds are available to them. If you are not in the habit of raising livestock, some farms may have goats available to rent, such as one featured in this recent article by a Fox News affiliate. Just be sure you establish clearly who will provide what if you rent goats. This can include care for the animals, fencing to keep them out of your neighbors’ yards and fields, and any additional nutrition they might need outside of your pesky weeds.
Eat Them Yourself – Though it may sound strange, there are many varieties of weeds that are, in fact, edible. A recent article from Better Home and Gardens identifies eight weeds commonly found in your back yard that can add serious flavor and serious vitamins to your diet. However, it is absolutely critical that you understand completely what you are putting on your family’s table. If you are not 100% certain that the weed you are picking is edible, and indeed the plant you think it to be, do not eat it! It is also critical to make sure that any weed you plan to eat has not been exposed to toxic substances – such as synthetic weed control chemicals or other forms of pollution. While the idea of eating weeds can be fun and adventurous, if you are not willing to do some critical research, it is probably best to eliminate your weeds through other means and stick to the spring mix.
They say there is nothing wrong with rolling up your sleeves and applying a little elbow grease to a problem. In the modern world there are very few tactile opportunities as easily available as weed removal. Shovels, trowels, screwdrivers, chisels, garden hoes, and anything else with a flat, sharp edge can cut into the soil and manually remove the weed by its roots in a targeted way that does not risk surrounding plants, nor any contamination of any kind. There are even handy tools referred to as “weed poppers” widely available online and in hardware stores as well that are lightweight and prevent the need to bend over to pull weeds.
While many critical of the organic weed control movement note with derision that its supporters would prefer all weeds be removed by hand “like the good old days,” it cannot be denied that manual removal is often just as easy and practical as applying a potentially harmful chemical. Many also cite the peace of mind they feel knowing that they have solved the problem with their own hands and without the risks of synthetic chemicals. If you are looking for a 100% non-toxic way to control weeds, this tried and true method will not let you down.
Organic weed control and prevention takes a little longer and involves more effort than just spraying a synthetic, store-bought product onto your plants. But if you are concerned about protecting yourself, your family, community, drinking water, and the environment from the potentially deadly impact of these chemicals, organic weed control is one of the best ways to go about it Consider hiring a local professional or a landscaping company to handle your organic weed removal, prevention, and control. The cost is often only slightly higher than you would pay for the materials you need, and the time savings can be tremendous. These companies are able to buy their material in bulk, driving down the price, and their tools are purchased only once, offering you an additional cost savings.