The Least Harm
When managing weeds on your property, it's always a good idea to try eco-friendly methods, of which there are many, before contemplating more extreme measures. Anything we can do to prevent the application of harmful herbicides on our property is a good thing. Overusing herbicides can contaminate groundwater and harm beneficial plants and soil. Studies have shown that many of these chemicals remain in the soil, and harm insects and microbes that are essential to soil health.
Although today’s herbicides are more selective than in the past, they can still pose health dangers to people, animals, plants that you don't want to eradicate, soil, and biodiversity. Instead, keep weeds away with these more natural approaches.
If you’re vigilant about what goes on in your yard and you have some time on your hands, you can rid yourself of weeds the old-fashioned way: pulling them by hand. Wear a dedicated pair of gardening gloves for the task to avoid inadvertently transferring weed seeds to your garden beds Gardening tools such as claws or sharp trowels can help you loosen the weed roots from the soil. Pulling a weed completely out by the root is the only way to ensure it will not return.
Corn Gluten Meal
Corn gluten meal is like birth control for seeds: Sprinkle it on exposed areas of your garden to prevent weed seeds from germinating and growing into plants. Of course, corn gluten meal might keep other seeds from germinating too, so don’t try this method in your vegetable garden until your plants are established and you’ve finished planting seeds.
RELATED: 7 Weirdly Effective Ways to Weed
Cover your planting areas with a few inches of mulch and you’ll prevent weed seeds from coming into contact with the soil in the first place. Mulch will also keep sunlight from reaching seeds that are already underground, so they won’t get a chance to sprout. Organic mulches offer the added benefits of retaining moisture and breaking down to enrich the soil below. Bonus: A fresh layer of mulch amps up your curb appeal, too.
Apply household vinegar with a spray bottle, pump sprayer, or brush, as long as you can direct it only to those pesky weeds since it cannot differentiate between weeds and other plants. To avoid contaminating nearby plants, do this early in the morning when there’s little wind. Apply the vinegar on a cloudless day, which ensures that rain won’t wash it off before it works its magic.
Household vinegar is usually effective but if it fails to work in your yard, contact your local extension office or city government to inquire about higher-concentration vinegar and how to use it safely.
RELATED: 10 Handy Household Uses for Vinegar
To prepare a garden bed for planting, smother weeds and prevent new ones from growing by covering the soil with old newspapers or cardboard. A thick layer of newspaper (most of today’s inks and paper are nontoxic) will keep sunlight from reaching weed seeds so they can’t sprout. First, remove any visible weeds and wet the soil, and then lay your newspaper down, wetting it thoroughly again before covering it with mulch. This is a great way to recycle, and as a bonus, you’ll be encouraging earthworms to come and stay.
Scald those pesky weeds with boiling water. Simply grab your kettle off the stove, bring it to the garden, and pour a stream of water carefully over of each unwanted plant. Tough perennial weeds with long tap roots may take two or three applications but will eventually stop coming back. Use pot holders, of course, and dress for the task by wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes.
Regular old table salt is very effective at killing weeds. Put just a pinch down at the base of each unwanted plant. It might kill the weedy offender and get diluted within a couple of rainfalls. Salt will render the soil uninhabitable for several months, so make sure you apply just a small amount and only where needed. Avoid getting it on your grass or other plants.
It's easy to make your own DIY herbicidal soap by mixing equal parts vinegar, salt, and dish soap. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and apply it to your offending weeds, but spray carefully: This concoction might kill other plants it touches, so keep it clear of your prized perennials.
A weed torch works by heating the water inside the cells of plants. When the water turns to steam, the cells explode and the plant dies. You don’t need to char the weeds, just wilt them. This takes some practice, but it is very effective.
Use caution with this method, of course, especially on windy days or in drought-prone areas. Don’t ever use it on poison ivy or other poisonous plants because it can release their oils into the air and ultimately into your eyes or lungs. Finally, bear in mind that the torch's heat can melt plastic borders and landscape fabrics.
RELATED: The Best Weed Torches of 2022
Weeds mostly attack bare, open soil. Protect these weed-prone sites with ground covers, which are low-growing plants that spread across and close to the soil, making it more difficult for weed seeds to get through. Plus, if these seeds do try to take root, they receive little to no light. As a bonus, you get to buy and enjoy some new plants that add evergreen or flowering color.
The best ground cover for your garden depends on your growing zone and where you need the greenery. Some good candidates include creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), especially between walkway stones; bugleweed (Ajuga), which thrives in shade; and ice plant (Delosperma), a sun- and heat-loving succulent.
Much derided in some circles, landscape fabric has its place in gardens when used correctly. Today’s fabrics are not like the old nonpermeable landscape plastic, which basically depletes the soil beneath it. A good landscape fabric lets air and water through while preventing weed seeds from rooting. Use the fabric prudently, such as along walkways (covered with mulch, gravel, or crusher fines), to cut down on weeds in those spots where you aren’t growing plants. The fabric works best at weed suppression if laid from border to border and with as few cuts or openings as possible.
RELATED: Keep, Don’t Kill: 9 Weeds to Welcome
Also known as “green manure,” cover crops are plants that are typically sown in fall and grow in winter. They’re similar to ground covers in their ability to cut down on weed growth, but they also help improve the health of the soil. Come spring, they’re plowed or tilled under, and the plants and their nutrients are incorporated into the soil. Although cover crops are largely a farming practice, they can work for home gardeners as well, especially in vegetable gardens during the off-season.
Most cover crops are from the legume, grass, and grain families. Some popular examples are winter wheat, certain clovers, and cereal rye. It's a good idea to ask the local nursery or extension office about the best cover crops for your area. Choosing a native option usually results in the most success—and the least amount of watering and care.
If you have the money to hire a handyman for every household woe, go ahead. But if you want to hang on to your cash and exercise some self-sufficiency, check out these clever products that solve a million and one little problems around the house. Go now!