Winning Against Weeds: Organic Garden Weed Control

Use these seven garden weed control techniques to keep weeds out of your way.

| June/July 2006

At first, weeds seem innocuous enough — just green confetti scattered among flowers and vegetables. In fact, weeds bestow a multitude of gifts on us, from holding and protecting bare soils and providing habitat for beneficial insects, to their use as edible and medicinal plants. But weeds compete with garden crops for space, water and nutrients, and if not kept in check, they can seriously affect crop yield and quality.

The key to preventing weeds from becoming a problem is to remove them before they produce seeds. Every pigweed or galinsoga plant that sets seed in your garden opens the door to the arrival of thousands of its offspring. These seeds can remain dormant for years and then sprout when you hoe or till your garden and bring them to the surface. Although some people use chemical herbicides to kill weeds, research suggests that these chemicals pose health risks to us and are damaging to our environment. Furthermore, they’re simply not the most effective method of garden weed control. Herbicides, after all, are designed to kill plants. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of easy and safe organic techniques to keep weeds in check.

Basic Weed Prevention

Mulch. Using weed-free mulches is one of the best methods to prevent weed problems. Good options include mulching with leaves, straw or grass clippings. Fresh grass clippings from lawns that haven’t been treated with herbicides are a great choice because you can get them free from your lawn and from neighbors. Grass clippings contain about 4 percent nitrogen and provide a slow-release fertilizer as they decompose. Straw is the leftover material after grain has been threshed, and it makes a good mulch because it contains few weed seeds. Hay (dried grasses) can work well, too, but talk to a reputable supplier and specify you intend to use it as mulch to be sure it isn’t full of grass seeds. A method of gardening championed by the late Ruth Stout advocates the heavy application of spoiled hay, but if your hay is full of seeds, it only works if you keep piling on more and more.

Mulching works well for transplants, but it’s not a great option for direct seeding. That’s because you can mulch both sides of a newly planted seed row, but that won’t prevent weeds from popping up in the row itself — often appearing even before the seeds you’ve planted.

Corn gluten. If you don’t have mulch or the time to apply it, consider corn gluten. This nontoxic, plant-based herbicide is a byproduct of corn processing that kills germinating seeds and also provides a source of nitrogen. You can’t use corn gluten with direct-seeded crops, because it may kill the seeds, but it’s a good option for transplants. You can buy corn gluten products from garden supply companies. Organic growers should be aware that corn gluten may contain genetically modified corn.

Stale seed beds.“Stale-bedding” is a good option for direct-seeded crops. You let a garden bed go stale the same way you let bread go stale: by just letting it sit there. The idea is to get out of the way all the soil disturbance needed for preparing a seed bed. Then, water the bed, and when a good crop of weed seedlings emerges, kill them with the least soil disturbance possible, such as with a flame weeder or cultivating hoe. 

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