Control Garden Weeds Organically

Use these organic weed-control methods to control common garden weeds so that your vegetable garden can thrive.

  • A couple of thorough weeding sessions with a stirrup hoe early in the growing season, when weed seedlings are small, can greatly reduce weed issues through summer.
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy
  • A reason to weed before plants go to seed: one pesky crabgrass plant can produce 150,000 seeds!
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy
  • get to know the right tools for weeding tasks: A hori-hori knife pries out weeds with tough taproots, and a cobrahead can cultivate around tightly spaced crops.
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy

Most of the things we do in a garden also encourage weeds. Bare soil in any form is an invitation for weeds to grow because weeds are nature’s opportunists. Most weed plants grow faster than food crops, so weeds will shade or starve out your babies unless you protect them. In addition to basic organic weed-control methods, such as hand-weeding, shallow hoeing, and deep mulching, innovative techniques, such as creating “weed moats,” can help control common garden weeds such as Bermuda grass, puncture vine, and other troublesome plants.

Weed Control Basics

Weed prevention follows a predictable pattern in the vegetable garden. About 10 days after you plant a crop, the bed or row will need careful hand-weeding, followed by a second weeding session 10 days later. Slow-growing, upright crops, such as carrots and onions, may need a third or fourth weeding to subdue weeds, but they’re the exception. After a month of attentive weeding, most veggies will be large enough to shade out weedy competitors. Plus, you can use mulch to block the growth of weeds between widely spaced plants, such as tomatoes and peppers.

Weeding Tools to Topple Weed Trouble

At North Slope Farm in Lambertville, New Jersey, three scheduled weedings — the first two with a scuffle hoe, and the third by hand — are part of the organic weed-prevention program developed by owner Michael Rassweiler. “We like to use a scuffle hoe to go up and down the rows right after germination and then again one to two weeks later, depending on the crop’s growth.” Rassweiler says that hand-weeding is usually needed after the second hoeing, but it’s quick — hoeing between the rows has already cleaned out most of the weeds.

Scuffle hoes, which include stirrup and circle hoes, have blades with two opposing sharp edges that cut when pushed and pulled, and most gardeners with big plots consider them essential equipment. But when we asked Mother’s Facebook followers which weeding tool they couldn’t do without, the sturdy weeding knife, often called a hori-hori, was the clear winner. Weeding knives feature long, sharp edges that shave down weeds, and have a pointed end for prying out strong taproots, such as those found under dock weeds or dandelions. Many folks also consider hand-weeding, with follow-up mulching, effective and rewarding work.

Most organic gardeners depend heavily on mulch, particularly newspapers or cardboard covered with grass clippings, old leaves, or straw, to control even the most aggressive weeds. Be advised: Deep mulching too early can delay the warming of spring soil and encourage problems with slugs, so mulch after a thorough late spring or early summer weeding.

Surface mulches deprive weed seeds of light and increase their natural predation by providing habitat for crickets, ground beetles, and other seed-eaters. The cool, moist conditions under mulch will also cause many weed seeds to rot, so mulches that give good surface coverage can both prevent and cure seemingly overwhelming weed issues.

6/12/2016 12:24:17 PM

Another way I use the weeds is by digging them up, leaving them in a wheelbarrow full of water, and letting them soak for 1 or 2 days. They create Weed Tea which is full of nutrients that the weeds absorbed from the soil. I then use the Weed Tea to fertilize my plants, and the submerged weeds are thoroughly dead and can be used for mulch. I have accomplished 3 tasks: getting rid of weeds, creating fertilizer, and creating mulch.

5/21/2016 2:38:51 PM

We've heard that plastic sheeting can destroy some weed seeds, when and where sun is high in the sky and weather is hot. UC Davis has a web page about that (search for Soil Solarization). I wonder if fire can destroy weed seeds.

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