Oh, weeds: those impervious little suckers, always threatening to elbow out your lettuce or strangle your tomatoes. Every home gardener has to contend with their share of persistent flora rejecti. Following are some basic, natural weed control methods for those of us who may eschew chemicals in favor of less toxic approaches.
The trick to easy weed culling, according to many garden aficionados, including Kirk Williams, Yard Manager at Native Roots in Durango, is to “get ’em while they’re young.” The more established the root, the harder to oust the intruder. Pulling when the soil is damp, but not soggy, makes it easier to remove the entire root.
You can use tools such as hoes and shovels to hack away at the annual weeds, being careful not to dig too deeply and damage your desired plants’ roots.
John Wickman, President at Native Roots, says to be careful with perennial weeds. If you break those off at the root, another is bound to appear. It’s best to use a forked weed-puller and get as much of the root and runners out as you can.
Hand culling is a great way to become familiar with the rhythms and phases of your garden season, get some exercise, and spend time in the fresh air and sunshine.
Something to keep in mind: all of this pulling and digging is hard work and you’ve got to stay one step ahead, which means taking time to go camping or out of town or on vacation can leave you in a leafy lurch.
Weeds are just plants, after all. And like any other thing on the planet, “beauty (or, in this case, functionality) is in the eye of the beholder.” Some weeds are edible, some can be used in homemade beauty products, and some are medicinal.
We’re talking free food, people! And with locally grown organic greens running between $3 and $5 a bundle at some food stores, it’s pretty enticing to stroll out to your garden and pluck a few handfuls of purslane or mallow to bulk up your dinner salad.
Not only are weeds delicious, they’re nutritious. Purslane has the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy vegetable. A single serving of dandelion leaves packs a whole day’s worth of vitamin A in its bright, bitter punch.
Viewing these plants as partners rather than adversaries is a great weed control method for the less vigilant gardener, freeing them up to enjoy rafting the river, trying out that new micro-brew or hitting the trail instead of toiling away in the dirt.
One drawback to the “if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” ethos is that not all weeds are edible (I’m looking at you, bindweed). Also, your co-workers at the company picnic may be the tiniest bit suspicious of your dandelion pesto [See page 38 for a recipe]. Oh, well, more for you.
Living mulch is created by allowing some of the less-useful (to you) plants to take up space between coveted garden goodies, potentially shading and crowding out other unwanted plants.
Many clovers, as well as purslane and some vetches, are a great option for this. Using this method keeps soil undisturbed, adds nutrients and holds water while battling back some of the more persistent garden intruders.
You can use this same method with desired garden plants by planting lettuce among your carrots, for example, or using the traditional Three Sisters combination of corn, beans and squash.
The benefits of these methods reach beyond just keeping weeds at a minimum. They diversify your plot and keep pest problems contained, or even fight them off altogether.
Mulching is popular for a few reasons: it can provide aesthetically pleasing, natural pathways and it is very effective for weed control. Mulch also helps with water retention and boosts soil nutrients. And, it’s a one-step process. Lay it down and walk away.
Williams suggests shredded cedar as his go-to mulching material, as it is super fibrous, slow to break down and extremely effective at controlling weeds. Other mulch options are newspaper, shredded leaves, grass clippings, hay or compost. By laying down these organic materials in a thick mat around and between your plants, weeds are deprived of light and air, thus growing more slowly or not at all.
Unfortunately, organic mulches can hide pests, like slugs, which bring a different battle to the frontlines of keeping your garden healthy and productive.
Another popular option for smothering weeds is landscape fabric. This “fabric” is actually woven from plastic material and comes in various thicknesses ranging from white, whispy and nearly translucent to black, tightly woven and opaque.
Being made of plastic, it may feel a little sketchy allowing it in the vegetable garden, though it is widely accepted as safe. Williams advises it’s not harmful as long as it doesn’t break down, which means you may need to replace it as it wears and tears, especially in high-traffic areas. Aesthetically, weed fabric leaves much to be desired and it is necessary to make holes around your plants so that you may effectively water, although a drip irrigation system underneath can tackle that problem.
Chemical herbicides are widely available and known to be extremely effective at keeping weeds at bay. But at what cost? Their effect on the environment, our bodies and beneficial pollinators is questionable, at best.
Fortunately, there are organic sprays available. They may not be quite as effective, but are a step in the right direction, fending off weeds while maintaining a healthy landscape.
Native Roots sells a vinegar, orange oil and molasses spray that is very effective, according to Wickman. Spray weeds early on a hot day, with plenty of sunlight left before sundown as it is the burning effect that does them in. This spray is most effective for annual weeds.
Another option is using a blowtorch to kill weeds and weed seed in your plot. This is an especially easy method for larger plots and you can do it in any temperature or time of day. Garden blowtorches run anywhere from $20-$200 and are available online. Safety is a top concern, as it can be dangerous to wield a torch in dry, heavily wooded areas. It is also not effective for weeds that creep right up to your desired plants, so must be used in combination with hand pulling.
A garden completely free of weeds is an impossibility, unfortunately. However, by utilizing any of the methods above, either alone or in combination, your garden has the potential to increase its productivity and you can keep weeds at bay effectively. Happy weed wrangling!