by Amber

The Secret to Organic Weed Control

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Timing is everything in gardening. There’s the right time to do everything, including organic weed control. Plant too late or too early, and you’ll have crop issues. Weed too late or too early, and you’ll spend a lot more time on your knees plucking out unwanted plants, scrounging around deeper and deeper to get to the roots. Which is another part of weed control… roots produce new weed plants where you just removed one!

Yes, weeds just keep sprouting all summer long, but you can control how many of them you have quite easily. Most people react after it’s long past time to deal with the issue, leaving them with a never ending battle that’s much bigger than it needs to be. And then they want to know what non-toxic weed killer concoction they can use to make them go away effortlessly. Here’s the thing. Gardening in ground soil requires effort, a lot more effort than container gardening. But you can’t have a good sized vegetable garden or perennial garden in flower pots and planters. So, you have two options for organic weed control:

  • Ground fabric – great for veggie patches, but not flower gardens.
  • Well-timed weeding

Understanding Weeds

Your constant battle with weeds exists simply because they are doing what they were designed to do… protect the topsoil on Earth. Doing so was ensured by Nature in several ways, beginning with the fact that certain wild plant species thrive in every type of soil and climactic conditions. Then there’s induced reproduction by endangered plants. They also set seed at record pace when an interloper arrives and starts using their resources.

Before the human (you) came along and cleared that patch of ground, indigenous plant life was busily doing their job keeping the topsoil in place. If you removed the weeds natural ground cover the hard way by digging out the top 4 inches of soil, I hope you did it before any of them were flowering or setting seed. Pulling natural plants once they have produced seed is just resowing. It creates a bumper crop of babies in just a few weeks time. Any plant that has set seed is doing it’s job at continuing the species.

And if you didn’t remove at least 4 inches before prepping your garden, then the roots of lots of those unwanted previous inhabitants of your soil will grow new tops and continue business as usual larger than ever, because all you’ve done is given them a harsh pruning. Hard pruning promotes branching and vigorous new growth! You’ve got to get rid of the whole plant, not just the part you can see.

If you decided to spray them, I hope you didn’t use Roundup initially. It can remain in the soil up to 20 years! But whatever you sprayed with will not kill the roots if it kills instantly, and if it’s a slow demise, the plant will go into procreation at hyper-speed, especially if the time to set seed is due soon. It knows it has gone from thriving to decline without warning, and even a very immature plant can produce a flower that sets seed in 2 week’s time. I’ve seen grass, dandelions, oxalis, and a host of other weed plants I haven’t taken time to identify do this – creating more of themselves before it’s too late. In fact, I think that spraying with Roundup creates more weeds than you had to begin with!

Physical removal is by far the better choice – if you perform the task before it’s too late for weed control.

When to Pull Weeds

The best rule of thumb is to start early in the season. You have different weeds that set seed at different times, much like having early, mid season, and late garden harvests. Early flowering weeds need to be pulled by 2-3 weeks before your last frost date. In zones 4 and 5 that’s mid-May. If you do that first weeding too early, some of the weeds might not have sprouted yet, making a second early season weed patrol necessary. Some years they might be early if it’s warmer than usual, and others when it’s chillier than normal, you might have a week more time to get the chore done. Keep an eye on the weeds, if they start popping blooms it’s time to react – fast.

Naturally, this won’t be the only time you have to pull weeds all year. There will be others that come along later on the wind, out of the lawn mower, deposited by birds, and those mid to late season bloomers, but a thorough job in the spring means a lot less time spent weeding the rest of the summer.

Keeping Grass Out of the Garden

A week or two later, your lawn will set seed. Mowing will put new weed seeds in the garden! The best way to keep grass seed out of your planting areas is to use common sense. Not just when you see a lot of seed heads when you drag out the mower, but at all times, especially if your ‘lawn’ isn’t premium lawn grasses that nary a weed is allowed to infiltrate. The trick is to mow 3-6 passes with the chute pointing away from the garden, and then don’t blow it directly at your lovely clean soil… ever. The wind will do enough of that without you assisting the weeds from spreading. If you don’t have enough space to do this, then invest in a grass catcher for the mower. If you have a lawn mowing service – insist that they do this, and if they just can’t remember – hire another company that will comply with your wishes.

How many passes exactly will greatly depend on how wide your cutting deck is, and how powerful the lift is on your mower blades. The average small yard homeowner uses a 21″ push mower, while others with larger lawns have a 36-48″ deck with 2-3 blades… and a lot greater discharge velocity. The more powerful the mower, the farther grass will spray coming out of the chute. With a 48″ deck, I mow three times around (or along) the edge of all planting areas with the chute pointing away. Yes, it’s mowing in ever increasing circles, but it keeps 90% of the weed and grass seed from getting into the garden.

You Need Tools

Don’t just pluck weeds out of the undisturbed soil by hand. In tight spaces and around the plants, use a hand cultivator (the claw) to loosen soil before pulling. Get them all, even the tiny ones… it won’t be long until they’re much larger. For weeds with a long tap root (dandelions, wild carrot, pigweed, etc.) – you need a long, narrow tool to loosen soil around that root deeply before pulling, because if you don’t get the whole thing, it will grow right back stronger than before. Those are my weeding tools pictured at the top of the page: an antique hand cultivator found in the trash that was wall decor until I discovered it’s the best hand cultivator ever. That large, cheap screwdriver is my tap root digger.

In in the veggie garden use a shuffle hoe between the rows and the hand cultivator close to your plants. Always remove the weeds from the growing area. They’re best deposited in your compost pile where seeds will roast and rot instead of sprouting en mass. Leaving them in the rows of your garden is a big mistake.

What About Mulch?

Some people say that mulching is the best way to keep weeds at bay, but weeds root through mulch. And if you use shredded wood mulch, it takes nitrogen from the soil to decompose – nutrition that your plants need to thrive! Not to mention the dirt you’ll be depositing on top of it when pulling weeds. If you’re going to mulch, compost top dressing makes much more sense, because it feeds the soil as it breaks down, and it’s not an issue if it gets mixed into the soil. All wood mulch does is help the soil hold moisture, which can cause plant health issues, like root disease.

The best way to reduce weeds in your veggie garden cheaply is to put cardboard down in between rows covered with a couple inches of compost or straw mulch. In areas with lots of wind, you might find this isn’t the greatest approach, then the ground fabric method will be a lot more dependable at staying put.

Even without mulch, if you pull all weeds before they bloom, and do your best not to blow grass seed where you don’t want lawn, you should be able to go through the season with weeding only about 4 times a year. Some years are better than others, thanks to the fickleness of weather.

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.