It’s that time of year, when the flower and vegetable beds we planted don’t look quite as neat as they did in the spring. While the plants we want are growing thick and lush, the plants we don’t want – the weeds – are also growing, often faster than our desired plantings! How do we get rid of these weeds without doing any harm to our precious plants, our soil or our backs? Mosser Lee is here to explain the pros and cons of six ways to get rid of weeds.
Before we begin, we recommend properly identifying your weeds, using either your local University Extension Office or a reliable plant ID app on your smart phone. Removing poisonous weeds without the proper protections, methods and disposal can be extremely hazardous to your health. If your garden has poisonous weeds, be sure to contact your Extension Office for thorough instructions to protect the well-being of you and all those who enjoy your property.
Pulling and Digging
At first glance, you may be thinking “ugh, no.” We get that. However, if you monitor beds daily and remove weeds when they are small, typically in the 2-4 leaf stage, it’s easy to pop out the entire root, whether a tap root, fibrous root or adventitious root. Work when the soil is moist but not muddy, ideally after a gentle soaking rain. Use a long, narrow trowel to avoid disturbing other root systems. If you are working in a larger area, consider using a stand up weeder, which helps you work faster, with less strain on your back and knees.
Pulling is most effective when you get the entire root, so don’t be tempted, as you stroll through your garden, to just yank the leaves, leaving the root. You’ll be plagued by regrowth again and again. Instead, carry a hand tool weeder on your garden rambles so you can get the entire root when you pull.
if you’re fire bug with brick or stone pathways, flame weeding may be a perfect solution. Flame weeding doesn’t work well in beds because exposure to the heat can damage the plants you want to keep. However, for brick or stone pathways, sidewalks cracks, and in stone and rock arrangements, flame weeding is an effective weed killer. When unwanted plants are burned, many annual weeds are gone for good. Perennial weeds, such as dandelions and thistle, will require several burns, hitting them every week or so until they finally die back to the root.
Don’t use flame weeding during dry spells or droughts. Don’t use flame weeding around organic mulch such as wood chips or chopped leaves.
Armed with just a teakettle and boiling water, you can wipe out a bunch of weeds. Boiling water can be an effective weed killer on newer, more delicate sprouts. For bigger, more established weeds, cut the weed back to the soil and then apply the boiling water to the root. This way, the boiling water will kill the root much faster. You may have to do this several times if new growth emerges. Boiling water can be very useful in the same situations as flame weeding; in stone, rock and brick pathways, sidewalk cracks and within hardscape.
Don’t use boiling water near valuable plants, as it can run off and harm those plants. Wear long pants and sleeves, gloves and closed toed shoes to avoid being burned by any splashes or spills.
While we love to think of vinegar as an organic method to kill weeds, in reality it’s an acid and can change the pH composition of your soil, especially if you are applying it to a large area. Many vinegar weed killer formulas suggest including salt or epsom salt, but we recommend against salt, as salt is harmful to your soil. We recommend a formula of 1 gallon of vinegar with about 2 tablespoons of non-toxic dishsoap. The dish soap helps the vinegar stick to the leaves of the weeds, helping it work much more effectively.
Use a vinegar weed killer sparingly to avoid compromising your soil pH balance and the overall health of your soil. For best results, apply it to dry plants on a dry hot day. Depending upon the weed and the sun exposure, your weeds may need just one application or several over the course of a few days to die completely back.
We know many gardeners are shuddering as they read this, but chemical herbicides such as glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round Up) can be very important in weed control. For gardeners with poisonous weeds, herbicides may be the safest way to get rid of them. Herbicides may be the only way to eliminate invasive and exotic species in larger areas. Used correctly by following the label instructions exactly, herbicides can be a safe method of eliminating weeds. Always wear long pants and sleeves, gloves and a mask when applying any herbicide.
When building and planting a new bed, a biodegradable soil cover and mulch is the absolute best way to avoid weeds. Lay overlapping layers of cardboard over the soil, leaving an opening around the base of your new plants. Soak the cardboard with water and then apply a 3” layer of organic mulch over the cardboard, leaving your plants exposed.
Do not use landscaping fabric, plastic or any other synthetic material. These materials deter moisture from entering the soil around your plants, leaving your plants dry. They intensity the heat around the roots of your desirable plants, burning them out. They will crack, split and tear under the elements, releasing micro plastics into your soil. And if you or anyone else ever wants to rework the bed, they are an absolute nightmare to completely remove.
We know what you’re thinking. “Well, that’s great for a new bed, but what about all of my existing beds?” Well, mulch is actually the best solution here too. After weeding, layer 3” of mulch over the exposed soil to block light and prevent seeds from germinating. Not sure you removed the entire root system? Place a piece of cardboard over the spot and put 3” of mulch on top of that, just like for a new bed.
At Mosser Lee, we know that using just one method of eliminating weeds probably won’t work in any garden. Using multiple methods, each in its most appropriate location and on the most appropriate vegetation, will give you satisfying results while keeping weeds in check throughout your growing season.