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I get many questions about how to control weeds in lawns and gardens organically and selectively. It’s the million-dollar question and to date, there’s not a magic bullet to solve this challenge. But with a little patience and dedication, satisfactory results are achievable.
First, the best defense is a good offense. Take lawns for example. Beyond manual methods, such as hand pulling, once weeds are present, organic controls are unavailable to selectively eliminate only the weeds. Promoting the health and vigor of the lawn is the best way to starve off, shade out and out compete the weeds.
When you’re ready to manage weeds with organic controls, there are several options. The following is a listing of some of the most popular eco-friendly choices.
I admit to getting lost in the moment for hours on end when I’m in the zone of weeding. To me, hand-pulling weeds has an element of satisfaction that no other control method can offer. It’s also the only way for truly selective control. But in full-disclosure, I seriously doubt I’d enjoy weeding nearly as much without a thorough soaking first. It makes a world of difference.
With tap rooted weeds, make sure to get the entire root! Otherwise, any remaining piece will provide sufficient energy for it to regenerate a new plant. Even with a thorough soaking first, it’s hard to get the whole root without a special weeding tool designed to get below the root. Make sure you have this with you at all times. There are several designs that work well. But whatever the price, it’s a must-have item and well worth the investment.
A layer of mulch two to four inches thick is a very effective organic means of preventing most weeds from germinating.
Here’s one caveat; If you want to know that the bagged mulch you buy is free of potentially harmful contaminates, such as arsenic from treated wood, be sure each bag has the certification seal of the Mulch and Soil Council.
Sprays and Drenches
These methods affect plants on contact by burning or desiccating the cell structure. As a contact herbicide, they are most effective on young annual weeds. It’s important to understand that these control methods are helpful but not always 100% effective. In many cases, roots are undisturbed and will generate new growth. Persistence is the key to weed control using these methods below.
Boiling Water works well at killing most weeds with one application. Some weeds, especially those with tap roots such as dandelions may need multiple applications. Use caution, keep the water as close to the weed as possible to avoid splashing yourself or other desirable plants.
Acetic Acid (vinegar) works but common household vinegar is not effective for mature weeds. Minimum concentrations above 7% are needed to manage tougher weeds and multiple applications may be necessary with tap-rooted weeds. Use caution when using acetic acid; it can burn skin and eyes on contact. Approved sources for herbicide use can be found online or at farm supply stores.
Plant-based ingredients such as citric oil, clove oil, and garlic are non-selective post-emergent herbicides. Use caution as they will injure or kill all vegetation they come in contact with. Tougher weeds usually require multiple applications for complete control. Ready to use products are available through organic gardening supply sources online and in some garden centers.
Flame Weeders are devices that use the intense heat of a concentrated flame to destroy the cell structure of the plant. Typically powered by a propane canister, they are portable and effective. Simply pass the flame over the weed for several seconds. It is not necessary to visibly burn the weed. A few seconds of intense heat is all that is necessary.
Like the other methods listed above, because the roots are unaffected, the toughest weeds will likely require multiple applications. Use extreme caution when working with this tool.
Corn Gluten is a granular corn-based product that is used as an organic pre-emergent control in lawns. Although effective, it takes several seasons for results comparable to synthetic options. Corn gluten has the added benefit of containing 10% nitrogen by volume for natural fertilization as well. It is becoming more popular but is not yet widely available in retail garden centers. It is readily available online.
Prevention is the best way to reduce the weeds from spreading next year. Although they will still come into your yard through other means, eliminating weeds on your property before they go to seed or have a chance to spread is the key to avoiding many hours of work next year and beyond.