Gardening & Homesteading

10 Non-Toxic Ways to Control Weeds

Organic Weed Control

Weeds are the bane of every gardener, especially as the days heat up and vacation season starts. But short of hand-digging them every day, it can be a real challenge to stay on top of your weeds before they strangle out your veggies and flowers.

Here are 10 non-toxic ways to handle weeds in your garden…

Skip the Toxic Herbicides

Although hand-digging and hoeing are the most effective methods for removing weeds, it can be tempting to use a little Round-Up or other store-bought herbicide to make quick work of your weeds—especially if they’ve gotten a little out of hand. But there are some very important health and environmental reasons to avoid them.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that glyphosate (Round-Up) residue in food may act synergistically with other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins to disrupt normal body functions and lead to the development of Parkinson’s disease, infertility or cancer.

Indeed both the state of California and the World Health Organization have deemed glyphosate to be a probable carcinogen.

In 2009, a French study found that a filler ingredient used in Roundup called polyethoxylated tallowamine was more deadly to human cells than the main ingredient, glyphosate.

In the environment, glyphosate usage has led to the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds covering an estimated 120 million hectares globally. Glyphosate also chelates micronutrients in the soil, leading to decreased photosynthesis, decreased resistance to drought, and increased spread of disease. In fact, more than 40 plant diseases have been linked to glyphosate use.

Glyphosate is toxic to many beneficial micro- and macro-organisms including earthworms. It also harms soil microbes responsible for growth, mineral uptake and disease prevention. In sum, crops grown with or around glyphosate are simply less nutritious.

Glyphosate’s high water solubility makes it extremely toxic to many frog species and other aquatic life. On land, the major decline of Monarch butterfly populations is partially caused by glyphosate applications killing off the milkweed habitat that Monarch larvae need to feed and grow.

Finally, glyphosate has been found to contaminate ground water supplies as well as rain and air in Spain and the US, threatening our drinking water. Glyphosate has also been detected in the bloodstreams of Americans and Europeans at levels exceeding drinking water standards.

To avoid these serious long-term health and environmental effects, skip the Round-Up and other herbicides, and try some of these effective, organic methods to control your weeds instead.

10 Organic Weed Control Methods

1. Mulching

Covering your garden soil with a layer of organic matter can smother and inhibit weeds, as well as prevent new seeds from germinating. Good sources of mulch include wood chips, compost, grass clippings, and straw. Just be sure not to get hay, which can contain a lot of unwanted seeds.

You can also put down ground cloth, newspaper, cardboard, old cotton curtains or bed sheets, landscape fabric, or other thick material on your soil to prevent weeds from growing through. This is especially helpful to do in your garden pathways before you put down gravel, stone or wood chips.

2. Crowding

wide-row-planting-beds
Wide row planting beds shade the soil as the plants mature.

Weeds can’t take hold in your garden if there’s no space for them.

In ornamental beds, plant groundcovers and perennial plants to cover and shade the soil.

In your vegetable gardens, try either the Square-Foot gardening method or wide-row planting method so that your plant leaves will just touch each other at maturity. As the plants grow, their leaves will shade the bed and deprive weeds of sunlight.

3. Limit Tilling and Digging

Tilling or turning over your garden soil will bring new weed seeds to the surface. Instead, try using the no-till method of gardening or Lasagne gardening, where you disturb the soil as little as possible.

If you are planting seeds, only dig down as far as you need to plant them, instead of tilling up the entire bed. The no-till method also improves soil structure and fertility, and increases the population beneficial organisms in the soil.

4. Solarizing

Solarizing your soil involves covering an area of weedy ground with a clear, heavy plastic sheet. (Black plastic does not work as well.) This only works in full sun and warm weather where the heat will collect under the sheet and literally cook your weeds. Leave the sheet in place for 4 to 6 weeks, and remove only once all the weeds are brown and dry.

For even more effectiveness, till the soil to bring weed seeds to the surface, and let them sprout just before solarizing.

5. Fertilize and Irrigate Carefully

The nutrients and water you give to your garden will help weeds grow just as much as they will help the veggies and flowers you want. Only give your plants what they need.

Use drip irrigation, irrigation bags or olla pots to provide water only to the roots of your plants, not the empty spaces around them. Give heavy feeders like squash, tomatoes and cucumbers extra compost, but, feed crops like root vegetables much less.

6. Boiling Water

Boil a kettle of water and pour it over any weeds to burn them. This technique is great for weeds growing in the cracks of pavement and coming up in your garden paths. The water will cool as it runs off so it won’t hurt any plants you want to keep.

7. Vodka or Rubbing Alcohol

Try this weed-killing recipe on your annual weeds growing in full sun:

  • 2 ounces cheap vodka or rubbing alcohol
  • 2 cups of water
  • a couple drops of dish soap

Mix into a spray bottle. Spray on weeds to dry them out and kill them.

Be careful not to spray on any of your regular plants, because the alcohol will dry out whatever it hits. This spray does not work well in shady areas.

8. Vinegar

This vinegar mix is good for drying out weeds too, though you may have to apply it multiple times on weeds with a long taproot, like dandelion. 

  • 1 gallon 5% white household vinegar
  • 1 cup table salt
  • 1 Tbsp. dish soap

Mix into a spray bottle and spray directly onto your weeds, making sure to avoid the plants you want. It works even better in full sun.

If you use 20% or 30% vinegar (available online), this formula will work much better, but the vinegar is so acidic, you will need to use gloves and goggles to ensure any spray doesn’t blow back and burn your skin or eyes.

9. Corn Gluten

Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the corn milling process that just so happens to prevent weed seeds from germinating. It does nothing to kill weeds once they have sprouted, however.

Corn gluten meal is often applied to lawns to prevent crabgrass and dandelions from sprouting, but it can be used in other garden areas, after the seeds you want have sprouted.

It’s non-toxic, and if you buy certified organic corn gluten meal, there will be no GMOs or glyphosate residue. If you can’t find it in your local garden center, corn gluten meal is available online.

flame weeder10. Flame weeders

A flame weeder is a wand connected to a propane tank which enables you to pass a flame over a weed in order to fatally heat the plant tissues. Flaming will only kill the leaves above the ground, not the roots, so you may need to flame your weeds a few times before they’re gone.

Flame weeders are extremely effective on all types of weeds, and if you have a large garden or small farm, they are worth the investment. Just take great care when using a flame weeder during a dry spell, when there is a risk of fire.

You can find flame weeders in garden and hardware stores, or online.

With so many great organic weed control methods to try, why would you ever grab a bottle of that toxic stuff?

What is your favorite way to kill weeds in your garden? Let me know in the comments!

 

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

18 Comments

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  • Here I was getting excited about dealing with glyphosate that drifts in from the farmers spraying it on the fields next to our yard! You can see how my mind works. My neighbors use spray and I tried to talk to one of them last year about it. It didn’t seem to do any good. The property immediately around us is rented by them from my elderly FIL who, at least in part, lives off the land rental fees and lives next door to us. Argh…

    Do you have any idea how much gets into plants that just get a little drift? I assume if the broad leaves grow in a misshapen way the stuff is throughout the plant. Also — do you know if plants that don’t have broad leaves are affected? I know beans react (as well as roses, lilacs, delphinium, ash, etc.).

    Do you think throwing a tarp over the plants during a spray would be adequate protection (providing I can get that type of communication)?

    Thanks for any insight you may have!

    • A tarp would probably provide adequate protection, but you’ll have to talk to your local extension agent about what plants are most effected by the sprays your neighbor uses.

  • Thanks Dawn for this article, I am going to share it. Nothing worse than seeing people spray roundup on their dandelon!!!Thanks for the inspiratio!

  • For many years I have been battling a bed of weeds just off my back porch. The first year I pulled them all. The next year I put down weedblocking fabric. The next year I put mulch on top of the fabric. The next year I put stone on top of that. Last year I put cardboard over it all and another layer of mulch on top. This year I still have knee high weeds and so far have done nothing with them. Any other ideas?

    • You have to keep after them even after laying down the barriers because seeds from nearby weeds will come in and germinate on the mulch. Don’t let the weeds in your yard go to seed or you’ll never be rid of them! 🙂

  • This year I tried the newspaper approach because I was trying to save money and I can get all the old newspapers I want for free from our local newspaper distribution hub. To hold down the paper and keep it from blowing away, I put down a layer of leaves that I mulched while cleaning my yard. An entire month has gone by since and my garden is completely weed free!! I am so thrilled that this method actually works.

  • Chickens looooove canadian thistle roots… Yes those spiny, painful and incredibly invasive purple flowering skinny thistles.

    These type have long tap roots that connect to a deep horizintal runner root. So if you break the shoots off a tap, each piece becomes a new plant, and if you dont go deep enough, the sprouts replace themselves from the original runner.

    This year i have a TON LESS THISTLES (and other weeds)… How? = Till, add chickens, dig to help, till again and repeat for a couple of days.
    AWESOME.

  • My backyard looks more like a jungle in the summer with all the weeds we have. Thanks for the info. I’m gonna try some of these suggestions. I hate using weed control from the store b/c I worry about my dogs being in the yard after we spray it.

  • Thanks for sharing these ideas ~ I seem to have more weeds than normal this year. I eat all the weeds I can (lol) but some are just invasive and inedible and so.. they must go!!

  • I started using salt and water on hard to kill dandelions. It does a so so job. I don’t mind them in my lawn but hate them in the cracks in my patio! I have used everything you mentioned above and those darn thing just keep coming back!

  • These are great ideas for me. We live on a lake and are not allowed to use toxic chemicals in our yards (or wash our cars:) so I need alternatives. Thanks!

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