Spring is upon us, and the signs of the changing seasons are all around: tulip leaves poking out of the soil, blooming magnolias, and weeds appearing in garden beds. This early in the season, these weeds seem innocuous enough, but soon they will be blooming and forming seed. Here are our tips for controlling unwanted plants in garden beds without the use of herbicides:
What Is a Weed?
A discussion of weed control should start with a few definitions. A weed can be any plant in an unwanted location. When we talk about weeds in garden beds, we are usually talking about herbaceous annuals or perennials that have adopted strategies to spread far and wide. These strategies include being able to reproduce quickly, producing large quantities of seed that can stay dormant for long periods of time before germinating, and having structures that spread above or below ground (such as stolons or rhizomes).
Any plant that is growing in an area where it is unwanted may be considered a weed. Photo via Adobe Stock.
While invasive plants could be considered weeds, they cause more direct harm to native ecosystems and tend to require more intensive control measures than the average garden weed. For more information on invasive plant species, visit our website.
What’s Wrong with Herbicides?
Herbicides are mixtures of one or more chemicals that can be used to kill or otherwise inhibit the growth of weeds. This includes both commercial products like glyphosate and homemade solutions like vinegar and salt. While some situations may warrant their use, there are also many reasons to avoid using chemical herbicides. They can negatively impact nearby plants and waterways as well as wildlife like birds and insects. Soil microbes and soil chemistry (such as pH) can also be affected. Here are some tips to help you reduce or eliminate chemical herbicides from your weed control regimen:
Strategies for Controlling Weeds without Herbicides
Organic and inorganic mulches serve many purposes in the garden, only one of which is weed control. Mulches can also help retain soil moisture, reduce frost heaving, warm soils more quickly in spring, add organic matter back into the garden, and create a more manicured look. For more information on the benefits and drawbacks of different kinds of mulches, read Finding Your Mulch Match.
💪 Consider Hand-pulling or Hoeing
Timing and consistency are key to making the most of these mechanical weed control methods. Start removing weeds when they are young, before their root systems get too established and they are able to flower and produce seed. Do not cultivate the soil too deeply, or weed seeds that were buried in the soil will be exposed to the sun, which can trigger germination. Just five minutes of weeding every day will provide greater benefits than putting off the task for a week and then trying to tackle larger weeds that are producing seed.
🌱 Use Living Mulch
The basic idea of living mulch (also called green mulch) is using desirable plants to cover the surface of the soil. Foliage will shade the soil and reduce the number of weeds that germinate as well as the vigor of weed seedlings. Although ground cover plants may come to mind first, any plants spaced close enough together to keep weeds at bay could be used to create a living mulch.
🚿 Water and Fertilize Wisely
When we apply fertilizer to a garden bed or turn on the oscillating sprinkler, we are inadvertently fertilizing and watering weeds along with the plants we are trying to cultivate. Using drip lines or soaker hoses can put the water right where you want it: the root zones of the plants you are growing. Watering shrub borders or mixed perennial beds deeply but infrequently can also put stress on weeds with shallow root systems while supporting established plantings.
🤝 Combine Methods
No one weed-control solution will work 100% of the time. Combine several methods to get the best results.
🌿 Learn to Live with Some Weeds
Finally, whether we like it or not, weeds are as much a part of gardening as vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals. Striving for perfection will ultimately lead to disappointment. Learn which battles are worth waging, and do not let the prospect of dealing with weeds keep you from enjoying your garden.
Public Information Coordinator