If I had a dime for every weed I’ve pulled in the last month, I could retire. Yes, if pennies were to fall from the sky every time I curse the encroaching Bermuda grass, I definitely would be a rich lady.
Midsummer is a time when weeds can get a foothold and quickly spiral out of control. It takes only a few days of not paying attention, and we’re knee deep in crabgrass. When I returned home after a few days of vacation, the morning glories had climbed almost to the top of the fence and the mulched paths were host to a slew of green sprouts.
Finding natural ways to control weeds is very important to most gardeners. Recent studies have indicated an increased risk of cancer from exposure to chemical herbicides — namely glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. So with safety and health in mind, many gardeners are looking to alternative methods of keeping pesky weeds at bay.
There are many different methods that can be used to combat weeds — and finding a combination that works best for your garden is important. No one method is enough to take care of all the weeds that plague our outdoor spaces.
Stopping weeds before they start is perhaps the best way to ensure a weed-free garden. Landscape fabric or layers of newspaper can be laid on the ground and covered in mulch as a way to achieve this preventative goal. Landscape fabric can be rolled out over a new bed or freshly tilled garden space, or it can be cut to suit where you want it to go. It often comes in different thicknesses and widths, which makes it easier to find a roll to suit your needs.
Layers of newspaper can be laid on top of the ground, and serve the same purpose as fabric — but the newspaper will decompose over the course a season. Topped with the mulch of your choice, this method does a pretty good job of discouraging weeds. Just remember to use a few layers, as it helps prolong the effectiveness.
Natural pre-emergent weed killer also is an option. The active ingredient in most brands is corn gluten meal. Cornmeal has been described as a natural birth control for weeds, stopping seeds from germinating. Sprinkled around vegetable plants, flowers and shrubs, it is very effective. Just make sure that your plants are sprouted and growing — as it will prevent all seeds from germinating, even seeds you’ve directly sowed into the garden.
There are a number of different homemade concoctions for killing weeds. Many include vinegar, epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), table salt (sodium chloride), or dish soap. Though it is true that all of these products can have an effect on a plant, not all of them will kill a plant. And some of them — though they will harm or kill weeds — can negatively impact the soil.
Vinegar is acetic acid, which acts as a desiccant, sucking moisture out of a plant. When sprayed on weeds (or any plant), the foliage will burn and wilt. What doesn’t happen is a systemic absorption of the vinegar into the weed. It burns the surface, but isn’t carried down into the roots. So perennial weeds can easily spring forth from their root system. Still, with multiple applications of vinegar, weeds will weaken.
Household vinegar has about a 5% acetic-acid concentration, and horticultural vinegar has a 20% concentration. The more concentrated, the bigger the burn. But keep in mind that this acetic acid can also burn your skin, disrupt the makeup of your soil, and kill beneficial soil microbes. Be very careful spraying vinegar-based weed killers, because they can burn anything they touch.
Epsom salt is relatively harmless to weeds, and probably would just alter the soil makeup. Table salt, on the other hand, can kill weeds, but will drastically alter the soil nutrition and consistency. It seems silly to use table salt, because you’re making that patch of soil useless for future plantings.
Weed torches are another option for natural weed control. These devices consist of a hose and tip which connects to a large or small propane tank. These torches can easily be carried around the garden to burn weeds. I’ve never used a weed torch, but can imagine it would work great in the right situation — pathways or rock gardens seem ideal.
At the end of the day, natural weed control can be achieved with your own two hands. A little manual labor and the right tools can go a long way. A sturdy hoe, a weeding fork and a trowel can get a lot accomplished. Afterwards, spread a thick layer of mulch to keep the space clear of weeds.
In her autobiographical book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” novelist Barbara Kingsolver explains that mulching with a year’s worth of old newspaper is her favored method of natural weed control.
“Then we cover all that newsprint — comics, ax murderers, presidents, and all — with a deep layer of old straw. It is grand to walk down the rows dumping armloads of moldy grass glop onto the faces of your less favorite heads of state: a year in review, already starting to compost.”
I find it very apropos that the print version of what you are now reading could become a layer in your garden, helping to crack the whip on summer weeds.