Organic Weed Control

Weeds. We’ve all got them. Organic gardening in Southern Appalachia could easily be likened to waging war, especially in the height of August. What are the best tricks organic gardeners use to manage weeds? And if you don’t outsmart them all together, what happens when they become unmanageable? One word. MULCH.

Mulch is your friend. Mulch helps maintain soil temperature and moisture. Wait to mulch your summer veggies until the soil warms up, and be sure to mulch when the soil is moist. Cover the soil about 2 inches thick in whatever mulch material you choose.

Weeds growing with beets.

Cardboard in pathway.

Mulch Options

Wheat Straw
We adore wheat straw, with its airy, hollow stems. And it looks great, too! Wheat straw can be turned into the soil at the end of the season, contributing to soil organic matter content, and eliminating the problem of pests overwintering in your mulch.

Cardboard
It’s recycled, usually free, and earthworms love to bore around under it and through its corrugated insides. Be sure to use unwaxed cardboard only.

Landscape Fabric
Some growers in these parts use woven landscape fabric that can be reused year after year. For commercial growers, read our Ask Tom: Using Landscape Fabric article to learn how the pros are using landscape fabric with vegetables.

CAUTION: If weed seeds blow on top of landscape fabric, they will germinate and root right through the fabric into the ground. Trust us, pulling weeds is no fun already, but pulling weeds from fabric is even harder. Some folks use plastic or old carpet (or anything) that will cover the soil. We’d caution growers to think critically about the resource used on the home scale and lean towards the recycled products made from renewable resources to reduce waste. Also, consider the components that make up your mulch. Do you want old carpet decomposing in your food garden?

Others
Hay (beware weed seeds), compost, and leaves.

Depending on the size of your garden, mulching the whole thing may not be realistic. And even if you do mulch, some weeding is inevitable.

 

Tips for Tackling Weeding Projects

  • A stitch in time saves nine, so get them when they’re small. Also, small weeds are easier to remove than big weeds.
  • Learn to differentiate your worst weed seedlings and your crop seedlings.
  • Weed-eater…YES That’s OK! Again, August can be scary.
  • Mow before weeds are able to set seed.
  • Moisten the soil first.
  • Loosen weeds with fork in manageable blocks, and then pull them.
  • Tool suggestions –hoes, hand mattock, hori hori knife
  • Tackle job in small manageable increments (20 minutes a day?).
  • There’s a high rate of job satisfaction when accomplished!
  • If weeds have seeds, don’t compost unless you are managing a HOT compost pile.
  • Some growers who have plenty of space just make the pathways in their garden wide enough to accommodate the lawn mower, so they can keep the paths clipped and clean, and only worry about weeds in the garden beds.
  • Cover crops that are quick to germinate (buckwheat is great in the summer) will outcompete weed seeds in open garden spaces.

Small weeds are easier to manage.

Polygonum growing with cabbage.

Planning for the Long Term

Your relationship with your garden weeds will be long and intimate. Learn about their life cycles, preferences, and (yes) beneficial traits. Weeds can teach you more than you would believe. For example, a plethora of lambsquarter is not only edible, but also tells you that you have fertile soil. Polygonum grows where soil is moist. Knowing your weed species can also help you eliminate them. Is your weed a perennial weed (coming back year after year, like dandelion), or an annual weed (dies every winter, like lambsquarter)? How does it reproduce (do you have to worry only about it going to seed, or does it send out runners underground as well)? You’ll always have a bank of weed seeds in your soil.

 

Weeding Goals

Don’t add to it.
If you can help it.

Don’t spark germination.
Some weed seeds, for example, have been in the soil for many, many years, but won’t germinate until they are brought into the light, scratched, or broken. In this case, the more your till your garden, the more you encourage weed growth.

 

Weeding Plan

Step 1: Establish permanent beds throughout the garden.

Step 2: Reduce tillage through the use of mulching, raised beds, hand tool cultivation, and compost application.

Step 3: Get mulching. Every bed, every season.

Step 4: Use cover cropping to your advantage. Choose species that will grow fast and beat the weeds in the race upward, toward sunlight.

Step 5: Get the right tools. A weeding project with the right tools can really speed up your work and allow you to get the weeds from the root, so you’re not back in the same weed patch next weekend. SUGGESTIONS: We love hori hori knives, groundhogs or hand mattocks, stirrup hoes, standard hoes, and diamond hoes.