Whacking Weeds

You can have a beautiful, weed-free lawn and garden—without chemicals.

My brother was helping tend my garden. Searching the leaf shapes for clues, he asked, “Which ones are the weeds?” I replied with a wink, “The ones you don’t want, of course.”

Merriam-Webster defines a weed more precisely as “a form of vegetable life of exuberant growth and injurious effect.” The definition can be subjective—what one person sees as a weed, another might add to the salad bowl. Yet identification is easy when compared to removal. Anyone who’s battled the tenacious, sunny yellow flower-tops called dandelions knows it. Exuberant, indeed!

You could take the easy, chemical attack, but it’s not the best approach. Common herbicides damage more than weeds; they poison your yard’s balanced ecosystem—and possibly that of your regional watershed—by killing beneficial plant diversity.

The long-term risks of human exposure to weed killers are still unclear, although there’s evidence linking them to some forms of cancer; damage to the kidney, liver, and nervous system; and fetal growth retardation and genital deformities. Do you really want your kids and dog to play on a lawn sprayed with synthetic chemicals? Thankfully, there are eco-friendly alternatives that control weeds and promote a healthy yard.

Prevention is the best medicine


The first step to keeping weeds down is to keep your landscape health up. A sick or weak yard is open to infection with weeds. “Immunize” your garden with these simple steps.

--Plant the right plants. Choose species that best fit the microcosms around your house. For example, don’t put thirsty bluegrass in the hot-as-heck strip next to the curb. And whenever possible, choose native varieties that have built-in tolerance to your local environment.

--Feed your landscape well. Give your plants the water and nutrients they need. Nourish them naturally with organic compost and natural fertilizers on a regular basis.

--Don’t mow the grass too short. Grass needs its leaves for photosynthesis, and chopping them down will cut off its food supply. Adjust your mower to a high level, taking off less than one-third of the blade. Leave those clippings on the lawn (unless they form a heavy or wet mat)—contrary to popular lore, they decompose quickly and won’t cause thatch, advises the Ohio State University Extension.

--Mulch, mulch, mulch. Regular additions of organic material around your flowers and trees adds to soil and plant health and locks in moisture. Best of all, mulch reduces trespassing seeds and seedlings by cutting off sunlight to them.

Don’t let them get comfortable

When weeds do rear their ugly little sprouts, follow the regimen below—the sooner the better. Like unwanted guests, if you allow them to settle in, it’s hard to make them leave!

--Pull. Don’t just yank off the tops; dig up that root system too. Don’t throw weeds on the ground; some varieties easily resprout.

--Mow. Sometimes simply cutting the weeds to the ground will stunt their growth. It’s a good place to start when the patch is large. Follow up with pulling, hoeing, or weed-control treatments.

--Hoe. This tried-and-true method chops up those stalks and roots. The more elbow grease, the better.

Poison ivy and other menacing plants should never be pulled, chopped, burned, or mowed because their irritating substances can spread through the air and on clothes. To remove hazardous plants, rely on a defoliating spray or a professional service.

Home remedies

Homemade weed killers fall into the category of post-emergence controls, which means they kill the weed after it’s broken through the soil and is visible. You’ve probably heard claims of super-duper solutions using everything from rock salt to gin. While the effectiveness of many is inconsistent, a few have proven results.

Boiling water: It sounds too simple: Boiling water kills weeds. Unfortunately, it also kills the plants you love, so use caution. This is a terrific way to clean up large weed patches. To target individual weeds such as dandelions, a teakettle is a handy applicator, providing a steady and fairly small stream. While the grass around them might initially die off, eventually the surrounding carpet will thicken and the spot will disappear.

Vinegar: In 2002, the USDA Agricultural Research Service announced it had proven household vinegar to be an effective weed killer, supporting popular theory. The pickling condiment’s high acidity proved particularly lethal to Canada thistle but also worked well on young weeds. For older weeds, a higher concentration vinegar worked best, but it’s unavailable to the public except in commercial sprays. Reapplications of fruit- or grain-based vinegar (never use petroleum-based) may increase your success rate.

Over-the-counter solutions

Take a wait-and-see stance when using store-bought controls—the results aren’t instantaneous like many chemical solutions.

Corn gluten meal: Although it has yet to take off in the marketplace, corn gluten meal is so effective as a pre-emergence weed control that it has been patented. When wetted, it inhibits root growth of undesirables such as crabgrass, dandelions, smart weed, barnyard grass, redroot pigweed, common purslane, lamb’s quarters, and foxtail. You may not see results for a few seasons, and it requires reapplication twice a year, but the wait will be worth it. Commercial products come in an unprocessed powdery form, granulated, or in pellets.

Sprays: Look for those that advertise “food-grade” ingredients or that are certified for use by organic growers. Most contain potassium salts of fatty acids, but a few new ones on the market use acetic acid (vinegar). These too are non-selective and post-emergent, meaning they kill all plant growth, not just weeds. The greatest benefit of a spray is the precise aim. In addition, there are organic products specially developed to defoliate poison ivy or eliminate moss growth.

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Weed Eaters

Once your lawn is free from harmful chemicals for at least a year—be sure your neighbors don’t spray over the fence!—you can do some beneficial weed eating. With your taste buds, that is. It’s not as weird as you might think. Dandelions, purslane, lamb’s quarters, and other weeds are not only edible, they’re delicious.

Henry’s Farm in central Illinois (HenrysFarm.com) cultivates organic weed-eats and harvests wild ones. Here’s a serving suggestion sure to please the palate:

Dandelion Salad with Bacon

3/4 pound dandelion leaves (about 6 cups)
2 tablespoons vinaigrette
Salt and pepper
Hint of sugar to taste
4 ounces smoked bacon (or olive oil, for vegetarians*)
1 slice French or Italian bread, cubed
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 hardboiled egg, crumbled

Tear the greens into pieces and put into a warmed salad bowl with the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and sugar. Fry bacon until half-cooked. Add bread cubes and fry until golden and the bacon is done. Tip contents of the pan (fat and all if you want to be completely French about it) onto the greens. (*Option: instead of bacon, use olive oil to brown croutons, then pour over greens.) Toss quickly. Pour the vinegar into the pan and heat rapidly. When it’s bubbling fiercely, pour onto the greens and toss. Serve immediately with egg crumbles on top.

Recipe courtesy of Terra Brockman, Henry’s Farm

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Invasive Weeds

Dandelions may be little more than a benign nuisance, but invasive weed seedlings sprout into plants that spread into patches that can swallow the lawn, neighborhood, and ecosystem. Kudzu, a rapid-growing nonnative vine that has engulfed the South, is such a menace that a patch recently discovered in a Kansas City backyard made front-page news. Thistles, which love disturbed ground, wreak havoc on farmers and national parks alike, crowding out crops and native species. Develop a knowledge of the invasive plants in your area and an appreciation for native species. Consult your local extension office, master gardeners, department of conservation or wildlife, or even the neighborhood greenhouse.

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Much about Mulch

If you have your own compost bin and regularly collect fallen leaves and grass clippings, or you have access to an organic yard-waste collection site, then you have a mulch supply. You might also try one of these as a layer:

--All-cotton rags from old clothing, towels, or sheets
--All-wool carpet or sweater scraps

A word of caution, however: Always avoid debris that could be chemically tainted (public yard waste from open collection sites, synthetic carpet scraps, neighbors’ clippings). If you purchase it, pick mulch that complements your soil acidity or alkalinity (consult the seller or your extension office for help). If you live where heavy wind or hard rains are common, choose heavier and larger pieces that won’t fly or wash away as easily. And if termites are an issue, keep mulch away from structures.

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Resources - Organic Lawn Care Products:

Beyond Pesticides
organic lawn care service providers

Blue Seal Feeds
(800) 367-2730

Bradfield Industries
(417) 882-1442

Extremely Green Gardening
(781) 878-5397

Gardens Alive!
(513) 354-1482

Planet Natural
(800) 289-6656

St. Gabriel Laboratories
(800) 801-0061

Reprinted with permission from Natural Home and Garden, LLC, March/April 2005

Published by Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado

ENN would like to thank Natural Home & Garden for their permission to reprint this article.