Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

How to Combat Weeds ... Gently

Popular
Alex Eben Meyer

By Jillian Mackenzie

Spraying chemicals in the yard is a tempting shortcut for many a home gardener looking to protect a tasty crop or a bed of flowers. But weed killers aren't necessary, and they may be linked to health risks.


To embark on a natural plan of weed suppression, start by deciphering your yard's condition: Is it ablaze with dandelions? Taken over by crabgrass? You'll need to customize your approach depending on the specific intruder. And don't lose patience; finding the perfect solution for your particular weed specimen will take some tinkering. A local organic landscaping company may help you develop an effective weed-fighting plan, and the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides offers a directory of companies that can improve your lawn in a safe manner. Here are some strategies to help stretch your green thumb.

Embrace a Shaggy Lawn.

Want to make your weekend chores a little less burdensome? Learn to appreciate longer grass. Mow less frequently, and with your mower on the highest setting — at least two inches, said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with NRDC's Health program. (Sass sometimes lets hers grow even longer, with benign neglect.) "A longer lawn will crowd out weeds," she said, since the taller blades of grass block the light weeds need to grow. "It will also ensure that you don't harm the clover, which attracts pollinators. Longer grass also holds soil moisture better and can even reseed itself."

Make Peace with (Some) Weeds.

Along with a little benign neglect, Sass doled out some tough love: "Get used to how your lawn looks with weeds," she said. "A lawn that's dotted with some clover and dandelions is a safe, nontoxic place for pets and people to play." In addition to providing some nourishment for the pollinators we all depend on, some of the most common and vexing weeds can have upsides. "Even dandelions are quite beneficial," said Barbara Pleasant, an expert on organic gardening and author of Homegrown Pantry. "They can have roots 18 inches deep that act as biodrills" to loosen compacted soil.

Try Hand-to-Hand Combat.

If weeds are stealing too many nutrients from your lawn, vegetable garden or flower bed, start by hand-picking them. You don't need to dig into the dirt; just lop them off at the surface, Pleasant said. You'll need to be more aggressive if you find yourself with an invasive species issue — as when a plant that's not native to your area starts to dominate the landscape, with no natural control on its growth. Pull those plants out by the root, but don't toss them into your compost pile if you plan to sprinkle that mix back onto your lawn.

Bill Hlubik, a professor of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University, recommends chopping the invasive plants up into tiny bits with gardening shears so they don't reroot or germinate. Sass said she leaves them on a paved pathway to fully dry up in the sun before throwing them into her yard waste bin for curbside pickup. Either method should do the trick.

Spread Some Mulch.

Shovel mulch on vegetable or flower beds. The extra layer not only helps the soil retain moisture but also blocks the sunlight that weeds need to start sprouting. "Mulches also look better than bare ground, and any mulch made of natural materials will improve soil as it rots," said Pleasant. "Grass clippings are great when applied in thin layers, especially in veggie beds." Pleasant likes to place a layer of damp newspapers under the clippings for even more light-blocking weed prevention. As for flower beds, she said, they "are all about looks, so there, you want to use a long-lasting woody mulch like wood chips, spread two to three inches deep. Any weeds that manage to establish themselves are easy to pull out, and the wood chips give beds a tailored look while maintaining soil moisture."

Carpet the Ground with Cover Plants.

Ground cover plants will also choke out weeds, and they're especially great "for areas where grass, flowers, or veggies won't grow because of summer shade [or] shallow roots from big trees, or [on] slopes that are difficult to mow," said Pleasant. But ground cover plants are picky — they'll only grow if you find just the right plant for the right site, and they will take a few years to fill in properly. Some flourish in shade, others need full sun; gardeners working in hot climates should consider planting drought-tolerant varieties, such as a creeping sedum. The commonly used lamb's ear may even help you repel another garden nuisance: deer. In addition to these animals finding the plant distasteful, "it's attractive, a draw for butterflies and hummingbirds, self-propagating, and needs almost no care," Sass said. "Make that the front border of your garden."

"Local nurseries can advise you on the best ground covers for your area, but the best way to explore possibilities is to look in other people's yards," Pleasant said, and see what's thriving there. Seeking out local native ferns may be a good place to start.

Get Goats! (Stay with Us Here ...)

Perhaps the most adorable nontoxic weed solution, goats will happily munch your weeds away — and there are companies that rent the animals out for just that purpose. Goats' least favorite food is grass, so they will eat everything else first. They're otherwise not too selective, so you need to protect anything you don't want them to chomp. Of course, renting a herd is practical only if you have a lot of land or, said Sass, "if you have poison ivy, kudzu, and other noxious weeds."

If You Must Spray, Use Natural Products.

Skip the herbicides. Glyphosate (better known as Roundup) is the most commonly used one — primarily a tool of farmers growing genetically engineered crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton but available for home use as well. Recent studies confirm it carries a risk of cancer and may be linked to other adverse health effects on reproduction, child development, and internal organs.

Instead, Sass recommended applying vinegar, which can be effective in eradicating dandelions, kudzu or fig buttercups. Some DIY weed-killing recipes contain regular household vinegar, others the much stronger horticulture vinegar. If you're using the latter, we recommend wearing heavy-duty gloves and goggles due to potential skin and eye irritation. (And always follow the safety instructions on the label.) Pleasant notes that vinegar works best on young weeds and may damage nearby plants, so spray precisely — or try her preferred weed killer, plain old boiling water.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A pangolin at a rescue center in Cambodia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Malavika Vyawahare

China has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak that has claimed more than 2,700 lives and infected more than 81,000 people, most of them in China, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Read More
A man carries plastic shopping bags in Times Square on May 5, 2018 in New York City. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress / Corbis / Getty Images

Nearly one year after New York became the second state in the nation to pass a ban on grocery store plastic bags — the law is going into effect on Sunday.

Read More
Sponsored
White gold man-made diamond solitaire engagement ring. Clean Origin

While keeping track of the new trends in the diamond industry can be hard, it is still an essential task of any savvy consumer or industry observer. Whether you are looking to catch a deal on your next diamond purchase or researching the pros and cons of an investment within the diamond industry, keeping up with the trends is imperative.

Read More
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (C) chants with housing and environmental advocates before a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of her Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol Nov. 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took to the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday to chide Republicans for not reading the Green New Deal, which she introduced over one year ago, as The Hill reported. She then read the entire 14-page document into the congressional record.

Read More
Anti Ivan Duque's demonstrator is seen holding a placard with the photos of social leader Alirio Sánchez Sánchez and the indigenous Hector Janer Latín, both killed in Cauca, Colombia during a protest against Ivan Duque visit in London which included a meeting about fracking, environmental issues, the peace process implementation, and questioning the risk that social leaders in Colombia face. Andres Pantoja / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Colombia was the most dangerous nation in 2019 to be an environmental activist and experts suspect that conditions will only get worse.

Read More