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How to Combat Weeds ... Gently

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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.

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