Organic weed control is the process of ridding your garden of weeds without the use of chemicals. Organic weeding methods are especially appropriate in a vegetable garden. Herbicides can leach into the ground or be splashed on your produce. Washing the veggies will eliminate most, but not all, of the residue. There are many ways to control weeds without the use of chemicals. We will explore the four most common ways here.
- Create an inhospitable environment. The simplest way to get weeds out of your garden is to provide an environment in which desirable plants thrive. If you are creating a new garden, it's best to lay clear plastic over the area for a full year beforehand. This process is called solarization. The soil under the plastic will be heated to temperatures high enough to kill the weeds underneath, as well as any weed seeds lurking in the soil.
Next, work with your soil to maintain a fine tilth. This means that the dirt is loose, with no rocks or compaction. A garden tiller is a good first step to take, but you'll probably need to dig and rake by hand, too--at least for the first year.
Now, you should have soil in which your plants will flourish. Choose plants that are suited for your weather and precipitation conditions. Healthy plants can fight off weeds far better than weak, spindly ones. In addition, the foliage they create will shade the area around them, making it harder for the weed seeds to germinate.
- Kill the weeds. You can either pull each individual weed or hoe them off just below ground level. Each method has its benefits: Pulling weeds destroys the roots, but may also bring other weed seeds to the surface. Hoeing doesn't disturb the underlying dirt, but if the weeds have a strong root system, they may regrow. If you're feeling daring, you can kill weeds with a flamer, which is a small torch that you use to fry each individual weed.
- Create a physical barrier. There are a lot of ways to create barriers between the weeds and your plants. You can cover your garden with black plastic mulch, then cut small X's in the plastic in which to put your plants. You may want to put a layer of organic mulch, such as pine needles, wood chips, grass clippings or cocoa bean hulls on top of the plastic. This will improve the appearance of your garden, as well as keeping soil temperatures lower. During the hottest months of the year, plastic mulch can raise the temperature of the soil as much as twenty degrees higher than air temperature. Also, don't leave plastic mulch on your garden when you are ready to till it, unless you want to spend the rest of the summer untangling bits of plastic from your tiller!
Another concern is whether or not the animal population will be harmed by the use of plastic in your garden. Usually, garden pests such as birds, rabbits and deer will not disturb plastic mulch--they're much more interested in munching your veggies! However, if you are concerned, you can put up a fence around your garden. It will need to be at least six feet high to keep out deer, and several inches below the ground to keep rabbits from digging under it. To keep out birds, you would need to install row covers. Another idea to think about is that plastic mulch takes years to break down. If you are concerned about creating excess landfill waste, you may want to consider one of the alternatives below.
If you would prefer a more natural solution, newspaper can be used as sheet mulch. Nearly all ink used in printing is soy-based, so it poses no threat of soil contamination. Put down a layer of newspaper about one inch thick, then wet it to prevent it from moving or blowing away. Repeat across your entire garden. The benefit of newspaper mulch is that it can be tilled into the soil in the spring. Another method is to plant a low-growing crop to fill in the spaces between your plants. You'll want to choose one that is quite hardy, so that you won't kill it by walking on it.
- Plant a cover crop in the fall. To prevent weeds from growing after your garden is finished for the year, you can plant a cover crop. It will crowd out any weeds that try to grow. In the spring, simply till it into the soil. If you choose a cover crop that is a member of the legume family, it will amend your soil by adding nitrogen to it. Rye and clover both fall into this group.
If you follow these steps in your garden, you should have very few weeds. And remember, weeds are just plants in places where you don't want them to be. If you try everything and a few stubborn weeds persist, try to see their virtues. After all, dandelion greens are considered a delicacy by many!