Gardens can turn a simple house into a lively home with their lush green leaves and colorful blooms. However, not all greens in the garden are beneficial. Often, there will be weeds that can compete with your plants for sunlight, nutrients, and water from the soil, making it crucial to get rid of them.
Some approaches you can take to make a garden weed-free include using sterile soil, hand-weeding regularly, using homemade solutions or commercial weed killers, applying mulch around your plants, avoiding watering bare soil, laying out landscape fabric, growing more plants, and gardening in pots.
This article will explain these simple yet effective strategies in more detail. You can choose one of the methods above or combine two or more to ensure your garden stays weed-free. Let’s get started!
1. Use Sterile and Weed-Free Soil
Choosing the right kind of soil is one of the most vital steps when preparing to grow plants in your garden.
However, what many new gardeners fail to understand is that soil readily available in the garden may contain plenty of unwanted components, including:
- Weed seeds
- Harmful microbes like fungi, viruses, and bacteria
- Pests like grubs and gnats
Most of these harmful elements can be detrimental to your plants, and some of them can be unsightly. While not all garden soil is contaminated, you can’t be sure yours isn’t either. The best thing you can do is use sterile soil to reduce the risk of weeds growing out of your young garden.
You can sterilize soil at home or purchase some from reputable sources. Soil sterilization can be tedious, requiring specific and high-quality equipment to effectively eliminate pests, microbes, and weeds.
Whether you plan to sterilize the soil by yourself or buy some from a gardening supplier, there are several factors you need to consider:
Soil Sterilization at Home
There are several ways to sterilize soil at home. However, not all of them are equally effective. While most of them can kill off harmful microbes and pests, some might not effectively eliminate weed seeds from the soil.
Here are some sterilization methods you can use at home that can help reduce or eliminate weeds from the soil:
- Expose the soil to dry heat in the oven for one hour. On average, seeds of various species of weeds die in one to two hours after exposure to temperatures over 140°F (60°C). Placing your garden soil in the oven at 150 – 200°F (65.6 – 93°C) for an hour is often enough to kill off most weed seeds.
- Soak the soil in hot steam for fifteen minutes. If you don’t have an oven or wouldn’t want to put soil in it, you can use the steam coming from boiling water. Water boils at 212°F (100°C), which is way higher than the temperature necessary to kill weed seeds. This method is also effective in killing most microbes and pests in the soil.
- Use the soil solarization technique for the whole garden. The process involves watering bare garden soil thoroughly and covering it with clear plastic for a month in the peak of summer.This strategy is suitable for a large area of garden soil before you start sowing seeds or planting seedlings in the fall.
Benefits of Soil Sterilization at Home
- It is cost-effective. Using home-sterilized soil is cheaper than buying large amounts of soil from suppliers to fit your garden. It can also be even better if you only have potted plants in your garden since you can sterilize only the amount of soil you need.
- It is more accessible. It can sometimes be challenging to find a reputable supplier of sterile soil whenever you need them. Knowing the basics of soil sterilization at home can help you produce safe soil for storage and later use for plants that need immediate transplantation.
Downsides of Soil Sterilization at Home
- It can take too much time. Sterilizing soil at home can be time-consuming since you can do it using only small batches of soil. A large garden will require a long time to sterilize.
- It may not be effective when it comes to killing off weed seeds. Although home soil sterilization methods can kill off some weed seeds, they might not be enough to eliminate all of them if done incorrectly. As a result, you may still find some weeds growing in your garden later.
- It may contaminate your home equipment and tools. Incorrect soil packaging and improper use of ovens may contaminate your machine and tools with unwanted microbes. It can even be more alarming if you use the same machines for food preparation.
Wide-Scale and Professional-Grade Soil Sterilization
While home soil sterilization techniques may seem easy, it is vital to understand that exposing the soil to high temperatures for extended periods may also be counterproductive. It can kill off helpful soil microbes and degrade soil components into toxic forms.
As a result, home gardeners must understand the science of their garden soil and seek professional help when trying home soil sterilization methods for the first time.
Alternatively, you can purchase readily available products in the market.
Large farms and greenhouses utilize advanced techniques and equipment to sterilize vast pieces of land to keep them safe for the mass production of crops. Some companies offer soil sterilization services to farmers and sell small packs of sterile soil to home gardeners.
One of the most widely known practices is injecting steam into the ground for 20 minutes at a controlled temperature of 158°F (70°C) to kill weed seeds. The method is effective in keeping plots and beds weed-free.
2. Hand Weed Your Garden Regularly
If you have already started your garden without using pre-planting weed control methods, you can still work toward keeping your garden weed-free.
Although it may seem troublesome, hand weeding your garden regularly is an essential maintenance routine. More importantly, you should pull the weeds from the roots, as they will quickly grow back as long as the roots remain intact.
Wait a few days after watering so that the soil is damp before pulling the weeds. Doing so will help you pull out the roots more easily. Pulling the weeds immediately after watering will bring moist soil along with the roots. On the other hand, weeding on dry soil will break the weeds and leave the roots behind.
Pull the weeds as soon as they come out. It will help keep them from becoming fully established and spreading their roots.
You can also use some gardening tools for stubborn weeds. Here is a list of some helpful tools:
- Gardening knife: This tool is popular among gardeners because it’s light and easy to use. Be sure it has a sharp and sturdy edge for slicing through stubborn roots and dense soil.
- Weeding fork: Also called a weeding tool, this fork has a unique design that can help you pull out the weeds without damaging the roots of neighboring plants.
- Weed puller: Gardeners who prefer to pull weeds while standing up can use tools with long handles. With a weed puller, you can remove weeds while standing up, making gardening less exhausting.
3. Use Homemade Solutions To Kill Weeds
For decades – or even centuries – agriculturists, farmers, and home gardeners have found and developed numerous ways to kill weeds. While some of the most effective methods can be technologically advanced and costly, some can be budget-friendly and just a little less effective.
For instance, you can make homemade solutions that can significantly reduce the number of weeds in your garden or eliminate them with proper use.
Horticultural vinegar contains a much higher concentration of acetic acid than kitchen vinegar, making it dangerous for home gardeners to use. It is also impractical to purchase it because it doesn’t serve much purpose at home.
Instead, home gardeners repurpose white vinegar by mixing it with salt and dish soap as a homemade solution against garden weeds. Some people may even recommend using pure vinegar.
Novice gardeners are likely to come across numerous online articles recommending such a mixture with various claims on its effectiveness.
The Effectiveness of Homemade Vinegar Solutions Against Weeds
Spraying the leaves with the solution dries them up within a few hours, especially when applied during the day under hot weather. However, the roots may remain unaffected, allowing the weeds to grow back. Pouring the solution into the soil sometimes proves effective in killing the roots.
The effectiveness of a homemade vinegar weed killer solution depends on various factors, such as the environmental temperature and the age of the weeds. Older weeds may need a higher dosage or more concentrated solution.
The Downsides of Using Homemade Vinegar Solutions
The low concentration of acetic acid in kitchen vinegar is not enough to acidify the soil for extended periods. Additionally, the alkalinity of the liquid dish soap can somehow raise the pH level of the solution.
However, using excessive amounts of the solution can alter the soil composition or pH level long enough to cause damage to garden plants that thrive in alkaline soil. Moreover, accidentally spraying the solution on other plants can also burn their leaves.
Some weed species may also be resistant to the damage caused by acetic acid, proving this method ineffective.
If you don’t want to use chemicals, you can pour boiling water on weeds. The hot water can seep through the soil and kill the weed’s roots. You need to water the soil thoroughly so that it stays hot enough for at least 15 minutes to kill the roots and the seeds of annual weeds.
After two days, while the soil is still damp, it will be easier to pull out the dead weeds, including their roots. This method is helpful if you have a few weeds in your garden.
However, if there are plenty of weeds, you may need to use large volumes of boiling water to soak the weeds’ roots long enough to kill them. Moreover, this method may not be helpful against weeds growing too close to your garden plants. Therefore, it is best to use this strategy sparingly.
Bleach is yet another home essential many gardeners find effective against weeds. However, even though bleach works wonders when it comes to killing weeds, experienced gardeners strongly oppose the idea unless absolutely necessary.
Although bleach is effective against stubborn weeds, their roots, and their seeds, the risks of using such a chemical outweigh the benefits. If you’re thinking about using bleach to eliminate the weeds in your garden, it’s best to understand some risks first. Check them out below:
- Bleach has high pH. Depending on the brand or manufacturing process, bleach typically has a pH level ranging from 11-13, which is too high for any plant to thrive. This level can be detrimental to any plant and may take some time to neutralize.
- Bleach contains too much salt. Although many plant supplements like fertilizers contain salts, too much can dehydrate your plants’ roots. High amounts of salt in the soil can prevent the roots from absorbing water. While this is effective in killing weeds, it can also affect the roots of neighboring plants.
- Bleach is soluble in water. Although this nature of bleach makes it a useful cleaning agent, it can be bad for your garden, since water can wash it away from its target – weeds – and take it to other plants, thus contaminating your garden soil.
Understanding these risks can help you develop safety measures for using bleach against weeds without compromising the health of your valuable garden plants.
4. Apply Commercial Weed Killers to Your Garden
Many weed killers are readily available in the market. They are specially formulated to control weeds at specific life stages. Finding a product that can kill weeds at all life stages can be challenging. You may need to use a combination of products to eliminate weed seeds and mature weeds.
Here are some categories of weed killers available in the market:
Pre-Emergent Weed Killers
Young weed seedlings that have just germinated are sensitive to pre-emergent herbicides. These chemicals typically stay in the soil for roughly two months and may require reapplication to prevent the reemergence of weeds.
However, these products are not effective against weed seeds, which may have an extra layer of protection. As the shoots break out of the seeds, they will die from exposure to the herbicide residues in the soil.
That’s why it is necessary to apply pre-emergent herbicides regularly to replenish the concentration required to kill new growths until all seeds have sprouted and died.
Post-Emergent Weed Killers
In contrast to pre-emergent weed killers, post-emergent herbicides work against weeds that are at least three days old. This limitation is mainly due to the chemical’s mode of action. Active ingredients in post-emergent weed killers attack enzymes that promote weed growth.
However, these products typically do not affect weed seeds, resulting in a possible future problem. Nonetheless, you can trust them to kill any already existing weeds.
The low concentration of acetic acid in household vinegar is sometimes not enough to kill weed seeds or roots.
Research shows that weeds are more sensitive to higher concentrations of acetic acid found in horticultural vinegar. However, it can be dangerous to gardeners when handled incorrectly without safety gear or appropriate tools.
Nonetheless, interested individuals can purchase horticultural vinegar at varying concentrations from gardening supplies stores. It is highly recommended that you read and follow the instructions on the product label as closely as possible if you plan to use this product.
5. Apply Organic Mulch Around Your Plants
Mulch is generally used to help with temperature regulation, keeping the soil cool in summer and warm in winter for your plants’ roots. Moreover, mulch can help with moisture retention to keep your plants hydrated.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, mulching is a natural way to eliminate weeds from your garden.
You can hand weed your garden before or after mulching. Ideally, you must pull out the weeds before applying the mulch because it’s easier to find them. When you notice new weeds germinating through your mulch later, pull them out immediately before they can establish roots.
How Organic Mulch Works Against Weeds
There are several ways mulch can work against weeds. However, proper timing and thickness are essential when it comes to achieving the best results.
Here’s a list of how organic mulch works:
- It blocks sunlight. A thick layer of organic mulch can prevent weed seeds from getting enough sunlight to germinate. This works best on seeds that have already been buried into the ground before mulch application.
- It prevents weed seeds’ access to the soil. Placing the mulch on the soil before the grown annual weeds go to seed can help prevent their seeds from getting into the soil. Without proper substrate, the weed seeds won’t get the nutrients necessary for growth. However, in rare cases, some seeds may germinate even under the mulch layer.
- It can deprive weed roots of oxygen. Mulch can also limit the amount of oxygen that can enter the soil, killing the weeds’ roots in the process. Unfortunately, this can also affect your other plants.
Things To Consider When Using Mulch To Control Weeds
While mulching is beneficial in preventing weed growth in your garden, there are still several things that can go wrong, and you may still find your garden covered in weeds during the growing season.
It helps to understand and consider some essential factors when using mulch to control weeds. Check them out below:
- The type of weeds in your garden: Annual and perennial weeds have different growth patterns. Knowing which types you have in your garden can help determine how effective mulching can be against them. Applying organic mulch may not be as effective against perennials as it is with annuals.
- Timing: The timing of mulching also often coincides with the growing season of annual weeds. Gardeners usually apply mulch in the fall to protect the plants from frost. The mulch can prevent the seeds of summer annual weeds from burrowing into the soil. Consequently, mulching the soil in spring can inhibit the seeds of winter annual seeds.
- Thickness: Although a thick layer of mulch is necessary to suppress weed growth, too much can also be bad for your other plants. For instance, underground buds must be close to the surface (2 inches / 50.8 mm) to germinate in spring. Depending on your plants’ requirements, you may need to limit the thickness of the mulch to 1 – 4 inches (25.4 – 101.6 mm).
- Mulching material: A thick layer of dried bark has a better ability than other organic mulch materials to suppress weed growth in the garden. Moreover, it is less likely to contain herbicides or other chemicals that can be detrimental to your plants.
- The presence of microorganisms in mulch: Woody mulch may carry fungi and bacteria. These are essential for the decomposition of organic mulch. Although they pose no threats to your plants, you might as well avoid using organic mulch with edible plants as they can be harmful when consumed by humans.
6. Place Pebbles or Rocks on Bare Soil
Placing pebbles and rocks on bare soil cannot prevent weed growth completely. However, it can be an excellent follow-up after removing weeds that died after applying herbicides or homemade weed control treatments.
Pull out dead weeds a few days after applying herbicides. It is crucial to dispose of them properly to avoid harming the other plants you want to keep in your garden. Pull the weeds from the roots to prevent re-emergence in case the herbicide can’t kill them.
Pebbles and rocks can work the same way as organic mulches in that they block the sunlight for weed seeds and prevent weed roots from getting enough oxygen. More importantly, they add more value to your garden than mulch.
Here are some additional benefits of placing pebbles or rocks in your garden:
- They can improve the overall aesthetics of your garden. Pebbles and rocks come in various colors and can brighten any garden. Landscape designers also use this technique for the same reason.
- They are low-maintenance. Unlike organic mulch, you don’t have to replace pebbles or rocks regularly. They can stay in place for years without any trouble unless weeds grow back.
- They are less likely to carry diseases with them. Organic mulch containing grass clippings or other plant materials carries the risk of infecting healthy plants by introducing microbes or chemicals into the soil.
- They can prevent soil erosion. One or multiple layers of pebbles or rocks can protect the soil from erosion by shielding it from heavy rain that would otherwise loosen the soil particles and wash them off.
Since many herbicides cannot kill weed seeds entirely, you might still find some weeds sprouting in the gaps between pebbles. Pay attention to the type of weeds that emerge.
Many perennial weeds have rhizomes or stolons that run laterally and may produce some shoots in other spots. You will need to remove some pebbles as you trace the roots and pull them out completely. You can put the pebbles back in place afterward.
However, if you have a thick layer of pebbles, you can run boiling water through them to kill the weeds. If you pour enough hot water, you can even kill the roots.
You will also need to pour boiling water on the surrounding areas if you spot annual weeds. Chances are, the other seeds will germinate soon enough.
7. Avoid Watering Bare Soil and Focus on Your Plants
Weeds need water to grow, and they often compete with your plants for moisture from the soil. If you deprive them of water, they won’t grow so quickly, and the roots will eventually die.
So when watering your garden, focus only on the area around your plants. Avoid watering bare soil since it may contain weed roots or seeds that are just waiting for the right conditions to grow.
When you see weeds germinating close to your plants, pull them out immediately. It helps to identify them so that you can properly deal with them.
For instance, if the weed turns out to be a perennial, you can dig into the soil using weeding tools to track and pull out the entire root system and prevent the weed from growing back. Avoid cutting the stolons and rhizomes as the small, broken pieces left in the soil will likely grow back.
On the other hand, if it is an annual, you can assume that there are several other seeds in the soil just waiting to germinate. You can pour hot water into bare soil while being careful not to burn your plants’ roots in the process.
As mentioned earlier, boiling water can kill stubborn weed seeds. However, it can also be dangerous to your plants. Avoid pouring hot water within 12 inches (304.8 mm) around your plant in all directions.
You may need to avoid using hot water altogether for weed control if your garden plants have shallow roots that run laterally. Otherwise, you will also be causing severe damage to your plants’ roots.
During the rainy season, weeds will get enough water to grow, and they will cover your yard before you know it. That’s why combining multiple methods on this list is essential to ensure that your garden stays weed-free.
8. Lay Out a Landscape Fabric or Biodegradable Plastic Mulch
Instead of organic mulch, which can be messy to apply and remove, some gardeners use a landscape fabric or biodegradable plastic mulch. They are both effective in suppressing weed growth, but each may present a few disadvantages when used incorrectly.
Let’s look at the features, pros, and cons of these plastic mulches:
Similar to organic mulch, landscape fabric is pretty helpful in preventing weed growth. It has also become quite popular among several gardeners because it eliminates weed problems while providing more advantages than black plastic.
Landscape fabric is typically made of polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene – none of which is biodegradable.
- Regulates temperature and moisture retention: As a mulching material, the landscape fabric’s primary function is to insulate the soil during the cold months while retaining enough moisture for the plants’ roots.
- Breathable: The material is called a fabric because of its crisscross or woven pattern that allows air to pass through. This feature is important since plants need oxygen in their roots.
- Porous: The small gaps in the landscape fabric also allow water to pass through, making it easier for plant roots to access moisture without peeling off the material from the ground.
- Blocks sunlight: The landscape fabric’s dark color blocks sunlight, which is vital for weed growth. Gardeners often cut holes through the fabric to expose only the desired plants. Weeds, on the other hand, cannot get enough sunlight.
- Can prevent soil erosion: The landscape fabric may be porous, but its woven pattern protects the soil from heavy rain. It buffers the impact of heavy rain and provides moisture into the ground slowly, significantly reducing the risk of soil erosion during the rainy season.
- Accumulates dirt: Over time, the fabric accumulates lots of dirt that can clog the pores, inhibiting the plants’ roots’ access to moisture and air.
- Can be unsightly: Cutting holes in the fabric can make the garden look unsightly. The material can also break apart after exposure to extreme heat, moisture, and wind for a few years.
- Difficult to remove: Large pieces of landscape fabric can be troublesome to peel off the ground when it’s time to dispose of them. It can also be messy when you try to remove plant debris, such as decomposed mulch and dried leaves, on the fabric’s surface.
- Bad for the environment: Some gardeners place an extra layer of organic mulch, which can decompose on the fabric. Since the fabric is made of polyethylene or other plastic materials, it can produce microplastics that can be washed down into the soil and leached into bodies of water.
Biodegradable Plastic Mulch
Environment-conscious gardeners use biodegradable plastic mulch (BPM) as an alternative to landscape fabric or black plastic. The product has been gaining popularity in recent years due to the increasing awareness regarding the effects of plastic use on the environment.
This plastic mulch contains eco-friendly materials, including the following:
- Polylactic acid (PLA)
- Polybutylene succinate (PBS)
- Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT)
- Thermoplastic starch (TPS)
- Polycaprolactone (PCL)
- Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)
It is equally effective as landscape fabric in controlling weeds but packs more environmental benefits. However, since the product is relatively new, it also presents some disadvantages.
- Biodegradable: The main advantage of BPM over conventional synthetic plastic mulches is that this product decomposes and incorporates into the soil in about two years, depending on the weather and abundance of microorganisms in the soil that can break it down.
- Convenient: BPM also eliminates the need for disposal as it naturally decomposes and blends into the ground. You can replace the decomposed layer with a fresh one every two years.
- Safe for the environment: The National Organic Program requires that 90% of BPM decomposes within two years. Products that meet this criterion are considered safe for the environment.
- Functions the same way as organic mulches: BPM also provides insulation to the soil in winter and helps with moisture retention. Moreover, it can inhibit the growth of weeds by blocking sunlight.
- Requires specific conditions for biodegradation: One downside of BPMs is that they might not meet the 90% decomposition requirement set by the NOP if the environment does not have enough bacteria for decomposition or non-conducive conditions for enzyme activities in the soil.
- Can be unsightly: The slow degradation process can leave bits and pieces of BPM in the soil, which can make your garden look less attractive.
- Needs further studies: The technology behind the production of BPM requires further studies to find the best formula that can make it even safer for the environment. We also need to know how the residues may affect the soil and plant growth in the long run.
9. Grow More Plants in Your Garden
After keeping your weeds in control, you may start growing more plants in your garden. Fully established plants will absorb plenty of moisture and nutrients from the soil, and their foliage will spread wide enough to cover the ground.
These conditions will prevent any surviving weed seeds or roots in the ground from getting the essential nutrients they need for growth. Moreover, weeds won’t have enough space to grow if the garden has too many plants.
You can select fast-growing plants with large foliage that can provide enough shade to the soil underneath them.
This method is ideal only after you have seen satisfactory results from the other methods on this list. Growing plants while there are still active weed seeds and roots in the ground may prove counterproductive since young plants might not be able to compete against hungry weeds.
Fertilizing and watering your seedlings in soil filled with weed seeds and roots will also result in the proliferation of weeds. Therefore, it is essential to eliminate the weeds before growing new plants.
However, it may seem impossible to remove weeds and seeds from the soil entirely because some weed species can be really sturdy and stubborn. The key is to pull them out as soon as you spot them.
10. Grow Plants in Pots
If your garden is covered with weeds, you can temporarily grow your plants in pots as you apply herbicides or use multiple weed control methods in your garden. Applying herbicides to your garden soil can make the ground inhospitable for your garden plants for a while.
Below are some benefits of temporarily growing your plants in pots:
- You will have enough time to improve the soil quality and add amendments when necessary.
- Growing your plants in pots can help them grow sturdy enough to compete with any residual weeds when you transplant them into your garden soil.
- Potted plants are easier to move around if the weather conditions call for it.
- It can eliminate the need to use plastic mulches, which can be troublesome to lay out and dispose of.
- You can plan out the appearance or design of your garden before moving your plants to their permanent spots.
- You can ensure that your garden is weed-free before transplanting your desired plants.
Weeds can be destructive to any garden. They are competitive, fast-growing, and able to cover an entire space within a few weeks if left unattended.
To eliminate them, you may need to employ multiple approaches, including hand weeding, mulching, and applying homemade or commercial herbicides.
If you find weeds occasionally sprouting in your garden after using the steps mentioned above, you must pull them out immediately. Otherwise, they will reproduce and overwhelm your garden again. Remember that it can take a lot of effort to keep your garden weed-free.