This technique for easy organic weed control is one of the most essential gardening tips you’ll find at AOC – it revolutionized my gardening life, allowing me to have multiple healthy shrub and flower borders without having to weed and fertilize all summer long. If you haven’t done this yet, prepare to love it!
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Do you fight weeds in your garden? Do you ever feel like giving up on gardening because of the weeds?
In all honesty, there have been times I’ve felt like that, too, because I want to garden organically. So many of the articles I’ve read emphasized hand-pulling weeds as really the only way to get rid of weeds – or try smothering them in a mulch and hope they won’t poke through in a few weeks.
But I’m here to say, unequivocally, that there are ways to fight weeds that don’t involve chemicals. I’ve discovered how to minimize weeds in:
But the most life-changing (at least in my gardening life) for me are the five easy steps I use to control weeds in our garden shrub and flower beds – and not just for spring, but for the whole year!
That’s right, with the steps I outline below you won’t have to worry about weeds again until next spring. AND every year after that the weeds you’ll have to deal with will be less and less. Really! In only a couple of hours you’ll be done with most of the maintenance for your flower bed – all that will be left to do is water and enjoy the blooms.
What’s my secret?
Well, it’s not that much of a secret, since it’s a method that I’ve written about before. And told everyone I know. And maybe shouted it from the rooftops, ha! The technique involves:
Newspaper (or cardboard) and Mulch
Yep – and every time I write that, I swear I hear angels singing (I mentioned it’s life-changing, right?).
Since this technique is such a time and sanity saver (and pretty much the only reason I have shrub and flower borders throughout our yard to enjoy) I felt I needed to share the exact steps I take – with some before and after pictures – so you can see how easy this is. And how great it works.
Will this really reduce weeding in beds and borders?
When I get all our beds done using this method, I really do have a lot less work for the rest of the year.
Here’s proof from our previous cottage garden:
This is one side of the front flower bed that was covered in newspaper and mulch the previous summer (we use purchased garden compost for our mulch, which I explain below).
As you can see, there are just a few weeds here and there which are easy to pull thanks to all the mulch, with more concentrated around the stepping stones. That’s because it’s hard to get the layers of newspaper in between the stones unless we lift them, and obviously we didn’t take the time. If you lift up stones and layer paper completely under them, you will have even less weeds than this.
Now, for comparison, take a look at the other end of the same bed that we didn’t get to:
This end of the shrub and perennial bed never got its layer of paper and mulch. We ran out of the compost mulch and never finished the bed – in fact you can see on the right exactly where we ran out of the paper and mulch close to the stepping stones.
There are some plants in all the weeds on the left, but most of the green “groundcover”are little baby weeds, plus those early spring “poppers” (aka, bittercress) I hate. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
Don’t let this happen to your flower beds – follow these five steps to organic weed control and make your life easier!
Check out the video we made about this technique and then read on for more details on the steps:
5 Easy Steps to Organic Weed Control
Step 1: Gather your materials.
- Garden tools: trowel and small hand rake, a small shovel, (my favorite shovel since I discovered it!) and a metal rake. You’ll need a good set of pruners, too, to cut back any plants that need it. I also always use a kneeling pad and carry my tools in a garden tote so I don’t have to run back and forth when I forget something.
- Mulch. You’ll need enough mulch to cover your area at least 2-inches thick. You can use garden compost like we do (don’t use homemade compost for this, though, as the weed seeds won’t have been killed like commercial compost), bark chips, tree trimmings, pine needles and even straw (though it won’t look as good in flower beds). Pros & Cons of mulches:
- Garden compost: Pros: we like the brown color of the mulch garden centers call “garden compost.” But the other benefit of using compost is that it feeds your soil as it breaks down acting as a fertilizer – and in fact it’s the only fertilizer I’ve ever used on my beds (strike another thing off the to-do list!). Con: it is more soil-like, so can grow more weeds than bark. If your area stays moist or is near areas where weeds blow in, this can be an issue.
- Bark Chips or Tree Trimmings: Pros: easy to lay (lighter weight) and tree trimmings can even be free. Weeds do not sprout in wood chips as easily as compost. Cons: doesn’t feed the soil on it’s own, as it takes nitrogen to decompose, though it can work if you spread it with another nitrogen source.
- Straw or grass clippings: these are mainly for vegetable gardens, as they don’t look very good around flowers and shrubs.
- Local mulches like pine needles, cocoa shells, and more: if you live in an area where these different types of mulches are available, definitely look into them. Be sure you know what they do as they decompose so you’ll know if you need to add a fertilizer.
- Newspaper or cardboard (the secret weapon!) – and LOTS of it. We collect newspapers all year long and use it up each spring. You can also use cardboard, but since it’s thicker, use it only in areas you don’t want to plant any annuals (like under trees or between large, established shrubs). It’s also harder to position around plants since the pieces are bigger. Cardboard does last longer, so you may get away with an every other year application. Paper grocery bags are good, too, cut and opened up, but newspaper is usually easiest to acquire.
Step 2: Trim shrubs and perennials, then lightly pull weeds.
I like to wait until late winter or early spring to do this instead of the fall, since the dead growth helps protect plants from frost damage and provides habitat and seed heads for the birds. Plus, there’s no way I’d find time in the fall to do this with all the vegetable harvest coming in, but I like the bird excuse better, ha!
TIP: Try to get the roots of the perennial weeds like dandelions, but for the annual weeds just pull any big ones so that the paper can lay down flat. The layers will kill any little ones left. Yes, this means you do NOT have to pull all the weeds, just cover those guys up. Yay!!
Step 3: Trim the bed edges by trenching a grass edge or cutting the grass near a permanent edge.
I use a simple manual grass edger like this to cut a trench along grass edges, then pull out the sod pieces and compost them. Weed-whip grass against cement edging.
Step 4: Start layering the paper- your secret weapon.
Here are some points to remember when laying the paper:
- The thicker you layer the paper, the more weed-blocking it will do– I like to use 4 to 6 layers.
- Don’t use shiny, colored ads- just regular newsprint (which may have color, too- that is OK, just not the shiny paper). Note on the ink: the ink in newsprint is soy-based now, so it’s perfectly good to use in our organic landscapes like this.
- Overlap the edges of the papers a good inch or two- the idea is to not give an opening for the weeds!
- If there is wind, keep a hose nearby and spray the papers as you lay them to keep them stable before adding the mulch.
- If the ground is dry, water well first- like, you didn’t get to it earlier and it’s already July (not that I know about that, a-hem). Then spray the paper as well. The mulch will help hold in the moisture for that time of year.
- Lay the paper under soaker hoses, if you use them.
Step 5: Lastly, cover all the paper with mulch.
The more mulch you use, the better it will suppress weeds – a 2-inch layer is minimum.
This is where the magic happens and you go from weedy mess to clean and tidy – it’s such a great feeling of accomplishment – especially because you didn’t have to pull all.the.weeds. Better yet, it will continue to look great for months!
Newspaper and Mulch Q&A
What if I want to plant something later in the season?
It’s easy! Simply push aside the mulch where you want to plant, use a trowel to cut into the paper and bend it back (like a book cover). Dig a hole, place the plant in it and fill with dirt, tamp it down like you normally would.
Then replace the bent over paper (tearing if needed to fit around the new plant) and cover with the mounded mulch. No problem.
This isn’t as easy with cardboard, as I mentioned, so cardboard should be used in areas you won’t want to do any other planting.
Can you do this around trees?
Yes, this weed control method can be used around trees, too, instead of buying expensive “tree rings” or using plastic edging (than invariably gets nicked with the mower…). Here’s how to adapt this technique for trees:
- Lay a LOT of layers of paper (10-15 layers) right over the mown grass in a loose circle, tucking the sharp corners in on the outside as needed.
- Cover with 2-3 inches of mulch, but don’t mound it up to the trunk.
The tree pictured above was done last year, and you can see how it stayed grass-free all year. It needs another layer this spring to see it through the next year. Of course, you can give it a nice, cut edge if that’s something you like…I guess you can see which camp we fall in.
What do beds look like with wood chips?
Above is an example of my mom’s garden in early spring that we covered in cardboard and free tree timing wood chips (you can see more details on the clean up here, including how full of weeds it was!). This is an area that is constantly moist, so the regular compost didn’t work to keep the weeds down.
Even two years later, there were just a few weeds that needed to be pulled!
Do you have any more examples I can see?
Sure! Here are a few more areas around our previous home’s yard to hopefully inspire you:
Laying paper and mulch with soaker hose. You can see in the top left the area that still needs to be done, as well as the left side of the stepping stones.
I love how the new layer of paper and mulch makes the bed look so fresh again. See the dull color of last year’s mulch compared?
This clean and tidy look is what motivates me to get out there and get the beds cleaned up. That and the fact that I know if I get it done, I won’t have to do it again for another year!
I promise that if you use these tips for weed control, your gardening life will be changed forever just like mine was! Do let me know if you use this and how it works for you, too.
This article has been updated, it was originally published in March 2011.
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