Learn how to keep weeds out of your garden with these tried and true simple techniques for both vegetable gardens and flower beds. Plus find out the ways to control weeds that DON'T work.
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One of the guiding principles to everything I share on this site is "how easy can I make this?"
How easy can I make preserving food? This easy.
How easy can I make that recipe? SO many - but these pantry basics top the list.
How easy can I break down vegetable gardening? No back-breaking work in these steps.
This is just how I think and how many others think, too - we want to do the best work in the least amount of time using just the energy we need. Some may think "lazy" when they hear this but I like to think it's smart - it's the way we can prioritize and get the things done that are important to us.
And weeding was one of the first things I applied this "easy way" concept to when I first started gardening because I wasn't interested in gardening like my parents and grandparents did.
You know, the type of weeding where you can barely see the plants for the weeds (you mean there's lettuce in there?) and you need special hoes and tools because there's so many weeds.
So I read and researched and tried different things and along the way I discovered a collection of techniques that can be used to minimize weeding almost to a point of growing things weed-free.
Can you have a weed free garden?
No. Sadly, there are always weeds.
They blow in from the surrounding fields and yards and are hardy enough to root in the inhospitable gravel.
Since there will always be weeds along fence lines, in the gravel driveway and the ditches, we'll do our best to make sure the weeds don't take over our flower beds and vegetable garden where they can do the most damage (taking nutrients and sun from the things we've planted).
Organic vs. Non-Organic
I am an organic gardener. I don't use commercial sprays for bugs or weeds anywhere near my vegetables and flowers or in our grass/pasture.
This homemade bug repellent HAS worked for insects, thankfully, but I've yet to find any equivalent for weeds.
So here's my confession: we use commercial herbicides once a year on the invasive non-native blackberries that carry a disease that can travel to my garden berries.
We've tried everything - everything - and there is nothing else that works on this terrible PNW scourge. If you let them grow, they will form an impenetrable thicket choking out any native plants, with 20-30 foot long vines that will end up everywhere.
It's our last defense and we use it carefully and sparingly.
So let's talk about the organic weeding strategies you read and hear about - are there any that actually work?
Yes - and I've used some successfully for decades!
But first let's look at the things that don't work for most people.
Organic weeding techniques that DON'T work
- Homemade herbicide sprays - including the salt-vinegar-dish-soap mix and the "commercial grade" vinegar that's near impossible to find and questionable about what it does to the ground water. They kill only the leaves leaving the roots to grow again - in my experience within just a few days. AND you wouldn't want these anywhere near areas you have plants that you want to grow or would like to in the future, as they change the chemical makeup of the soil. I go into lots more "natural" mixes and what they do in this article on how to kill weeds without spraying.
- Boiling water - again, this only kills the leaves and sometimes only wilts the leaves for a time (which happened to some dandelions in our gravel drive - they were back within a day!).
- Pulling out every weed by hand - it may work, technically, but it's impossible to accomplish if you have any yard bigger than a small area you can completely cover. It irritates me when I see this on "how to kill weed" lists since it doesn't really take real life into account. Of course, I DO pull weeds - every gardener does - but I'm not having to rely on that for my main weeding method, thankfully!
- Leaving all your weeds because they are "nature" - or just eating them - ugh, again, not a real world solution at all. The nature of weeds is that they take over and don't allow the things you want to grow to flourish. And we live on 3 acres - there's no way we could eat all our weeds even if I wanted to (beside which not all are edible).
Simple techniques to keep weeds out of your garden that DO work
You can decrease the number of weeds - and the time you spend weeding - with some basic principles to think about when planning and prepping a garden as well as tasks to do regularly.
Weeding the easy way
These techniques can be applied into three areas:
- General weed control strategies for all areas of your yard and garden.
- Specific methods to prevent weeds in vegetable gardens.
- Specific methods to control weeds in flower beds.
General weed control strategies that work for all areas
- Disturb the soil as little as possible - layer products like paper and mulch, don't bother with random hoeing that takes only the top of the plant and disturbs soil, and don't use a tiller. This has been the #1 way I've reduced the weeds in my yard. Some weed seeds can live for years in the ground just waiting for sunlight to grow again - don't give them that opportunity.
- Use black plastic to kill weeds and grass in areas to be planted later - this works for weedy hillsides, vegetable beds in winter, and future flower beds. It also works for areas you want to reseed with grass - no need for tons of herbicides to kill the existing grass. Here's a video we made about using plastic to kill weeds in tough areas.
- Get the roots of perennial weeds when you do pull weeds and before covering the area.
- Cover small annual weeds - there's no need to pull when you can cover - this is best done in early spring with a paper/mulch layer.
- Use cardboard and/or newspaper on all bare areas for weed killing and suppression. This video shows you exacting how to do it.
- Add mulch to every bare area - use compost, straw, pine needles, wood chips, bark chips, rock or whatever is easy to get in your area. You'll need to think about your climate and any micro climates - for example, areas watered overhead don't do well with compost as a mulch since it will grow weeds more easily so bark chips would be better. Here's a guide to using mulch in the garden.
- Water only planted areas, not bare areas - and along with that reduce the number of areas not planted. Use soaker hoses or drip systems in beds and make sure any sprinklers used don't water paths, driveways, or bare patches.
A note on landscape fabric: I don't like it because I have had to remove weed-infested fabric from two different gardens (NOT an easy job, especially if it's covered by rocks). The soil under the fabric was in terrible shape since no mulch or soil was added for years (decades in one case) so it's not a good idea for areas with any plants you want to flourish. However, I do know there are instances when it may be a good solution, especially for permanent paths and areas without plantings. In these cases get the highest quality, thickest fabric you can and keep it covered with some type of mulch to prevent it breaking down. Remove any weeds that may blow in or their roots will take hold as the fabric ages and you will have a mess to deal with.
How to prevent weeds in vegetable gardens
- Don't till - I'm a big fan of raised beds and permanent paths. I don't own a tiller and even when creating new beds I don't till, I simply layer cardboard, compost and soil. I've read that tilling can disrupt the balance in the soil of organisms and I know that it brings weed seeds to the surface. (And frankly, the thought wrestling with and maintaining a tiller is just too much work.)
- Design the vegetable garden for easy care - here are the steps to think about when designing a low-maintenance garden. Taking the time to plan this from the beginning (vs. just randomly tilling a patch of grass in the spring and planting) will go a LONG way to making your weeding life easier.
- Use raised beds and permanent paths - one of the steps in the easy care garden is to use raised beds to grow your vegetables with permanent paths that get walked on and compacted and never watered. There are many kinds of raised beds you can use, from basic mounded soil edges to wood or rock sides. No matter what you choose, this is your best way to minimizing weeding.
- Use soaker hoses or drip systems - water just the roots of the vegetables with one of these methods - and not paths or the veggie leaves. Here's a simple DIY watering system you can set up with a timer so it is all automatic (the best thing we've every done in the garden).
- Cover areas not planted - use a mulch to cover the areas between plants. I like to use straw and you can even lay newspaper first to further discourage weeds in areas not actively growing.
- Mulch before planting - warm the soil and kill any winter-born weeds in the late winter or early spring with a black plastic mulch, shown here in this article on how to plant using the no-till, no-dig method. (And also in the video on how to kill weeds in tough areas.)
Vegetable Garden in Midsummer Example
To illustrate the benefits of no-till and layering compost in vegetable beds, here are a couple of examples from our previous garden in midsummer:
These beds were about 9 feet by 20 feet and were created by layering cardboard, soil, and a barnyard compost. I then added a 2-inch layer of barnyard compost every year like I shared in the no-till article.
Having trouble finding the weeds?
That's because there's one - in the lower right of the photo on the edge of the bed. Easy to pull in about two seconds.
Contrast that with the weed-filled tilled beds I grew up seeing - sometimes you could barely see the corn when it was young for the weeds!
The other large raised beds were the same - the bean patch above has a lot of compost covered ground exposed, but the weeds are nonexistent.
Maybe you think I'd already weeded previously? I actually never weeded these beds pictured other than a pull here and there over the season (after raking up the dead weeds under the black plastic I put down in the winter).
It's easier to imagine that raised beds with higher sides (like the ones you can see near the corn beds) are pretty weed-free, but I want to show that larger beds can be grown almost weed-free, too. Here's exactly how to plant your corn weed-free.
This is why I plant no-till and no-dig each year. Ninety degree heat and weeding? No thank you.
How to control weeds in flower beds
Many of the techniques are the same for flower beds - layer mulches, water at the base and don't dig.
Here are a few specific articles that share more on how to do this in flower beds:
- 8 steps to a new shrub and flower bed - no need for back-breaking digging (other than the holes for the plants), hand watering or fertilizing.
- 5 steps to organic weed control in flower beds - this was the reason I could grow so many plants in our cottage garden - do this once a year and all that's left is to water and cut flowers - if you use compost it's also your yearly fertilizer!
- Mulch with paper and compost video shows exactly how to do this in shrub and perennial borders.
- Spring garden clean up and weeding tips - shares the steps to take once your bed is established and the impact that layering mulch makes.
I hope you are encouraged by the things you can do to minimize weeds in your yard and garden that don't resort to commercial sprays - and will make your gardening life easier and more enjoyable.
Let's spend our time taking care of the plants, harvesting, and enjoying our gardens and not just weeding!