It’s that time of the year when our lawns are still dormant, but cool seasonal weeds are beginning to pop up in the lawn and landscape. The 14th century reformer, Martin Luther, once said, “You can’t stop a bird from flying over (or landing on) your head, but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair.” While no lawn or garden will ever be 100% weed free, we can keep the weeds from taking over your lawn. Organic weed control involves a multitude of gardening techniques and it is quite possible to have a weed free lawn & garden and not use toxic synthetic chemicals.
Organic weed control is much more than killing weeds safely. It is first about growing healthy turf in fertile soil and minimizing weed pressure. Organic weed control is further achieved by using an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program to establish weed thresholds, prevent weeds, and eradicate as a last resort.
There is no quick fix, magic spray weed killer in organic lawn care. Organic weed control is more about the holistic organic management of the lawn and soil, which results in fewer weeds. The theory (and practice) being that a healthy lawn and soil will promote turf growth which will out-compete weeds.
The first thing to understand is that the health of the soil is the key point in creating a weed free lawn. Healthy soil yields a healthy lawn and landscaping that will resist weeds. Use organic fertilizers, compost and organic soil amendments to build the health of your soil. Sow grass seed in the spring to thicken up your lawn. Trim and thin out the canopy of your trees so that your lawn receives the proper amount of sunlight. (Remember, Bermuda grass needs a minimum of 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight every day to be thick and healthy. St. Augustine needs a minimum of 4 hours of direct sunlight.) Also, over watering or areas in your lawn where the water drains poorly and the soil stays moist will also cause your lawn to be thin and sickly. Our southern grasses must completely dry out between waterings in order for them to be green, lush and weed resistant.
Correct cultivation practices must be performed to reduce the opportunity for weeds to thrive. Weeds thrive on weak, stressed out turf and compacted, unhealthy soil. Eliminate those conditions and grass will win over weeds.
- Mow at the highest level possible to encourage a dense lush, lawn capable crowding out of weeds.
- Reduce soil compaction by aerating your lawn.
- Improve water and nutrient uptake by de-thatching with our microbial compost tea.
- Topdress with Spriggs Brothers organicly enriched compost and soil amendments.
- Re-seed bare spots or thin lawns this spring to avoid them from being taken over by weeds.
- Avoid scalping the lawn when mowing. Damaged crowns recover very slowly and give weeds an opportunity to establish.
- Water deeply and infrequently, maintain adequate soil moisture but do not over-water.
- Apply corn gluten meal, an organic pre-emergent, @ 20 lbs per 1,000 sq ft in your lawn in mid February and a second application 4 to 6 weeks later (March/April). An average size lawn will need 80 to 120 lbs of organic pre-emergent per application. Corn Gluten Meal suppresses seed germination and provides a quick green up for your lawn.
Weeding by Hand
Use a gardening tool to remove weeds from your lawn and landscape, or remove them by hand. Some people are choosing a more dramatic organic gardening measure to control their weed populations. In the West, hiring a herd of goats to eat weeds is quickly gaining popularity. Goats prefer to eat brush, leaves and twigs. They munch grass only as a last resort.
Now, I don’t think we need to resort to goats. But hiring your kids (or hiring Spriggs Brothers) to spend a few hours hand weeding will keep the weeds from taking over your lawn and landscaping. The best way to manually pull weeds is to grab the plant close to the ground, encircling its leaves with the fingers of one hand, using a small-bladed knife or sharp-edged weeding tool. Use it in the soil to slide under the roots of the weed to loosen them and help remove the plant from the soil. Be sure you get the roots of the weed. Throw the weeds into a compost pile or the trash. Do not leave the pulled weeds on the ground. Many weeds have seeds that will germinate and multiply your weed problem.
Spot spray the weeds with an organic post-emergent
Now, while the grass is dormant and the weeds are green, is the best time to spot spray the lawn with an organic herbicide. Acetic acid in vinegar has plant killing properties and can be used as a non-selective weed killer. Household vinegar does not get above 5% acetic acid and weeds would need repeated applications.
We recommend using a 10% vinegar based herbicide with orange oil, molasses and bio wash. Spraying a vinegar herbicide on dormant grass won’t harm your turf, but if you over seeded with winter rye or fescue, the vinegar will kill the cool season grass. You can buy the organic postemergent at the organic store. If you don’t know where to buy the post-emergent, we will sell you a gallon of our recipe, or you can hire us to spray your lawn for weeds.
Let nature burn out your weeds in your lawn
Henbit Annual Poe (Bluegrass) Many of your cool season weeds, but not all weeds, will die out when the temperatures get to be in the mid to upper 80 degree mark. Henbit, annual poe (bluegrass), and other cool season weeds will naturally die off in the warmer temperatures, especially if they get direct sunlight. When the temperature warms up, usually April/May, mow and bag your lawn to 3/4 an inch shorter than normal for two weeks in a row. Put down a high nitrogen organic fertilizer or corn gluten meal, and your weeds will naturally die and disappear.
We recommend that you diligently follow the first two steps in steps in February and March and then when the temperature warms up, nature will finish off the job. Using multiple methods is the key to successful weed control. Combining different strategies brings excellent results.
Control the weeds in your flowerbeds
A good 2 to 3 inch layer of shredded mulch is a great way to prevent weeds from taking root in your landscaping and gardens. Avoid pine bark or other mulch “chips”, as these will wash away after a heavy rain. After hand weeding the flowerbeds, put down a 1/8 inch layer of newspapers as an organic weed barrier. Wet it down so it won’t blow away. Then add a 2 to 3 inch layer of hardwood or cedar mulch. The newspaper will compost into the soil and along with the mulch will help build healthy soil. The newspapers will be an effective weed block for 6 months, or about the same time you need to replenish your mulch in the fall.
Organic Methods for Killing Weeds Safely
Kelly Burke is a professional turf manager for a manicured corporate campus in New England. He is accredited in organic land care and is a licensed pesticide applicator. He formerly managed the turfgrass as a golf course superintendent and has held several senior management positions at private country clubs overseeing high maintenance lawns.
Amanda Rose Newton holds degrees in Horticulture, Biochemistry, Entomology, and soon a PhD in STEM Education. She is a board-certified entomologist and volunteers for USAIDs Farmer to Farmer program. Currently, she is a professor of Horticulture, an Education Specialist, and pest specialist.
The Spruce / K. Dave
For years, industrially made weed killer has been a part of nearly everyone’s lawn care routine. Products commonly used have ranged from pre-emergent crabgrass control to weed-and-feed fertilizer-weedkiller combinations, to broadleaf weed killer containing 2, 4-D, to the ubiquitous and controversial glyphosate (Roundup)—killer of all plants. These commercial weed killers have become such a way of life that you can sometimes find entire neighborhoods smelling like 2,4-D after the lawn service has passed through.
But growing numbers of people no longer want to apply store-bought pesticides (which kill insects) or herbicides (which kill all plant life) to their lawns and gardens, out of growing awareness of the negative, and sometimes devastating, effects on the environment and on the health of people and animals. In response, laws and regulations are evolving to reflect public pressure and the inherent dangers of these chemicals. Progress on regulation is somewhat more advanced when it comes to insect-killing pesticides.
The proper study of the effects of plant-killing herbicides on the environment has been slower in the U.S., although other nations, especially Canada, have put forth restrictions on some of the herbicides used routinely in the U.S. So what is the most responsible way for an environmentally conscious homeowner to deal with lawn weeds?
Organic weed control is not about treating weeds so much as it is about preventing them. Healthy soil leads to a healthy lawn, which promotes all kinds of plant growth, including weeds. But when your plants are health, there will be less weed and pest pressure since weeds tend to pop up in opportunistic situations where they compete for nutrients. Healthy soil also helps keep root systems robust, which makes it harder for weeds to elbow their way in. It’s the healthy soil “microbiome” that enables this.
The presence of weeds usually indicates an underlying problem. They can be signifiers of a deficiency in the soil or other issues which, once solved, will ease weed pressure.
A thriving lawn is able to outcompete weeds and avoid weed infestations. When weeds do make themselves present, it becomes about tolerance and maintaining a manageable threshold. Then, if all else fails, a responsible homeowner treats the weeds with either an organic weed killer or by removing them by hand or with some other mechanical means. This philosophy is sometimes known as “integrated pest management” (IPM) and when practiced it is an effective way to deal with weeds and pests.
There are more organic products on the market than ever, and as demand increases so does the effort to find more organic alternatives to conventional weed control.
- Non-selective organic herbicides can contain such plant-derived concentrates as clove oil and citric acid or acetic acid (vinegar). They are nearly as effective as their store-bought counterparts, but they are organically derived and far less hazardous to people, pets, and the environment. Remember that such non-selective alternatives will kill all plants, even the grass plants in your lawn. But they can be an effective alternative to using glyphosate-based herbicides.
can be used as a pre-emergent herbicide for springtime crabgrass prevention, but it is required in such large amounts that it is not cost-effective or particularly good for the soil.
There are thus far no alternatives to selective weedkillers, such as the broadleaf weed killer 2,4-D, which is also found in most weed-and-feed type products. But organic science is progressing rapidly, and we may soon see an effective organic weed killer that selectively targets broadleaf weeds while leaving grass plants untouched.
Sometimes the old ways are the best. Some weed-killing recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, making possible to eradicate weeds without ever applying store-bought chemicals. Pay attention to ratios if you choose to make your own, as you have to get the balance of ingredients just right.
The most common homebrew using some combination of vinegar (1 gallon), salt (1 cup), and/or soap (1 tablespoon). There are numerous variations on the recipe but the resulting concoction is usually a pretty good non-selective weed killer. The acetic acid of the vinegar goes to work disrupting the cells of the plant while the salt desiccates the tissue and the soap aids in allowing the mixture to stick to the plant.
Its effectiveness can be improved with stronger vinegar concentrations—most store-bought vinegar is 5 percent acetic acid, but concentrations of up to 20 percent can be found. Plants with hairs or waxy coatings may not be completely eradicated by the vinegar concoction.
Another popular home remedy is Ultra Dawn dish soap mixed with water used as a moss killer. Simply mix 4 ounces of Ultra Dawn dish soap with 1 gallon of water in a sprayer and apply to the moss; it will turn brown and die within a week or so. Moss can be tricky to eliminate, and the conditions causing its presence need to be altered, but with an old recipe like dish soap and water, moss can be dealt with safely and cheaply.
The ubiquitous creeping Charlie (also known as creeping Jenny or ground ivy) is a stubborn perennial weed with a vining habit that can take over large areas of a lawn. You can control creeping Charlie using a mixture of water and ordinary household borax (sodium borate). First, mix up 10 ounces of borax with 4 ounces of warm water into a slurry, then dilute this into 2 1/2 gallons of water. Apply this to the area of the lawn plagued with creeping Charlie. This mixture will cover about 1,000 square feet, so you can reduce the proportions for smaller areas. Some people report that this is a solution that can harm your lawn if it is applied more than once every two or three years. And be aware that the solution can also kill garden plants, so be careful as you spray it. You should only be spot treating with this method.
One mechanical means of killing weeds is with a flame torch. A variety of long-handled tools are available that operate by means of a small propane tank that fuels a hot flame at the tip of the tool. By scorching lawn weeds with the flame, you effectively kill it, right down to the roots. You will need to be careful, however, since the flame will also kill any grass plants it touches. Some homeowners practice a similar technique using boiling water.
Herbicides kill all plants and not just weeds. Be careful in your application of an herbicide to only target the plant life you want to eliminate.
Removal by Hand
Although it is regarded as hard labor by some people, one of the most effective ways to control lawn weeds is a truly old-fashioned way—removing them by hand. This can be a lot of work if your lawn is plagued by many weeds, but after doing it steadily over time, you will gradually find that weed infestations diminish as you remove weeds before they can bloom and set seed. Pay particular attention to removing weeds before they flower. The most common example is dandelion, which can scatter thousands of seeds if the pretty yellow flowers are allowed to ripen, dry, and set seeds.
Perennial weeds will need to be removed right down to their roots—not plucked off at ground level. Fortunately, there are a number of weed forks or “weed popper” tools that make this work easier. Again, dandelion is a prime example of this kind of perennial weed—unless you remove its long taproot, a dandelion often regrows from the remaining root. Hand removal of lawn weeds is easiest if the lawn is well watered, so do this work immediately after a rainfall or after watering.
One advantage of systematically removing weeds by hand is that it provides a means of aerating the lawn. An hour or so of weeding after every lawn-mowing session will pockmark your yard with small holes where the weeds have been removed, providing the same benefit as running an aerator machine over the lawn. Weeding by hand keeps you in close contact with the health of your lawn, and those who do it regularly often find that it is not much of a burden. It can also be a good way to keep kids engaged in lawn work.
With the exception of weeding by hand, the truth is that most “green” organic weed killers currently available are not as effective as their chemical-based counterparts, but organic science driven by consumer demand could bring new, more effective alternatives. In exchange for a somewhat reduced effectiveness, organic solutions give you the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not polluting the environment or creating health risks to your family and neighbors. For many people, this is all the motivation required.
In the event that you do need to use traditional store-bought herbicide solutions, it’s common sense to apply them judiciously, by spot-treating weeds when you identify them rather than by dumping herbicides broadly over wide areas of your lawn. By applying such herbicides very carefully in a limited fashion, you will avoid large-scale pollution of your yard and neighborhood.
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Pesticides. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
Harman G, Khadka R, Doni F and Uphoff N (2020). Benefits to Plant Health and Productivity From Enhancing Plant Microbial Symbionts. Front. Plant Sci. 11:610065. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2020.610065