Tackling garden weeds without chemicals

Weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place, but as they can compete with your crops for water, space, sunlight and nutrients, you’ll want to keep these in check in your garden. Here are our top tips for keeping weeds in check – without the use of chemicals that can harm wildlife and impact soil fertility.

  1. Weed early, weed often 

Nip weeds in the bud before they get too established, and certainly before they form seeds. You can use a hoe to get rid of young weeds. There are different types of hoe – see this video for how to use a dutch hoe. For effective hoeing, keep the hoe sharp and use it when soil is damp but not wet.

Larger weeds may need pulling up by hand. Some invasive weeds can regrow even from a small part of the stem or root, so it’s important to pull the whole plant out. If the plant is difficult to get out, sticking a fork in the soil and wiggling it about will help!

  1. Rotate your crops

Crop rotation means growing specific families of plants in different parts of the plot each year. This is a key way to prevent pests, diseases and weeds. Check out this short guide to crop rotation.  

  1. Use organic mulches

Put materials like compost, shredded leaves, straw or a layer of cardboard or newspaper on the soil. These will control weeds (by blocking out sunlight), help retain moisture, and add organic matter to the soil as they break down. You’ll want at least a 10-15cm-thick layer for them to be effective. A word of warning: these should be avoided if slugs and snails are a big problem in your garden, as they provide an ideal habitat for them! 

  1. Use plastic or fabric mulch

An alternative to organic mulch is to cover the soil with a plastic or fabric mulch. Black polythene (plastic) can be used on empty beds or you can cut holes into it and plant into these. No rain will pass through, so you’ll want to ensure holes are big enough for watering by hand. If you want a plastic-free option, you can use biodegradable landscape fabric. 

  1. Undersow

Undersowing is a technique whereby a small, fast-growing crop (e.g. lettuce) is planted underneath the main crop (e.g. cabbage). The undersown crop helps prevent weeds by competing with them for sunlight, space, water and nutrients. This is also an excellent way to make the most of a small space!

  1. Use cover crops / green manures

If beds will be left empty for a while (e.g. over winter), planting a cover crop can build fertility in the soil, prevent erosion, and prevent weeds from taking over. More on cover crops here.

  1. Water your plants, not your weeds

When watering your plants, try to avoid also watering your weeds! You might want to avoid sprinklers for this reason, as they water a large area, including unplanted soil. 

A note on disposing weeds

Weeds and garden waste contain valuable nutrients. By putting them in your compost pile (instead of in the bin), these nutrients will remain in your garden. However, weeds such as bindweed and couch grass can regrow from roots and stems and should not go in your compost bin or pile. Weed seeds can grow in the compost, so if your weeds have formed seeds, you can remove the part with seeds on and compost the rest. If you have a hotbin composter, you can put invasive weeds and weed seeds in there, as the high temperatures should kill them off. Likewise, they can be ‘drowned’ in a bucket of water for a few weeks and then chucked them on the compost pile. 
To find out how to get started with home composting, check out our short guide.

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