Wildlife Gardening - Natural 'Weed' Control
Created | Updated Sep 10, 2013
Introduction | Mammals and Birds | Woodland Habitat
Insects, Amphibians and Reptiles | Wildflower Meadow | Water Habitat
Natural Slug Control | Natural Weed Control | The Winter Border
The definition of a weed is 'any plant growing in the wrong place'. This means anything from a tiny hairy bittercress seedling to a huge sycamore tree. It also covers some of the more invasive 'garden' plants, such as snow-in-summer, Cerastium tomentosum, which will take over a rock garden if not controlled.
- Alan Titchmarsh
For the purposes of this entry, we will agree with Alan Titchmarsh and consider 'weed' to mean any plant that you are trying to get rid of, or prevent from growing in the first place.
The easiest way to control weeds is to have a very relaxed view of what grows in your garden. One Researcher says:
This is why I never have weeds in my garden. You have to remove them. I just have plants that I didn't grow that occasionally I pull up to put something I did grow in its place.
This attitude means that you never have to worry about weeding. However, most gardeners at one time or another need to deal with them. This entry gives a few hints and tips on how best to tackle the (often thorny) problem.
Kill & Cure
Cut the Whole Plant Down
The simplest and most common way to get rid of weeds is to just cut them down regularly until they stop growing. It can take many years to exhaust the root's food supply in this way.
Pick the Leaves Off One by One
The very best way, that will kill the plant the quickest but is very labour intensive, is to pull the leaves off the stems every time they grow, from spring to autumn. By picking the leaves you are preventing the plant from making any food, so it will use up the energy it does have stored to grow more leaves to make more food, only to have you pick them all off again before it has a chance. Do it enough times and the plant will die. This is one of the best ways to get rid of bindweed.
You can also pull the flowers off if the plant has managed to produce any; it works because by picking the flowers you will prevent the plant from seeding more plants, and will make the plant use up more energy producing new ones. Although this is tedious and takes a while, it really does work.
I'm desperate to grow more dandelions to supplement my rabbits' diet, but because I keep picking the leaves off and flowers off to feed them, they keep dying!
Plants such as nettles and dandelions can be persistent blighters, but this method will wear them down eventually. Never try to dig up dandelions, because usually the root breaks off, and then regrows. Even the tiniest bit that you don't spot breaking off will do it, so you've wasted your time.
If you have a large area of weeds, you can kill them by blocking out sunlight altogether. If you can get hold of some old carpet, that's ideal (although there may be contaminants in the carpet, this is not too much of a worry for the home gardener), then just cover the area you want to clear with it. It's heavy enough not to blow away or need weighing down, (although it doesn't look very attractive) so put down as much as you can.
Leave it down for a good few months, then when you pick it up don't dig. There will be lots of creepy crawlies under the carpet, and they'll be clearing up all your now dead weeds, so you don't want to start exposing any seeds the weeds had dropped by digging them up and start it all over again. So leave the slugs, woodlice and others to do their work for a while, and then clear the dead plants away from the top. Or you can just leave them there to give the ground some compost.
If you haven't got any carpet, then anything that blocks the sunlight will do, even black binbags. You can buy plastic mulch; if you use this to cover and kill the weeds, it has the benefit that you don't then need to remove it and add another mulch later. Do remember to water the ground thoroughly before you lay it down, otherwise you are locking the water out, not locking water in.
Give the ground a good soaking with water, then mulch it with your choice of mulch. When you want to plant something, just clear a little space in the mulch and pop your plant in, packing the mulch back round the plant.
Prevention is better than cure, so here are some tips to prevent weeds from getting started in your garden.
Change Your Thinking
To make life easier, why not really think about the plants that you currently consider weeds. Could they be of use to you in some way? If, for instance, you have pet rabbits, there are many 'weeds' that you can use to supplement their diet. If you are constantly 'harvesting' plants, they won't have time to become such a pest.
Often plants that we think of as weeds have medicinal uses, or are edible. Don't knock it until you've tried it.
If you are constantly digging your garden up, you are exposing new seeds to the top of the soil where they sprout. Stop digging immediately. If you need to put plants in, just dig a hole big enough for a bit of compost and the plant itself and try not to disturb anything else.
If you are a vegetable gardener and need to sow seeds then you will need to dig over the soil a bit more, but do the best you can not to disturb any more than you need. Seeds manage perfectly well in the wild without constant digging over.
Be very careful if you have your own compost heap. Unless you are very diligent with your own heap, home compost rarely gets hot enough to kill weed seeds. This means that if you put weeds that have started producing seeds on your compost heap, you could be spreading those seeds all over your garden. It's best to save those sorts of weeds for any council compost collections, as their heaps will be more likely to kill seeds. Alternatively, seed-producing perennial plants can be used to make liquid compost.
If All Else Fails
Weedkiller is out of place in the natural or wildlife garden, but sometimes when you're at the end of your tether with persistent weeds, or you don't have time to starve them to death, then you might try weedkiller.
If the weeds are still setting seed, then killing off the plants and roots won't really help, as there will be a new crop in the not too distant future. If you use the weedkiller at any time other than spring, it often doesn't work very well.
Setting fire to your back garden is a quick way to clear it. However, this is extremely dangerous and is not recommended.
'Weed wands' are available, which are a blowtorch for your garden. Usually these are used to burn plants that are growing through gravel or patios, rather than large amounts in the borders. They look similar to a walking stick with a crook handle, but they have a small gas canister on the crook end, and a flame on the other. Weed wands are better for annual weeds and are best used on young rather than older weeds.
Leave it for some other sap to deal with.