If you want to spend less time weeding and more time enjoying the fruits of your labor, you’re in good company. Hard on your body and a massive investment in time, weeding is one of the most hated garden chores.
While some herbicides are effective, they can negatively impact you, your pets, and wildlife. You may be surprised at the efficacy of more earth-friendly techniques. Ready to free up your weekend afternoons? Try these ten tips to suppress and prevent weeds from taking over.
How Do I Keep a Weed-Free Garden?
Prevent weeds in your garden with methods like mulching, tarping, applying landscape fabric, cover cropping, and low or no-till practices.
The key to a weed-free garden is prevention. Before the weeds overgrow your plants and start spreading seeds, you can suppress their growth with organic methods, including:
- Mulch: Straw, leaves, and wood chips decompose slowly over time, providing long-term weed suppression and adding nutrients.
- Tarps: Large plastic tarps prevent sunlight and water from reaching weed seeds during fallow periods.
- Landscape Fabric: This woven agricultural textile keeps weeds away from perennial plants.
- Cover Cropping: Cover crops like rye, vetch, and oats cover the soil when it’s not growing crops.
- Companion Planting: Low-growing groundcover plants can spread over a bed surface to protect larger crops from weed competition.
- Low-Till and No-Till: Turning over the dirt unintentionally plants new weed seeds and causes perennial weeds to spread. Less tillage means fewer weeds germinating near the surface.
10 Ways to Prevent Weeds
There are many ways to kill and prevent weeds without using herbicides. If you want to spend less time weeding, take these steps in advance to suppress weeds and avoid them germinating in the first place.
Mulch not only suppresses weeds but also enriches the soil, moderates moisture, and keeps soil temperatures cooler.
The number one organic weed control method is mulch. In addition to suppressing weeds, mulch offers many extra benefits, like adding soil nutrients, enriching organic matter, and moderating soil moisture. Think of mulch as a protective layer on the bed surface so your soil doesn’t erode in the wind or get compacted by rainfall. As it blankets the ground, it prevents sunlight from reaching the weed seeds below, thus suppressing their growth.
Mulch is essential in hot climates. Studies show the temperature under mulched soil can be up to 40°F cooler than a bare soil bed. If you want to grow cool-weather crops like kale or beets through the summer, it helps to keep their roots cooler with mulch.
Depending on your crop, you want to use a different type of mulch. The best mulches include:
Shredded straw is perfect for mulching around vegetables. It is fluffy and easy to spread. Try to avoid hay, as it often has more weed seeds in it than a certified noxious weed seed-free straw does. Most straw contains a few seeds from the grain crop that the straw was produced from (usually wheat, barley, or rye), but typically no weed seeds.
Deciduous leaves naturally suppress weeds when layered 1-4” thick. Think of a tree with its fallen leaves like a blanket around its base.
Untreated chipped wood breaks down very slowly, creating longer-lasting weed suppression. While these can be used around vegetable crops as a thin layer (2-3″), many gardeners prefer to use a thick layer (4-6″) of wood chips around trees or woody perennials.
The fine texture of shredded bark is aesthetically pleasing in perennial beds and decomposes more quickly than wood chips. It’s also very cheap! One light caution here; while bark fines can be beautiful, they also may contain more slivers than larger wood chips do.
For a quick source of nitrogen and short-term weed prevention, spread grass clippings over the top of a bed. If possible, avoid grass clippings from a lawn that has started to go to seed; instead, use the clippings from a normal topping-off mowing that contain mostly the green blades. This avoids accidentally spreading grass seeds into your garden beds.
Pine needles make an incredibly useful free mulch source! While pine needles themselves are slightly acidic, they do not change the soil’s pH appreciably, meaning that you can use them around both regular and acid-loving plants alike. As with other mulches, these reduce weed competition and gradually decompose into the soil.
While many people believe that sawdust is acidic, this is a very common garden myth. Sawdust, like wood chip, is not acidic in most conditions. However, due to its very fine particulate size, it breaks down very rapidly when used as a mulch, so it doesn’t last very long.
The other thing it can do, again due to being a very fine particle size, is blend into the upper surface of the soil and lock up nitrogen. The wood dust needs nitrogen to initiate decomposition, so any sawdust mixed into the upper soil profile may steal the nitrogen temporarily to start its breakdown. To prevent that, blend the sawdust with something like alfalfa or feather meal that includes nitrogen before applying; this prevents the sawdust from robbing nitrogen from your soil.
Avoid using sawdust from treated wood in the garden as it contains additional compounds you may not want there.
No matter what mulch you choose, always check that it is untreated. Some brands add synthetic dyes and herbicides to mulches; if you’re uncertain what those chemicals will do, opting out of using them is safer.
Spread mulch in the spring, fall, or any time after a major weeding. It’s best to pull large weeds and hoe small ones before adding a layer of mulch. Avoid pressing the mulch too closely to the base of your crop, which could increase localized humidity and cause stem rot diseases. A 1-2” buffer around the crop base is typically enough to maintain adequate airflow.
Get ‘Em While They’re Young
Frequent, short weeding sessions are like preventive maintenance, and the cotyledon stage is the ideal time for weed removal.
Ironically enough, the best way to prevent weeds is to weed more frequently. If you can pull a few little weeds for 5-10 minutes a day, you’ll likely never have to spend hours sorting through giant weeds in search of your crops. Just like brushing your teeth or cleaning your room, short daily actions are the best way to prevent significant problems in the long run.
The best time to weed is during the cotyledon stage. This means weeds have only two juvenile leaf-like structures and have yet to form significant plant organs. Weeds are easiest to kill at this stage.
The best tools for early-stage weeding include:
If you accidentally let some weeds get too large and you don’t want to bend over, try a Garrett Wade Grandpa’s Weeder to pull them out from the root. The tool has gripping prongs to grasp and pull large weeds with deep taproots out of the soil.
Don’t Garden Naked!
Bare soil invites weed growth, so cover it with mulch, compost, tarps, cover crops, or other desired plants to work with nature.
Bare soil is an invitation for weeds to go wild in your garden. As water and sunshine reach the bare soil surface, weed seeds are waiting there, ready to germinate at any chance they get. The best gardeners never leave their soil “naked” to protect their valuable dirt and keep beds in constant production.
Whenever you aren’t using a bed, be sure to cover your soil with one of the following:
- Mulch, like straw or leaves
- Compost, 1-3” thick
- Tarp (more on this below)
- Cover crop
- Another crop
Fallow (unused) garden soil is a major source of weed pressure. If you leave soil exposed to the elements, you almost ask for weed troubles. Mother Nature naturally wants to protect her skin (the soil), so she will grow anything she can to cover the Earth. This is why you rarely see wild natural areas with bare soil. There is always a ground cover, grass, forb, flower, shrub, or tree covering the landscape.
Constant soil coverage means you’re working with nature rather than against it! When you pull out an old crop or prepare a new bed, think of a way to get it planted or covered ASAP.
Ground cover plants, which include perennial grasses, flowers, herbs, and ornamentals, prevent weed growth.
Low-growing plants are commonly referred to as ground cover. They ramble and vine close to the surface, suppressing weed growth with their tangled mats of roots and foliage. Because they rapidly grow to cover exposed soil, these plants leave little space for weeds to weasel their way in.
Groundcover comes in many forms, including:
- Perennial grasses
- Flowers like creeping phlox or sweet woodruff
- Low-growing herbs like creeping thyme
- Ornamentals like stonecrop
- Border landscaping beds
- English ivy ground cover beneath trees and shrubs
- Marshy, soft ground covers like Scotch moss
- Walkable pathway ground cover like creeping Jenny or carpet lamb’s ear
Most ground cover is used in perennial beds due to its vigorous nature. The only ground cover I can recommend for annual vegetable beds is creeping thyme because it is easy to remove and won’t overgrow your tender crops. Thanks to its strong smell and lovely little flowers, it also has companion plant benefits, like repelling pests and attracting beneficial insects.
Toss On a Tarp
Tarping, or occultation, involves covering your garden soil with a tarp to block sunlight, effectively smothering weeds.
Tarping, or occultation, is a simple yet highly effective form of weed management. Put a tarp over your garden soil and weigh it down with sandbags, bricks, or rocks. Avoid punching anything through the tarp, as this can rip it and reduce its lifespan, potentially leaving plastic shreds in your soil.
Tarps are smothering tools that prevent sunlight from reaching the weeds. Just like any plant, weeds need sunshine to photosynthesize and grow. When you effectively black out their light source, you deplete their root energy and kill them. Tarps are great for dealing with perennial weeds that you can’t seem to get rid of.
The cool thing about this method is you can toss a tarp over an area with intense grass or even 1-2 feet tall weeds like lamb’s quarter or dandelion! If the tarp is dark-colored and non-translucent, it will smother just about anything if you give it enough time.
Reduce Your Weed Seed Bank
If you want to take things to the next level when dealing with intense weed pressure, peel back the tarp every couple of weeks and water it. Leave it off for 1-2 days to germinate the millions of tiny weed seeds. Then, throw the tarp back on and weigh it down to smother those babies!
Over time, tarping reduces your weed seed bank. The weed seed bank is the reservoir of weed seeds hanging out in the upper inches of soil, waiting for their chance to germinate. If you kill them in advance, you will have far fewer issues when you plant the bed with crops.
However, you must be sure to use this practice combined with low-till or no-till methods. If you start tilling and turning over the dirt, lots of weeds from the lower layers will return to the surface, weed seeds on the surface get turned under and inadvertently planted, and you’ll have to restart the process from scratch.
Solarization involves using clear plastic over dry soil to harness the sun’s heat and kill weeds.
Another form of tarping is called solarization. This method uses a clear tarp or greenhouse plastic directly over the surface. However, you must be careful not to accidentally create a mini-greenhouse for your weeds. Ensure the soil below is as dry as possible so the sun’s intense heat will nuke the weeds through the plastic.
Beware that this method has some concerns about microplastics or plastic chemicals leaching into the soil. It is a good short-term solution, but you may not want to leave tarps for long periods in your garden.
Plant Cover Crops
Cover cropping is like a living mulch, outcompeting weeds with dense growth and adding organic matter to the soil.
Cover cropping is a method professional farmers use to cover and nurture soil when it’s not supporting an edible crop. Cover crops are dense sowings of grasses or legumes that naturally outcompete weeds and add biodegradable biomass. Some cover crops even double as pollinator patches.
Think of a cover crop as a living mulch. The actively growing roots support soil microorganisms, while the above-ground foliage covers and prevents weeds from sneaking in. A good stand is essential for properly outcompeting weeds, so be sure to directly sow the cover crop very densely and keep it watered during germination.
The hardest part of cover cropping is the termination point. You don’t want your cover crop to become a weedy nuisance! When it’s time to plant, it’s essential to kill the cover crop fully.
Standard termination methods include:
- Flail mowing
- Crimping (using a hand crimper tool)
- Tilling (incorporation into soil)
Plant cover crops in the fall after you remove your summer crops so they can protect the soil over the winter. Some cover crops are planted in the spring as part of a crop rotation or to nurture beds that aren’t used during the summer. Once you terminate the cover crop, you can leave the residues in place to act as a mulch, or you can harvest them and take them to your compost pile for an extra source of nutrient-rich biomass.
Use Denser Spacing
Intensive gardening involves planting crops closer together to reduce weed growth.
The empty spaces between crops are like welcome signs for weeds. Intensive gardening is a method for planting crops closer together so there is less space for weeds to take hold. Denser spacing means higher yields per square foot and potentially less weeding because the crops are more competitive.
Be careful with this method because you don’t want to overcrowd your plants. Insufficient plant spacing can lead to significant crop failures and disappointing yields. Experiment with a handful of crops and only remove a few inches at a time. For example, if your shishito pepper seed packet suggests 18-24” space between plants, experiment with 16” spacing and observe carefully how the plants perform.
High-quality soil is key to successful dense plantings. When your crops have less space above the surface, they need more room to root down into the soil and accumulate resources. If you want to experiment with intensive growing, amend generously with compost. Ensure your soil is very loamy and well-fertilized.
You can also try the square-foot gardening method to maximize space in a small garden.
Avoid Tillage (Especially Perennial Weeds)
Tillage can increase weed pressure and harm soil ecology, so consider adopting a no-till approach for healthier garden beds.
A rototiller used to be a gardener’s best friend, but modern weed science has taught us that tillage can increase weed pressure. It may seem like churning through the soil would kill all the weeds, but this effect only lasts briefly.
No-till gardening and farming is becoming popular because it improves soil health and can help reduce the weed seed bank. New weed seeds are less likely to come to the surface and germinate by leaving the lower layers intact.
You must avoid tillage if you have aggressive perennial weeds like bindweed, dandelion, quack grass, or thistles. These weeds tend to be spread by rhizomes or runners. This means that every little chunk of the stem or root chopped up by a tiller can grow into an entirely new plant.
Tillage also has negative impacts on soil ecology. Tilling harms all the earthworms, beneficial fungal strands, and helpful bacteria. If you must till, focus only on the upper few inches of soil. The less you disturb your soil ecosystem, the healthier your garden beds will be!
Use Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is a synthetic weed-suppressing textile that is easy to install, similar to a tarp.
Landscape fabric is a synthetic woven agricultural textile that provides long-term weed suppression in perennial beds. It is great for pathways, walkways, and berry crops. It works like a tarp, smothering weeds and preventing them from bursting through to compete with your crops. It is like a synthetic mulch.
Landscape fabric is easy to install with staples that punch through the material and secure it. You must be careful not to rip the fabric, or it will degrade more quickly. Most landscape fabrics are only designed to last 2-5 years, but some thicker materials are available for a higher price tag.
Sometimes grass or other weeds can grow over the top of landscape fabric, so keeping the surface free of soil or debris as much as possible is essential. Because landscape fabric increases soil warmth, it’s excellent for cold climates but not ideal for hotter areas.
Use Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation delivers water directly to plant roots, reducing weed growth in empty spaces.
Overhead sprinkler watering is a significant cause of weedy gardens. When water is sprayed over the top of a large area, any irrigated bare soil becomes a breeding ground for weeds. Drip irrigation ensures that water is delivered directly to the root zone of your crops rather than to the weeds.
This system is commonly used in commercial farming to save on water and reduce weed pressure. The long drip tapes have little slits or emitters where water can come out directly at the base of your desired plant. Rather than soaking an entire bed, drip irrigation keeps the empty spaces dry, which makes it harder for weeds to grow there.
In this video, Kevin explains a simple way to set up drip irrigation in your raised beds and enjoy the abundance of benefits from this unique watering system:
Weeding is the bane of any gardener’s existence. If you want to do it less, prevent weeds in every way possible. You can suppress them by adopting no-till practices and mulching over your beds. You can ensure your desired plants outcompete weeds by maintaining a healthy soil ecology, growing cover crops, and planting large, healthy transplants. You can also smother weeds with tarps, mulches, and landscape fabrics that prevent light from reaching them.
The most effective organic weed management strategy uses a combination of methods to add extra layers of weed insurance! When in doubt, get out your hand tools and get to the root of the issue first, then take steps to prevent it.