More than one way to minimize those summer weed issues

Mulching the garden with straw, compost, leaf mold, or other organic matter is a great way to minimize summer weed issues.
Mulching the garden with straw, compost, leaf mold, or other organic matter is a great way to minimize summer weed issues.
Photo by Jessica Walliser
Jessica Walliser
| Friday, June 28, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

As summer progresses, many gardens become overrun with weeds. Battling weeds organically is easier and less time-consuming than you may think. With a little planning and a few spare minutes a week, it is possible to control weeds effectively without turning to chemical weed-killers.

As with many things organic, the key is in both the strategy and the timing. In the past, regular tilling was the most common option for controlling weeds in the vegetable garden, but research suggests this technique disrupts beneficial soil life and breaks down the good soil structure most veggie gardeners work so hard to create. A better plan: Fight weeds in all parts of the garden with forethought.

The best weed control happens before the weeds actually arrive. Mulch all garden areas by applying a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter on the soil surface in mid-spring, before weed seeds have a chance to germinate. If you haven't gotten to it yet, it's not too late to put mulch down under shrubs, around trees and between veggie rows. Straw, hay, chopped leaves, shredded hardwood, grass clippings, mushroom manure, compost and even newspaper or corrugated cardboard will form a protective barrier over the soil and prevent weed-seed emergence. Lay mulch between rows and around plants as carefully as possible, being sure to keep it at least 3 inches away from the base of any plant.

Another option is to use an organic pre-emergent herbicide. These products are made from corn gluten, a byproduct of the corn-processing industry. They work by killing the initial root that emerges from a seed, thereby preventing them from germinating. Corn gluten, which is 90 percent effective after two years' use, has become a terrific alternative to conventional weed n' feeds for the lawn and perennial border. It works just as well between rows of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Remember, though, that corn gluten will prevent all seeds from germinating, so don't use it where you plan to grow crops from seed in the following six to eight weeks.

For established weeds, you can hand-weed, hoe them out, or turn to fire. Hand-weeding is excellent therapy in my book. I enjoy weeding (I know, I know, you're going to invite me over to pull weeds at your place, aren't you?). It is quiet time in the garden, free from the interruptions of technology and telephones. If you don't like to hand-weed and can't bring yourself to do it on a regular basis, at least be sure to never let any weeds go to seed, because, if you do, where you once had one weed, you're sure to have a lot more.

For a turbo-charged weeding experience, invest in a flame weeder. Flame weeders use ignited propane to torch weeds by heating plant tissue to temperatures high enough to blow out cell walls. The flame they throw can be adjusted to quite a narrow range, so you can use them between crop rows and under fence lines with a little care. Though they don't completely kill the root of many of the tougher perennial weeds, they sure do knock them back. Flaming the weeds will prevent them from flowering and setting seed, and it works especially great for weeds growing in driveway and sidewalk cracks.

Another organic alternative for getting rid of established weeds are the many clove oil-, acetic acid-, and iron-based organic herbicides on today's market. These herbicides are non-selective, meaning they will kill any foliage they contact and, with perennial weeds, a repeat application may be necessary. They readily control plantain, dandelion, morning glory (field bindweed), chickweed, thistles and lots more.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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