When nature is allowed to take over your garden space, it becomes a survival of the fittest contest for every plant. After just a few weeks of negligence in the summer, a garden bed can become overrun with fast-growing weeds.
These aggressive plants work by growing and spreading quickly. In doing so, they can suppress your vegetable plants in the process. There are many methods for weed control in the garden, but we prefer to use non-chemical techniques.
In this article, we will share a few options for how to keep weeds out of the garden. Some require a little more elbow grease than others, so start with the method that works best for your situation.
1. Use Mulch
When starting from scratch in a new garden bed, stay ahead of the weeds by mulching heavily around your crops. There are many different types of mulch that can be used to suppress weeds.
Types of Garden Mulch:
- Dead leaves. In the fall, chop up fallen leaves with your lawn mower and store them in a pile. This can be used as a mulch around your plants. Over time, the leaves will break down, turning into ‘leaf mold,’ a compost-like soil amendment full of nutrients.
- Straw. Straw is made up of dried stalks of cereal plants. We specifically recommend straw, not hay, for mulching the garden. This is because straw typically has less seeds that can germinate in your soil. Spread a nice, thick layer of straw all around your plants to keep weeds out of the unused garden soil. Straw can be bought in bales from livestock supply stores.
- Grass clippings. If you have a lawn, the grass clippings that you generate from mowing are a free mulching option. The clippings can be used fresh or dried as a mulch in the same way as straw.
- Black plastic. If you are looking to create a neat-and-tidy garden look, you can use black plastic mulch. While this looks somewhat unnatural (because it is), it is one of the easiest and most effective methods of mulching rows. They usually come in a large roll that is 4′ wide, and can be cut to the size of your garden. Be sure to cut holes wide enough around your transplants to allow water and air to reach the soil around each plant.
There are many additional benefits to mulching in the garden aside from weed suppression. One perk is an increased water retention in the soil beneath the mulching. The water near the surface of the soil will not evaporate as quickly and can be stored for use by your plants for longer.
Another benefit of mulching is temperature control. If you are expecting colder weather, a thick layer of mulch will help keep the root system at a consistent temperature. This is especially important for crops that are not cold-hardy (like peppers!).
2. Use a Weeding Hoe
We love this gardening tool for weed control. The simple tool has a long, wooden handle with a loosely-fitted, thin blade for cutting underneath weeds. The blade destroys weeds by slicing their root systems.
Due to high demand, these can be hard to find in stock at the local hardware stores. We were lucky enough to find one at Home Depot, but they are available online at Amazon for a similar price.
The key with this tool is to use it on young weeds, before they can grow to be large with thick roots. If you are trying to tackle massive, overgrow weeds, the weeding hoe (and your back) may not be up to the task. You just might end up with more blisters on your hands than it is worth.
In short, keep on top of weeding the garden with this slicing tool and your job will be a lot easier throughout the season!
3. Cover Soil With A Tarp
Without sunlight for photosynthesis, most weeds will die off quickly. You’ll know about this if you’ve ever left a kiddy pool on the lawn for a few days – the grass below turns yellow and begins to die in just a few days!
One of the simplest methods for killing existing weeds in the garden is to cover the area with a light-blocking tarp. A heavy-duty tarp will work best, but you can also use thick black plastic to block out all of the sun’s energy. This process takes a few weeks, so plan in advance. The best time is either late fall or early spring.
Note: This process is different from ‘solarizing’ a garden bed which uses clear plastic to allow sunlight to over-heat your soil to kill off weeds and bacteria.
How to kill weeds with a tarp:
- Cover the area with tarp. I recommend going a bit larger than the surface area of the garden bed to close off the edges completely. Otherwise, the weeds may emerge from the sides and stay alive with sunlight.
- Bury edges or secure with stakes. Once covered, dig a small trench around the edges of the tarp and bury it. You can also use garden pins or heavy rocks to secure the edges. This will prevent traveling root systems from entering or leaving the gardening area beneath the tarp.
- Weigh down with rocks or cinder blocks. To prevent heavy winds from blowing the tarp away, use heavy objects to keep it in place. The large surface area of a tarp is susceptible to catching the wind, so place rocks or cinder blocks around the edges and in the middle of the tarp.
- Leave covered for several weeks. After a few days, the weeds will begin to die, but to be sure that they are completely gone, I recommend leaving the tarp for 4-8 weeks. This allows enough time for the root systems to die and begin decomposing in the soil. Check on your soil weekly to monitor progress.
- Remove the tarp. Once the weeds are mostly gone and you are preparing to plant, remove the tarp and store it for a future use. Then, pull out any remaining weeds and roots (only the hardiest will have survived).
- Amend with compost and plant. After the weeds are gone, you should plant your garden right away. Keep the soil actively planted with the crops that you want in the garden before more unwanted seeds find their way to your soil. Be sure to mulch after planting to prevent new weeds from emerging!
It is best to do this when the garden is not in use, but can also be done during the summer if necessary. The process takes weeks to months, depending on how hardy the weeds are.
4. Plant More Crops
One of my favorite methods for suppressing weeds is to plant more crops in your garden beds. Improper plant spacing can cause wasted soil space, inviting weeds to take hold.
By spacing your veggies closer (but not too close), and interplanting smaller plants in open gaps, you’ll take up as much garden space as possible. Your plants will then shade the soil below, preventing the weeds from dominating.
Plus, using your soil is great for keeping the soil microbiome healthy. The best soils are those that have plants growing in them at all times. It helps prevent erosion and protects valuable worms and microorganisms.
5. Hand Pull Weeds Regularly
If you want to go old school, you can of course hand-weed the garden. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and enjoy spending time in the garden, this process can be therapeutic and rewarding.
Again, the key here will be to stay on top of the weed control. As soon as they are allowed to establish a strong room system, hand-weeding becomes a much more grueling chore.
Tip: Use a kneeling pad to save your knees during weeding.
Common Garden Weeds
- Crabgrass. Thrives in hot weather and can handle drought. Self-propagating and can spread via roots. Like any garden weeds, be sure to remove the entire root system to get rid of this!
- Foxtail. Clustering grass that grows quickly and can be very tall. Can be poisonous for pets and other wild animals.
- Purslane. Though it is edible and sometimes eaten in salads, purslane is an invasive weed that can take over the garden if left unchecked.
- Bluegrass. Another type of grass, annual bluegrass can grow fast in virtually any soil. As with any grass, it is essential to remove all of the roots and to get them out before they have a chance to establish.
- Velvetleaf. This annual weed can grow to be 8′ tall if left unchecked. It was originally native to southern Asia but is now commonly found across the globe.
- Dandelion. Commonly found in lawns and fields. However, before you go removing all your dandelions, consider the many benefits that they can bring to your lawn or garden. Dandelions feed early spring pollinators, help aerate compacted soil, and are actually quite pretty. The plant is also edible and is thought to have many health benefits.
I hope this article helps you learn how to keep weeds out of the garden. Weeding is a chore that can be largely avoided with good preparation. Let us know any other methods you have had success with – we like learning new ways to garden!
Sunday 26th of March 2023
I use newspapers, cardboard and old magazines separated into at least two or three pages per layer, placed on top of the soil and wet down. I also use the contents of my paper shredder on my garden, this acts like mulch and will also decompose into the soil. Pegging the corners of the paper or cardboard with wood or stones prevents the paper or board from blowing away in the wind. This material will compost into the soil, feeding as well as retaining the moisture and suppress the weeds. The material also allows water to filter down through and into the soil. While plastic tarpaulin and black plastic are great for suppressing weeds, they do not allow moisture through which can dry and damage soil and the beneficial bacteria within the soil. With the use of plastic weed barriers, you still need to water your plants regardless of whether it rains or not.
Sunday 26th of March 2023
First you say to leave the tarp on until the weeds are completely gone, then you say to take it off when they are mostly gone. Which is it? If you take it off too soon, you will just end up pulling weeds anyway and the battle goes on.
Sunday 24th of April 2022
Good article, but I'll throw my 2 cents in. I know a lot of folks use grass clippings as a mulch, and for sure it works. However, I try to grow organically, without man-made pesticides or fertilizers. If you have a lawn service that treats your yard and you use those treated grass clippings, you're introducing those chemicals to your growing environment, so I don't do it any more. Finally, I think you completely missed one no-brainier way to keep weeds from finding their way into your garden: Build raised beds. Obviously, if you have a very large garden (which is subjective), this might not be practical, but a lot of us only grow a couple dozen plants, so building a raised bed can make life a lot easier - long term. I never, repeat never have weed issues with my raised beds and I don't mulch. Full transparency, my garden is raised approx 30" off the ground, so that probably makes a big difference as well. Another option would be to use pots - which I also do. About half my plants (peppers & maters) are in 7 gallon fabric pots. Big fan, and guess what - NO WEEDS. :-]