Managing Weeds Without Herbicides

Field Bindweed requires persistent management if allowed to become established

Weeds. What would spring be without them? For some, weed-pulling is calming and meditative. For others, it is a loathsome task leading to feelings of anger, frustration, and orneriness. How can we maintain a weed-free garden and our mental health?

Like illness in the human body, weeds are often a sign that something has gone awry in the garden’s ecosystem. Herbicides can be tempting with their promises to be a “cure-all” for your weedy woes. Unfortunately, “weed-free gardens” are impossible, at least in the long term, and launching a chemical assault introduces toxins into your immediate surroundings. Instead, try turning those unwanted, irritating plants into an opportunity to learn about why they happen in the first place, and what you can do about it.

There are myriad factors leading to weeds, and many are caused by humans. Not what you wanted to hear? We would certainly prefer to blame nature, but the fact is, humans have transferred plants (and animals) around the globe for centuries, both intentionally and unintentionally. Seeds hitching a ride on boots or animal fodder, for example, were dropped off wherever people went. Upon reaching their destination, seeds either perish because the climate is unsuitable, or thrive because the climate is great and their natural enemies stayed home.

Although weeds settle in quickly when they find favorable conditions, there are steps you can take to reduce their numbers. The easiest, and most beneficial practice is to lay down a 3”-4” layer of mulch around your plants, preferably organic (e.g. bark). This prevents weeds from germinating in the first place and protects your soil (and desired plants) from heat and drought.

There will always be some weeds that manage to peek through mulch, so try to pull them before they go to seed and make little ones. Perennial weeds (those living three or more years), such as field bindweed, form extensive root systems that take hold quickly unless yanked out the minute their fearsome foliage appears. If you inherit a thick, hearty patch of established weeds, you will likely need more specific control strategies. The University of California Integrated Pest Management website is a good place to start: <ipm.ucanr.edu>

To prevent existing seeds from germinating, avoid tilling the soil, which brings them to the surface. Tilling is also damaging to soil health and should not be practiced on a regular basis. For large areas that are bare for part of the year, try growing cover crops, which are plants grown to benefit soil health and provide a living mulch that blocks weeds from growing. This is a great idea for dormant vegetable gardens in winter, when rains can provide the irrigation. More information on cover crops can be found at <sacmg.ucanr.edu/covercrops>

Many weeds start out their lives in nurseries as adorable little bundles of joy in a 4” container. After the initial fun, the “terrible twos” start up, and that precious purple morning glory vine is wreaking havoc on your neighbor’s fence three doors down, and that wisteria vine lifts your house off its foundations (true story, by the way). Be aware of what you are planting and whether you have the commitment for long-term management. Even though many nurseries have stopped growing some of the worst offendors, check out the California Invasive Plant Council’s website at <www.cal-ipc.org> to find out which species have the potential to escape into the wild and cause trouble in natural habitats.

Weeds are ubiquitous, and managing them is an ongoing task. If emotional trauma persists, remember that weeds were born the day a human looked at a poor, innocent plant and decided it needed to go away. They are illiterate organisms who have never read a gardening book, and have zero control over where their progeny lands. Avoiding the toxic effects of herbicides means creating an unfavorable environment for weeds, and, hopefully, less weed-pulling for you.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu.

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  • Blog Author

    Nadia Zane

    Nadia Zane is a UC Master Gardener, a landscape designer and Stockton native. She has a fondness for California native plants and sustainable landscaping, which she utilizes in her work for Native Beauty Garden Design. She is a member of the CA ... Read Full
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