What is a weed? Seems like a silly question but take a quick paradigm check with me and ask yourself, “What IS a weed?” I’ve known folks to grow 8 foot thistles because “they are pretty” and others to grow buttonweed “because it keep the ground moist.” Likewise, I’ve seen other folks pull healthy tomato plants out of the ground and hoe under squash plants. So, what is a weed?
A weed is defined as a “plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”  According to this definition, could a tomato plant be a weed? Sure. If it’s growing where we don’t want it to grow.
How do we manage weeds? If you ask my neighbor, he’d be sporting a 3 gallon container on his back with a darkish weak-tea-colored liquid sloshing about within as he meanders about his property squirting anything that even appeared green and growing where he did not feel it should grow. Occasionally he passes his little black wand and squirts “his” weeds migrating over to my property. I am not sure if he thinks he’s doing me a favor or if he feels that he should get the whole weed to make sure he kills it. Only, he just did this two weeks ago. Now his wife comes out; she’s “picking and pulling” the same weeds the husband just spayed. Lack of communication? Who knows? But as we drink our coffee on our patio that is framed by morning glories and dandelion, we both chuckle at the couple and are disgusted at the five to six gallons of poison being loosed each warm month upon soil so close to where we live and near where we grow our food.
Controlling weeds and managing weeds is not hard at all. Think about the time and effort necessary to mix herbicide, load it in a pressurizable tank and walk about a property spraying the contents all over. Friends, there is no “away” in this world. The components from the molecules of poison poured on your ground STAYS on your ground with the exception of what seeps into the ground down, down and down into the water source that we drink and bath from.
Let’s step back a bit and look at 8 ways we can control our weeds without poison or other toxins. There are methods I will not discuss here in this article such as salt solutions and vinegar solutions. There are so many articles written by so many knowledgeable bloggers that cover these methods. They are excellent articles and worth your time. I use salt solutions and vinegar solutions often. Both have a place in managing weeds on our homesteads.
In this article, we will discuss 8 method for managing weeds:
Fabric and Cardboard / Newspaper
Don’t Worry About It!
The power of the sun is almost unbelievable. The sun is basically a perpetual thermonuclear explosion. In the 1960s, the Russians detonated the Tsar Bomba, a thermonuclear bomb. It released about 2.1×1017 Joules of energy. What does, “2.1×1017 Joules of energy” mean? I don’t have a clue. Nonetheless, considering that the Tsar Bomba was 10 times more powerful that the bombs the US dropped in World War II, the Tsar Bomba was a pretty powerful device. In comparison, the sun provides the earth with 1.7×1017 Joules of energy…every second!  That’s a pretty powerful, controlled thermonuclear fireball we have (though ironic how something man-made kills and something God-made gives life).
Considering the power of the sun, we can harness that energy by “capturing” the heat it provides during the winter in a greenhouse and create an environment that, when competing with the cold of the outside, enhances plant growth. Likewise, we can harness that energy in the hot summer months by “capturing” the heat that is promoted by the hot of the outside air and kill plants.
You will need a large, thick and durable plastic sheet. The most common name used is “moisture barrier.” It’s the kind of plastic sold for covering the bare ground in crawl spaces in houses (my brethren south of Louisiana may not be aware of this product). I would suggest a 6 mil thickness or greater. To clarify, a mil is one-thousandth of an inch. A piece of paper is about 1 mil. A plastic bag from Wal-Mart is about 2.5 mils. You could even use the bags that mattresses are sold/stored in.
On a sunny and HOT day…just like the weeds love and grow the best…lay out the plastic over a large area you wish to kill the weeds and leave the plastic over the site for a few days. I have seen the outside temperature at around 95 degrees (35 celsius) and the temperatures under the plastic get over 150 degrees (65 celsius). That’s HOT.
Check the weather forecast and make sure you have about 4-5 days of full sun ahead of you. Lay out the plastic and secure the edges with rocks or logs or anything that will hold it down and both keep it from blowing away and to “hold” in the heat and moisture. Within a few hours, you will notice some condensation began to form under the plastic. Each hot day, the weeds and ground will “cook” and any living, short-rooted plant will die. The short-rooted plants will die just like they would die if you sprayed them with poison. Leave the plastic on the area for about 4-5 days and then remove the plastic.
Many of the seeds in the top inch or so of soil will die from the heat as well. Herbicide would not work on these little, protected capsules of life.
After a few days, the earth will “treat” the area as bare ground and the deep-rooted plants will try to ease up and start the process of repair. Remember we said the heat will kill all the short-rooted plants. The deep-rooted plants may appear to be dead. However, on the foliage above the ground and 1-2 inches of root have died. The deep-rooted plants didn’t completely die because their roots are sheltered in the deep, insulating soil…the tops and a few inches of root will die from the heat, but they will eventually pop back up. However, this holds true just like if they were sprayed with poison.
This usually only works for a wide area you’d like to defoliate. For smaller areas, we have used old windows that are laid flat on the ground and “toasted” those weeds all the while not hurting the plants we are cultivating.
We love cooking weeds with the heat of the sun. We also like cooking weeds with a propane torch. Yes, there is a bit of imagined violence when you have a roaring, fire-breathing torch and burning the weeds in an instant.
First and foremost, you are not charing the weeds to a crisp. Nope, this is a quick and easy method of weed control that is used in areas where 1) you won’t burn down your or your neighbor’s property and 2) the weeds are growing in an area away from plants you want to keep alive. If you are asking, “Well, then where in the heck can I use this method?” My answers are: 1) Road Sides 2) Rock or Gravel Driveways or Ditches. 3) Bare Ground. 4) Any where else where there is no other combustibles. Do not use this method on your woodchips; the woodchips may smolder and work like a fuse until the smoldering embers reach and area of combustible material that leads up like a fence post, your chicken coop or even your house. So, use this method at your own risk.
We have rock along our road frontage of our property. Weeds love to grow between the rocks and the shelter away from the lawn mower. We use the propane torch to “touch” the weeds and destroy the weeds’ cellular configuration. After a day or two, the weeds will look like they have been sprayed with poison. Then we follow up with a second burning that completely consumes the dried weed.
Here’s what happens: The heat from the fire “pops” the cells within the leaf of the weed. The leaf will be a normal, green color before the fire and then turn a deep green after being “touched” by the fire. You’ll see this especially in dandelion and thistle. A few hours later the leaf will hang and after a few days began to turn brown as the summer heat dries the leaf out. Deep-rooted weeds will likely return. You’ll see new growth at the tip of the charred plant when you come back to “finish it off.” Small weed-lings (seedlings) will just die. I suggest using this method in the appropriate areas about two or three times a month.
If you live in a dry area, call your local burn line for restrictions and always (always) have a water source ready. I would even suggest dousing the area you burned with water after you are finished. The plant water storing capacity will be minimal; the plant’s vascular system (if you want to call it that) is destroyed.
Fabric and Cardboard / Newspaper
Covering the weeds with a barrier such as cardboard or a garden fabric will definitely reduce the weeds. This is a simple concept but definitely not fool-proof. Weeds are persistent. They are ALWAYS trying to protect the bare earth and re-establish the loam for grasses then bushes then trees to return to the area. Cardboard will be sufficient for about 95% of your weed problem (in conjunction with the next method we’ll discuss). It’s that other 5% that really will cause you to want to pull your hair out just as much as the weeds.
We have a weed here in Southwestern Idaho that’s called the morning glory. No, not those pretty ones that grow on fences and brings in the humming birds. These are a nasty, deep and hardy rooted weed that is also called bindweed. It loves to climb up other plants and I’ve even seen it climb itself to support an almost 18” peak of weed so thick that the bindweed’s leaves in the interior of the self-braided pile are yellow after being self-deprived of sunlight.
Vining and other persistent weeds have enough energy stored in their amazing root system to wait out the cardboard. Once the cardboard rots, the weed will punch through and find the light of day. When these weeds are covered up with a garden fabric, they will “snake” about until they find the edge of the overlapped fabric or a small pinhole in the fabric and then find the sunlight.
When using cardboard, be sure to remove all the non-organic components. Cardboard is essentially just cellulose…plant material. The plastic tape that binds the boxes together will last forever where the cardboard box will be dissolved within a year or two. Regarding newspaper: use only the printed, matte finished newspaper and not the glossy Sunday advertisements. You will want to layer the cardboard about 3-4 folded and collapsed boxes thick and overlap the boxes like shingles on your roof.
After you lay them on the ground, some folks say wet the down until they stick like skin on the ground. Dry…wet…it don’t matter. Because you WILL mulch, right?
Above all weeding essentials, mulching is the A-#1 method to control weeds. No, not eliminate weeds. Mulching will both reduce the weeding you need to do and make the needed weeding easier. Let me take you down a short rabbit trail and let’s see if any lightbulbs go off. If you have a lawn, much (if not all or most) is some variation of grass. A short-rooted, herbaceous plant with a blade, crown and root structure that propagates either by seed, rhizome and/or stolon. What if you were to go out and deep-till a 10’x10’ area of lawn down to the dirt and leave it be? What would be the first thing that would pop up out of this bare ground? Grass? Nope! It’d be some sort of deep-rooted plant that most of us would call “a weed.”
The term “weed” is a general term that we discriminatorily “classify” a plant that lacks a certain kind of look or use. But that’s not really what a weed is. We leave grass in the lawn but “weed” grass out of the flower bed. Is grass a weed? Depends on where it’s growing and THAT’S the key to understanding weeds and why / how they grow.
The bare ground we tilled needs to be covered…and nature will start by calling upon seeds that have been dormant in the soil and by “capturing” seeds as they blow by. The dandelion, thistle and other miners of deep, subsoil nutrients will grow and grow quickly to cover the ground and began pulling nutrients from deep in the soil and “pulling” them up into their leaves. As the seasons change, the decaying leaves will build a moist loam that will enhance the soil structure and allow other plants such as grasses, move back in and take over “holding” onto the earth and the topsoil nutrients. We know this will happen yet many continue to leave bare earth between garden rows, garden beds and even flower beds. My neighbor across the street has big trees that are planted in a bordered-bed and the tree’s roots are all exposed on the ground. Where in nature to you see tree roots exposed like that?
Mulch is a method to, in essence, ensure the earth that this bit of ground is covered and A-OK. It’s like telling Mother Earth, “Nothing wrong here lady; I’ve got it covered.” Mulching shades the soil and keeps stored seeds in the soil from germinating. Mulching holds the moisture and allows the worm, nematode, fungal and bacterial population to proliferate. Mulching insulates the soil from the extreme heat and the bitter cold. If you’re not mulching, I guarantee you are either using poison, watering a ton and working WAY to hard.
Believe it or not but this is a bit rougher on the soil than burning the weeds and about as effective. The idea behind pouring boiling water on a weed is to “cook’ the weed and it’s roots. When a weed is cooked, then it’s “cooked.” However, boiling water is effective under the soil rather than above like fire from a propane torch. Boiling water will kill the soil life as well. This is only limited to the area the water is poured. Unlike poison, the area “heals” immediately. And, all the unfortunate little critters you just boiled to death (graphic, I know) will render their nutrients back into the soil.
We seldom use this method. It’s just too labor intensive and requires too much time. But, there is a period of time during the year where we use this method almost daily. Can you tell me what part of the year that would be? YEP! You got it!! Harvest time. Often during harvest we are canning and boiling water is a daily activity. Why waste it? Kill some weeds.
Keep in mind that this is a non-discriminatory method. We use it along the roadside and in gravel drives as well as on mulched pathways. Pouring boiling water on weeds in your lawn will KILL THE GRASS too. Pouring boiling water on weeds near you drive way may cause the concrete to crack. So, use this method wisely and don’t burn yourself.
Okay. The gardening culture now is the “no-till method’.” I TOTALLY support the no-till method. However, there are times where tilling is the way to go, period. Let me do some explaining here. There are two times when I feel tilling is okay. One: To mix in organic material in hard, packed soil to create a loamy bed that will never need tilling again. And two: to germinate then KILL weeds.
A few years ago I had a big time puncture weed problem. These are better known as “goat heads” around these parts (Southern Idaho). Goat heads are a tough and wicked weed. But, it does have a weakness. Once the seed is germinated and the seedling destroyed, the goat head problem minimizes. In a newly created double-reach row, we tilled the soil and watered the area down very well. In 3-4 days, the goat head seedlings came up like grass in a lawn. Then we tilled again and completely disrupted the seedling’s tiny and fragile root system.
We watered more. We still had quite a few goat heads pop up but only about 10% of what we had the first time. Then we tilled again. We then found that there were so few that we were able to just pick them out manually. That bed has been goat head-free for three seasons…well…because we pull the 2 or 3 that still pop up every now and again.
That initial tilling was important. Not only to work in that good organic material, but to control the weeds. After that initial tilling, the bed is worked on either side and no one steps in it. The soil can be dug up by hand if needed (but who wants all that dirt in their fingernails when a perfectly good trowel is handy?).
If you have hard-packed clay soil and want to create a nice loam, you’ll need to add some organic and non-organic components. Once you work the components into the garden bed and have germinated and killed the weed seeds, you will likely find your tiller collecting dust in your garage.
Pulling weeds is the age-old method that is tried and…well…not true every time. When I was a boy, my mother wanted a rose bed. So, she dug up a rectangle area on the side of the carport and put eight rose plants in a dress-right-dress fashion in that bed. No edging. No mulch. Nothing. Eight roses sitting on the west side of the house to bake in the afternoon sun.
I was “honored” as the weed puller for my mother’s rose bed. If you are reading a bit of resentment in my writing, then…well…let me move on… Yes, my job was to pull weed out of a packed, dry soil.
“You better get the root or the weed will just grow back,” she’d say. Truth be known, all I did was get the hoe and chop them down. The bed looked weed-free but still had more grass root than the lawn itself.
Today, I know better. Lots of organic material in the soil and plenty of mulch; when I pull a weed, the root tags along and the weed is left on the ground to dry and die. It’s that easy. However, I still see folks spray herbicide on their garden beds…on a single weed… All that trouble for single weed. Then I remember that rose bed and the lack of organic matter and mulch. Infrequent is the weed and when they do pop up, they are easy to yank out.
Don’t Worry About It!
Lastly, there’s always the option to let it go! Like Elsa sang, “Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore.”  Sometimes, I see a small weed or even an establish one and think, “Eh. It is what it is.”
A Facebook friend posted a photograph of a farmer’s field at sunset. It was a beautiful photo and that’s what caught my eye. Her remarks held my interest, “How do they do it? Beautiful, evenly-spaced rows and absolutely no weeds. I wish my garden looked like this.” You can picture that image, right? What you can’t see; that’s what worries me. A weed should have been somewhere in that huge field. But, it was weed-free. And you know why; I am sure.
Weeds are going to grow on your homestead. They are about as guaranteed as the rising sun or the moon’s cycles. Don’t stress over a few weeds. And sometimes it’s nice just to sit back with a coffee (in the morning) or a beer (in the evening) and just enjoy the garden…weeds and all.