10 March 2012

How to get rid of pernicious weeds without chemicals

Rhubarb, strawberries (honestly), creeping buttercup & scutch grass
A few people have asked me recently what they should be doing in the veg garden right now.

It's still too early to sow most vegetables outside but we've had a few mild days over the past week, making ideal conditions to get out and prepare the beds for the growing season to come. Part of soil preparation is weeding and knowing how to weed effectively is essential if you want to keep on top of them.

It seems obvious now I'm used to getting down and dirty in my garden, but it's not that many years ago that I looked out at the wilderness and asked myself how on earth I was going to tackle all of those weeds.

When you're gardening without chemicals, and in particular trying to rid the garden of the weeds, there's no getting away from the fact that it takes a bit more effort and hard work. Long term however it's well worth the effort.  Sandro Cafolla of Wildflowers.ie explains it very well here why Roundup isn't the long term solution to weeds.

So without reaching for the chemicals what are the options to us smaller scale gardeners? Some people like to pour distilled vinegar onto their weeds, or burning them off with a garden flame gun. If you have animals that graze they're great for clearing weeds in orchards or relatively new to the market here is Irish Organic Weed killer, but in the vegetable patch where we're growing food to eat, my preferred method is settling down with my favourite tool and hand weeding.

I find the hardest part of weeding is getting over the psychological block of actually starting the job - once started it can be very therapeutic. Listening to the birds, being outside in the fresh air, stopping for a cup of tea now and again, relaxing and admiring the handiwork can be a peaceful and immensely rewarding time.

Now an essential part of my gardening kit - a pink kneeling mat!
This particular bed had been overrun with creeping buttercup as can be seen above, and as pretty as buttercups are when in flower, they've been competing with space and nutrients in my strawberry patch so their days were numbered.

A good hand tool is essential for this kind of weeding and having survived for a few years with my cheap double headed hoe, I've managed to break two in the last couple of weeks so will shortly be investing in a new one like this Chillington Double Headed Hoe I spotted recently.

I've also been using old compost bags to keep the knees from getting cold but this year treated myself to a Burgon & Ball Kneelo Kneeling Pad that I adore - it's warm, comfy and moulds to the knees (showing my age). So with those couple of items and a pair of leather gloves (nettles, blackthorn suckers and creeping thistle also hang out in this bed so are essential), that's all the equipment needed, well that and a bucket or a wheelbarrow to collect the weeds in.

Most of the weeds I've mentioned are known as *pernicious perennials - meaning plants that are destructive to other plants. They should be eliminated completely if possible and the only way to do that without chemicals is to dig out all the roots, or cover the area with black plastic for a year or more, or if you have a large area (like the four hectares mentioned in Sandro's clip) bring them up, harrow them off, dry them out and repeat if necessary. It's essential to keep on top of the weeds though and not allow them to flower and produce seeds.

Pernicious weeds shouldn't be added to the compost heap either as unless you have a very hot heap the weeds wont die off. They can however, be placed into a black plastic sack, tied up and left for a year to die, then added to the heap (yet to try this).

The double headed hand hoe works for most smaller weeds (pernicious or not), a garden fork may be needed for deeper rooted weeds such as dock or dandelion and a garden hoe is handy for tipping off the not nearly so bad annual weeds.

Garden Hoe
So best of luck. Try and think of your weeding as a pleasure rather than a chore, and if you have any other tips for ridding gardens of weeds without using artificial chemicals please share!

*Some common pernicious weeds include dock, creeping thistle, nettles, creeping buttercup, horsetail, bindweed, ground elder, plantain, comfrey and daisies



  1. Hope to get to do some 'pleasurable' weeding today! Place is over-run with creeping buttercup!

  2. Haven't even started yet but hoping to get out today! I tried putting down cardboard, worked well just didn't do everywhere with it. I think you're right though, the only way really is to get down an dirty the old fashioned way!


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