Spring has sprung. Flowers are blooming, the grass is growing and trees are budding.
And then you spot the one thing that turns your green thumb red.
It’s a dandelion mocking us from the lawn with its yellow flower. Or maybe creeping Charlie is spreading through garden beds with abandon. Or worse yet, you spot the tentacles of bindweed wending their way up through the shrubs.
What’s a gardener with visions of perfection to do — especially if you don’t want to use traditional weed killers?
If you are searching for eco-friendly ways to keep weeds at bay, plant and garden experts from the Chicago Botanic Garden, Morton Arboretum and the University of Illinois Extension offer a few tips to fight the enemy without chemical warfare.
Know your enemy
Whether using traditional weed killers or going organic, you need to know what you’re looking for first. Become familiar with the plants in your yard, and if you don’t recognize something, look it up to find out if it’s friend or foe. Know what the weeds look like and how they grow. This will help you figure out how to attack and keep you from pulling the plants you want to keep.
Before you go to battle, examine your goals. Do you despise weeds and want to rid your yard of them completely? Or can you live with the violets or clover in the grass?
“There’s nothing wrong with leaving them there if you don’t mind them,” said Sarah Zack, pollution prevention extension specialist for the University of Illinois Extension, adding that some weeds, like dandelions, serve as food for bees.
Now that you know which plants have to go, get pulling (no one said this would be easy). The best time to start weeding is in early spring before weeds can develop a deep root or go to seed. It’s much easier to pull a seedling in moist ground than a 3-foot-high weed in the middle of summer when the sun is beating down and that weed is clinging for dear life in the hard dirt.
For some pesky lawn visitors, such as maple seedlings, you can take it easy and just mow them down.
“They need the leaves to make food for themselves,” said Julie Janoski, manager of the plant clinic at Morton Arboretum. “If you can move them down, those seedlings can no longer make food for themselves and can’t continue to grow.”
Our experts suggested investing in some good gardening tools to help with your weeding efforts. One popular tool, Grandpa’s Weeder, saves your back by allowing you to stick the prongs of the weeder in the ground and pull the weed without having to get on your hands and knees.
Drowning out the light will stunt weed growth.
In the lawn, you can do this with some simple mowing tricks. Richard Hentschel, a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension in St. Charles, recommends mowing off no more than a third of your grass height at a time and keeping your grass height between 2¾ and 3 inches tall.
“Mowing a third of the grass blade off keeps it competitive and strong against weed invasion,” he said.
Don’t worry about bagging your clippings. Leave them and give your lawn a free lunch and your back a break.
“By not collecting your clippings, you add a pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet,” Hentschel said. “That’s nitrogen you didn’t have to pay for; it’s nitrogen you didn’t have to put on with a fertilizer spreader.”
In the garden beds, mulch is your friend.
You’ll want to pull any existing weeds before laying down new mulch. Once you’ve pulled existing weeds, experts recommend a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch to help keep new weeds down.
Ground covers such as creeping phlox and perennials including hostas can add color and beauty to your garden while shading out weeds.
“Those plants will steal the light and moisture and nutrients, and the weed seeds will have a harder time finding an open spot,” Zack said.
Use natural agents
If you have to use a weed killer, go with natural options first.
“We are realizing that putting a lot of chemicals to make everything look perfect is not helping our environment,” Janoski said.
Our experts pointed out two natural remedies — horticultural vinegar and corn gluten meal — as alternatives to chemical-based weed killers.
Corn gluten meal helps prevent weed growth when applied to the lawn in early spring. Horticultural vinegar can help kill the weeds, but it must be used with caution.
“It’s nonselective,” said Kathie Hayden, manager of plant information services for the Chicago Botanic Garden.
She recommends using it as spot treatment but with caution when applying to not spray desired plants around the weed because it will kill anything it’s sprayed on.
Horticultural vinegar can be especially effective for those weeds growing up in the cracks of the sidewalk or patio pavers. Other options include boiling water.
If all else has failed and you need to use a chemical-based weed killer, do so sparingly. Spot treat and pull the dried-out weed.
The same goes for fertilizers. Zack recommends doing a soil test of your lawn or garden before fertilizing. A soil test will tell you what nutrients your soil may be lacking so you apply only what’s needed. The University of Illinois Extension offers a list of soil test labs.
When all else fails, regroup.
When bindweed took root in a beautiful perennial garden in Hayden’s yard, she fought. But after a valiant effort, she had enough. Everything came out, mulch went down, and a birdbath, a few steppingstones and some chairs now stand where the perennial garden once bloomed.
“I just said that’s it,” she said. “I have a couple of containers (with plants) there, and it looks fine.”
Not sure what to do? The Morton Arboretum, Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Illinois Extension all have helplines you can call for guidance in your gardening journey or help identify plants.