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Weeds: non-chemical control

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last updated Dec 19, 2013
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Hoeing is a good option if you don't want to use chemicals. Image: Neil Hepworth/RHS

Weeds can be controlled without resorting to weedkillers. Cultural or organic control measures rely on killing or restricting the weeds by physical action, from manual removal to smothering, burning and using weed barriers.

Suitable for... Back to top

All weeds can be controlled without weedkillers, but persistent or deep rooted weeds may be very difficult to eradicate. Ongoing control is likely to be necessary.

Annual weeds (which only live for a year) and epehemeral weeds (which live for less than a year) are the easiest to control, as they are usually shallow rooted. However, they can scatter seed prolifically, so usually reappear and require further control.

Deep-rooted perennial weeds (which die down in the winter and re-grow each spring) will re-grow from their roots if the tops are removed or burned off. They can be difficult to dig out and may grow up through weed barriers in time.

When to control weeds Back to top

Weeds can be controlled whenever they are troublesome, which is usually in the spring and summer months.

It is a good idea to put weed barriers in place in late winter or early spring, as they work better as a preventative than when an existing problem requires suppression. 

How to control weeds without chemicals Back to top

Manual removal and cutting back

  • Hoeing: Run a hoe over a bed or between rows to kill most weed seedlings. For maximum effectiveness, choose a dry day with a light wind, so that the seedlings will dry out on the surface of the bed rather than re-rooting into moist soil
  • Hand-pulling or hand-weeding with a fork: Pull up annual weeds by hand before they set seed. Perennial weeds should be dug out with as much root (or bulb) as possible, using a hand or border fork. Hand weeding is easiest on lighter soils and should only be attempted where it will not disturb the roots of garden plants. Further pulling may be necessary with persistent weeds such as bindweed or couch grass where small root sections left behind can re-grow into new plants
  • Weed knife and other weeding tools: A weed knife has a hooked end and is a useful tool for weeding between paving slabs and along path edging. Various other hooked, narrow-bladed or spiral-type tools are available for specific weeding jobs such as digging out dandelions on a lawn
  • Repeated cutting: In large weedy areas, repeated cutting to ground level over several years will weaken and even kill some weeds. This is usually done with a strimmer or sickle-type weeder
  • Flame gun: Scorch off weeds between paving slabs and on driveways by blasting them with a flame gun. Use only when the foliage is dry and allow sufficient burn-time for deep-rooted weeds, such as dandelions, to be killed

Weed barriers

  • Mulching: Use deep organic mulches such as bark or wood chip to smother weeds around plants. To be effective, keep them topped up to a minimum depth of 10-15cm (4-6in) to smother established annual weeds. Keep woody stems clear of mulch to prevent rotting
  • Edging boards or strips: These can be used to edge lawns and grass paths to prevent unwanted grass growth into the border. Especially useful where invasive rooted grasses such as couch grass are a problem
  • Root barriers: These can be inserted into the soil to stop the spread of perennial weeds such as ground elder and horsetail into neighbouring areas or gardens. They can also be used to restrict invasive plants such as bamboos, or suckering trees, shrubs and raspberries. A straight barrier can be formed from paving slabs or corrugated iron sheets, but for a flexible solution use a tough fabric like Rootbarrier available from Greentech

Weed-suppressant fabrics

Groundcover or landscaping fabrics can be laid over recently cleared soil to suppress re-growth of old weeds and prevent new weeds from establishing.

There are a number of different weed suppressant fabrics available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Spun materials: These are usually made from plastic fibres bonded together to form a sheet. They can be used in most situations, both short and long term, but are best covered with a protective mulch of bark or gravel.

  • Advantages:
    Lightweight and easy to cut
    Don’t fray along cut edges
    Very porous, allowing water to reach plant roots
  • Disadvantages:
    Cheaper versions do not last long
    They can ruck into folds where soil accumulates and weeds grow
    Tougher versions, such as Plantex, are expensive

Woven materials: These are sheets of woven plastic strands for use as temporary cover, or for the long-term on beds, borders and paths.

  • Advantages:
    Available in different grades, varying in toughness, weight and durability
    Do not need covering with mulch, although mulch may improve their appearance
  • Disadvantages:
    Heavier in weight than spun materials
    Cut edges can fray

Plastic sheeting: Choose black sheeting to suppress weeds for short periods, or in areas of the garden where appearance doesn’t matter.

  • Advantages:
    Cheap
    Easy to cut with a knife or scissors
  • Disadvantages:
    Impermeable to water, so the ground can dry out underneath, and rain will puddle on the surface
    Pricking holes in the surface will allow water to penetrate, but can provide an opportunity for weeds to grow

Problems Back to top

Repeated control measures are likely to be necessary - this is not a one-off garden task.

See our individual weed profiles for more detailed advice on eradication of specific weeds. Some of the most troublesome include; bamboo, bindweed, couch grassground elder, horsetail, oxalis and speedwell.

Quick facts

Timing: Whenever weeds are troublesome
Suitable for All weeds
Difficulty Easy to moderate
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