Weeds! Weeds! Too Many WEEDS!!!
I have heard it said and I think it is the best definition of a weed . . . a weed is a plant that is someplace you don’t want it to be.
I like this definition the best because although I may consider all thistles as weeds I have friends who argue just the opposite, thistles have medicinal properties and are good for butterflies. Neither answer is wrong but it is a matter of perspective. I, personally, don’t like thistle in my yard because I have small children who like to walk barefoot. But my friend prefers to use herbs and alternative medicines so she knows the benefits of thistles and prefers to grow them herself. In turn I always find it hard to define to new gardeners what a “weed” is.
Yes, there are defined weeds according to the USDA and more specifically each state has their own list of qualified noxious weeds. These plants are qualified as noxious for a reason, they are harmful. They are either harmful to agriculture, natural habitats and ecosystems, or humans and livestock. Fair warning, if you have any of the plants on either the federal or state noxious weed list you are liable for a fine. (Here is the link for the federal noxious weed list – https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious) There you have been warned, do with it what you may, but let’s switch topics.
So you have a beautiful landscape but you have those unfriendly weeds. What are your options?
Let’s take a look at chemical methods first.
Some chemicals are indeed the bad and the ugly and should not be used (I am intentionally not including a list). But are there some good ugly chemicals? It depends, in general, and I truly mean in general, the more broad scope weed killer the worse it is. These chemicals are meant to knock out everything in their path with no regard to specificity and often contain the harsher and more harmful products. There are more organic methods, such as a vinegar solution or a rubbing alcohol solution but these require more diligence. If diligent these more “natural” methods work great and I truly mean you need to be diligent, they are not a one and done process.
In fact, no one weed control method is and you will most likely need to use a combination of methods. In general, and again I mean in general, the more specific you can get with what the weed is and what you are trying to prevent the better.
With so much controversy around chemicals (organic or not), what else can we do to prevent those unwelcome guests in our yards?
Mulching is a great starting point. There are pros and cons to using a rock mulch or a wood-based mulch. If you are looking to use a rock mulch, use a commercial grade landscape fabric. (In an experiment with 4 different landscape fabric products, we found great success with the Dewitt Sunbelt Ground Cover Weed Barrier; you can buy it on Amazon or a handful of local plant nurseries keep the same or a similar product in stock that you can cut to order.) But as with any product there are pros and cons to use a rock mulch. Now to talk about wood-based mulches.
WARNING!!! If you are going to use wood-based mulch, and I highly recommend this product in specific locations. DO NOT put a weed fabric or weed barrier underneath. As the wood biodegrades it forms a layer of nutrient rich soil that now weeds latch onto and have no competition for those nutrients.
A pre-emergent in the early spring is your best friend in either a rock or wood-based mulch area.
Lastly I want to talk about an option that not many take advantage of. Ground covers!!!
In Colorado especially we have some great ground cover options. Now how would you use ground covers to prevent weeds? Most ground covers will spread and act like a living mulch that will choke out weeds before they have a chance to establish themselves. A con is that it can take time for any living ground cover to establish itself, BUT a huge pro is that you should not have to worry about weeds for many, many, MANY years.
What are some examples? In Colorado (and in fact a lot of these plants work in other states as well) we recommend: creeping veronica (highly recommend Crystal River), wooly thyme (it has a semi-evergreen habit, but any creeping thyme would work), or ice plants. Our designer can speak from personal experience and highly recommend the ice plant, she planted a 2.5” container of the fire spinner variety in her yard 4+ years ago and it has successfully doubled plus some every year and has choked out the bindweed (for those that don’t know it is a hugely invasive plant that is hard to kill) but has left the rocky mountain penstemons and irises alone.
Don’t like any of the options listed?
Sorry the last resort is just to pull those weeds. And sadly no one technique will work by itself so you will still probably have to do some hand weeding, sorry! BUT you can greatly decrease the need for hand pulling by using the other methods listed above.