How to Kill Weeds Naturally—for Real

No need to break out the vinegar, either.

January 28, 2022
Photo by Getty Images / Maximkostenko

Every year between April and June, I go on a weed-killing mission to eradicate garlic mustard. I pull every one of these noxious, highly invasive weeds I can get my hands on, and yank them out. Getting garlic mustard,—or any weed for that matter—under control is an incremental process requiring elbow grease, a tool or two, and persistence.

However, because more and more homeowners and gardeners are trying to steer clear of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and other herbicide products), they're turning to natural alternatives. And while there are tons of DIY formulas online, it’s not necessarily a great idea to mix up your own. Read on for for a little debunking, as well as other ways you can kill weeds naturally and safely. Oh, and how you can prevent weeds from growing in your yard in the first place, of course.

Homemade Weed Killers Can Be Suspect

Making your own weed killer with easily available and affordable ingredients—such as vinegar, salt, dish soap, baking soda, and other household chemicals—does not make it a “natural” weed killer. Just because you frequently use these products in your home without ill effects does not mean that you should be using them in your garden. As Michelle Wiesbrook, Extension Specialist in Weed Science at the University of Illinois, points out, unlike registered products, homemade weed killers have not been extensively tested. Their long-term environmental effects are unknown, and they can potentially do more harm than good. Commercial weedkillers are usually formulated to break down or dissipate in a controlled way and within a certain amount of time. On the other hand, a weed killer made with the household cleaner sodium borate (Borax), is highly mobile in the soil and can unintentionally damage plants nearby that you want to keep.

There are other hazards to consider, too, according to Wiesbrock. Vinegar, one of the most commonly recommended weed killers, only works when it’s highly concentrated. Horticultural vinegar contains 20 to 25 percent acetic acid, whereas household vinegar is only a 5 percent acetic acid solution. When you mix up the highly concentrated vinegar with water, you must be extremely cautious as splashes can lead to skin burns and permanent eye damage. And using boiling water on your weeds (another frequently recommended way to kill weeds) is also not without risks. Depending on the number of weeds you need to kill, it means lugging multiple vessels filled with boiling water across your yard—you can imagine how that might be dangerous.

Instead of a homemade weed killer, try using an organic herbicide that is listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) for organic use. Look for the “OG OMRI” label on the product packaging. If you have qualms about it being pricier than your own homemade concoction, take into consideration the possible costly damage to other plants, environmental contamination, and health hazards for your family and pets.

ID Your Enemy

Often, home gardeners reflexively reach for a weed killer when one isn’t necessary. I cringe when I see people walk around their yard spraying every single dandelion, a job that can be done just as well and in the same amount of time by removing the dandelion and its roots with a soil knife or a dandelion puller.

Before you apply a weed killer, determine whether you are dealing with a few weeds that can be pulled by hand, or an infestation that warrants the use of a weed killer. Also decide if it’s really a weed that needs to go. Having a goldenrod or a milkweed pop up, for example, can actually be beneficial, because these plants attract butterflies and pollinators. Native insects have far too few food sources available in our home gardens and by leaving some of those plant volunteers alone, you are helping along biodiversity and the entire food chain.

Surprisingly, this even applies to plantains, a non-native weed commonly found in turfgrass. As Doug Tallamy, founder of the Homegrown National Park, writes in his book, Nature’s Best Hope, plantains provide food for the hitched arches moth, buckeye butterflies, and the giant leopard moth. The latter is such a striking beauty that after I spotted one in our yard last year, I look at the plantains in our lawn in a totally different way.

Singe Your Weeds

When you pull weeds from the soil manually, it brings weed seeds to the surface where they will start to germinate. A flame weeder does not disturb the soil and it is environmentally safe because it does not involve any toxic chemicals. Using a flame weeder can be an effective, chemically-neutral way to kill weeds, especially those growing in gravel walkways, between paving stones of a patio, or in sidewalk cracks where they are difficult to remove manually... but they're not without their cons.

The downside is that flame weeders don’t work well on weeds taller than two inches, and they don’t kill the roots. Perennial weeds will grow back; therefore, flame weeders are best used on annual weeds. Keep in mind that a flame weeder creates extreme heat (up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and it must be used with utmost caution, never in dry conditions nor anywhere near fences or structures that could catch fire.

Suppress Your Weeds

Ideally, you’ll prevent weeds from growing in the first place. There are two ways to do this: by planting densely or by applying a thick layer of mulch. Weeds will grow in any spot of bare soil, so don’t give them a chance. In a newly planted yard or perennial bed, you can also use annuals such as wildflowers to fill the empty space, and mulching not only suppresses weeds but also keeps moisture in the soil, which cuts down on your need to water your plants.

Choke Your Weeds

If you aren’t in a hurry, depriving weeds of sunlight, air, and water can be an efficient way to treat a larger weed-infested area. Seamlessly cover the area with durable agricultural black plastic sheeting and secure it with landscape pins or lots of rocks so it won’t blow away. You can weigh it down further with a thick layer of mulch, leaves, twigs or small branches. It can take a season or more for the weeds to die before you can remove the plastic and replant the area.

I have successfully used this method also on other unwanted plants, including Houttuynia cordata, aka chameleon plant, a horribly aggressive ground cover. I was unable to remove it using any other method because as long as there are bits of roots left in the ground, it regrows.

Be a Smart Hand Weeder

No matter what you do, there will always be weeds that require manual removal. Because hand-weeding is cumbersome and physically demanding, be a smart weeder: Use sturdy, ergonomic tools, learn how to let the tool do the work (not your wrists and back), weed after a rain when the soil is soft, and remove the weeds while they are small and before they go into seed and spread further. Just always make sure to remove the entire root system in order to get rid of the weed once and for all.

Some weeds, like the notorious garlic mustard, should not be composted under any circumstance, because their seeds remain viable even in a hot compost pile. To dispose of them safely, place them in plastic bags and throw them in the garbage.

In sum, there are many ways to combat weeds without using your household chemicals. So you can leave them for what they're intended for: cleaning your home.

Do you have any natural and effective solutions for killing weeds? Tell us about them in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mitymouse
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Mitymouse February 11, 2022
The city chop down part of my trumpet vine and now it's growing everywhere in my garden you cut it off and it just makes it worse I poured weed killer straight on it and it didn't hurt anything didn't do anything how do I get rid of it in the garden
Nadia H. February 15, 2022
Trumpet vine is a pesky invasive and very difficult to get rid of. Your one-time application of weed killer was likelyt not enough to kill it, the herbicide needs to be applied reguarly but in small amounts. Cut all the vines to the ground in the spring and apply the undiluted herbicide immediately before the cut surfaces callus over. Use an old toothbrush or a sponge dedicated just for that purpose to apply the herbicide over the cuts. Keep doing this during the growing season whenever the vines regrow.
RisenWell February 6, 2022
Please reconsider the use of black plastic or landscape cloth to smother weeds. They represent a huge disposal problem, and,as they degrade , they put more bits of plastic into our soils, water, and eventually, our bodies. Instead,use cardboard or thick layers of newspapers covered with straw or other organic matter.(One caution-- as it absorbs moisture, cardboard becomes very slippery from the glues therein---my broken wrist revealed that particular peril). If you have any old pure cotton sheets, they, too make a great barrier that will decompose over time.
Nadia H. February 7, 2022
I am 100% with you on trying to avoid plastic and other non-biodegradable materials but unfortunately, to get rid of a pesky weeds or invasives, you often have no other viable choice other than picking your poison. I am using 6-mm agricultural black plastic that lasts for years, and when it has done it's job I move it to a different spot for where it's needed, or store it away until further use. At the end, yes, it is still a plastic but one that gets many many uses. - I am using cardboard too but to prevent what you are describing, I cut off any edges beforehand to remove the glue.
Marion February 6, 2022
What tools do you recommend?
Nadia H. February 7, 2022
There are so many choices! Generally tools should be sturdy, durable but still feel comfortable and not too heavy in your hand (I like stainless steel for the blades). I mostly use a long-handled cultivator and hoe, a short-handled hoe, hand-trowel, soil knife, and a shovel for deep taproots.
John C. February 6, 2022
All weeds are not a threat to gardens and lawns. Every spring, I take a knife and search for small dandelions on my unfertilized property. It is a lesson I learned from my grandmother. I thoroughly rinsed them several times in cold water and use them to make a wonderful spring salad!
Andi B. January 29, 2022
I used to buy 25 lb bags of salt at Costco to sprinkle on the new weeds that would to spout up on our Sausalito hillside in the spring.
The salt did help a lot to control the growth of the weeds. Sadly Costco stopped selling the bags of salt last year.
(Only wilderness is below our property, so the salt doesn’t hurt anything other than the weeds.)
10 years ago we used to have few weeds and now, because of climate change, the weeds + grasses are so abundant I spent 8 days last year clearing them because when they die they become dry dangerous tinder for possible wildfires up here in Northern California.

I do still buy small containers of salt with the metal spout at the grocery store and pour on the weeds growing in the cracks of our large driveway. This keeps them from growing for around 5 years.
I might ask restaurant owners how I might buy 25 lb bags salt.
Nadia H. January 31, 2022
Controlling weeds on a steep hillside is very challenging especially where dry vegetation is a wildfire risk. But applying salt has an ecological downside, similar to road salt used for snow and ice melt. Although the concentration of the table salt you apply might be less than road salt, it has the same chemical composition. Salt can linger in your soil as well as get into the freshwater ecosystem and endanger wildlife. If you ever decide to plant that hillside, to help combat erosion, you might have to wait until the soil has cleared of salt to allow desirable, fire-resistant plants to grow.
Ororaf January 28, 2022
Not very helpful. Weed begone it.
Nadia H. January 29, 2022
Weed B-gon is a conventional weed killer. This article discusses alternatives if you don’t want to use this type of product out of environmental concerns.
John February 6, 2022
That’s Dicamba, and it is a threat to human health and crops from drift. The EPA is considering banning it.
Gail D. February 8, 2022
I have a battle going with Houttuynia . I cannot deprive it of water . The bed it is planted in is always moist. I had a crew dig up all that was visible but couldn’t go deep enough. PLEASE tell me if there is anything I can do. It is an eyesore in the neighborhood!! Not to mention a threat of going under concrete and popping up somewhere else.
Nadia H. February 9, 2022
Gail, I wish I could tell you a proven way to get rid of Houttuynia. Even choking it out for a few seasons as I described does not guarantee it won't come back somewhere else. Gardening writer Margaret Roach has post about it, which triggered lots of comments from people who tried, successsfully and unsuccessfully, to eradicate or at least control it, it might be helpful:
Nick January 28, 2022
Boiling water works great for killing weeds in the cracks of the driveway and walks. Any time we're done with our cooking water, we take it outside and pour it on some weeds.
Nadia H. January 29, 2022
Yes, if it’s in an easy-to-reach spot and applied in a targeted way like that without damaging other plants, repeatedly pouring boiling water on weeds can help keep them under control. And a good way of putting cooking water to use :-)
John January 28, 2022
I will stick with my vinegar, salt & dishsoap to combat weeds. Unfortunately the products on the market do not have to divulge proprietary ingredients which compromises almost 80% of the product. In short, there’s no way to know then how safe these ingredients are for humans or the environment, either. These companies should be required, by law, to label every ingredient. Additionally, we need to put an end to the myth that chemicals are intended for cleaning the home. We clean our home without chemicals. Women, who are the major consumers of these types of products, should educate themselves on how chemicals in cleaning products can lead to hormone/endocrine disruption/cancers, respiratory illnesses, etc. The Safer product labels from the EPA are not dependable, unfortunately. The fragranced products with that label contain petrochemicals that are unregulated. Therefore, be wise and use non-toxic cleaning products only. And if they have fragrance, let it be from essential oils, not petrochemicals.