Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.
Q: I want to get rid of weeds, but I don't want to endanger the health of my pets or my family members by using harsh chemicals. Do you have any suggestions? —Jeannin-Melissa Russo
A: I'm so glad you asked because I’ve just discovered some tall, woody weeds and needed to review the remedies myself. You’re thoughtful and wise to reduce your household’s exposure to conventional synthetic herbicides. Preliminary research has found some connection between weed killers and other herbicides to cancers, respiratory harm, and skin irritation in people and even hormone disruption in amphibians.
U.C. Davis Integrated Pest Management and the Bio-Integral Research Center in Berkeley believe that a determined and patient organic gardener can succeed through a combination of manual techniques and preventive measures.
First, you'll want to uproot and dig out, smother (with mulch, burlap, or even newspapers), “solarize” (cover moist soil with a clear plastic sheet to cook and kill the roots), or "girdle" (strip bark of tree-like weeds in a foot wide strip all around).
Then, you should prevent any scattered seeds from germinating by covering with a non-synthetic weed killers. Corn gluten will help prevent weeds from sprouting around established plants. (Be sure not to use it around plants you do want to germinate.) Or you can use less-toxic herbicides like white vinegar, citric acid, and plant oils. Just be sure to use gloves and keep them out of your eyes and mouth. Products with these active ingredients can be found at your local garden store or at Planet Natural, Gardens Alive, and Gardener's Supply Company.
You can also thwart weeds by cultivating non-invasive ground cover, such as creeping juniper, ivy, or phlox to outcompete them. Be sure to check with your local USDA agricultural extension service, however, about the best plant choices for your locale. They’re also a great resource for weed control tips!
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.