The Organic, Weed Free Garden

The first year of our marriage, we decided we needed a vegetable garden. My husband had no background in gardening, and I'd only ever helped one of my parents with the garden. Still, all went well - at first. My husband tilled the soil and I planted the seeds. Soon, vegetable plants began sprouting everywhere, and we were delighted.

Then the weeds came.

By mid-summer, our vegetable garden looked like a jungle. Not because the vegetables were growing rambunctiously, but because the weeds had completely taken over. Nevertheless, I diligently got down on my hands and knees and weeded that garden nearly every day. Yet the weeds still kept coming - and coming and coming. We were greatly discouraged.

We weren't alone. Among people who grow their own veggies, I frequently hear the hardest part - or the reason they've stopped gardening altogether - is weeds. But the good news is that weeds can be controlled in an easy fashion. Nobody is ever going to have a perfectly weed free garden, mind you - but that's okay. All we really need is a garden that's mostly weed free. Let me show you how to do it.

Start with the Soil
Wind and animals bring weed seeds into your garden. There's nothing you can do about that. But you can limit the number of surviving weed seeds, right from the start.

The easiest way to do this is to bring in quality, weed free gardening soil and make raised beds or berms. I did this two years ago, creating large berms (or unframed raised beds). I barely have to weed now - and I didn't have to try to turn my clay soil into something plant would love.

An alternative is to solarize the garden soil you do have. If there is vegetation in the garden area, cut it down low to the ground or mow over it. Next, remove any remaining weeds or sod. I do not recommend using a weed killer. (Do you really want to grow food where chemicals were recently sprayed?) Instead, either yank up the weeds (first watering to make the soil moist but not soggy) or use a steel rake to uproot the weeds. Sod can be dug up, turned upside down (soil side up), and left in place.

Now you might think you're done - but you're not! There are at least hundreds of weed seeds still in that soil, and most of them will sprout if you don't continue with the solarizing process.

So first make sure the entire garden area is moist, then cover it with a piece of clear polyethylene that's between 1 and 6 mils in thickness. Secure the plastic in place with large stones or bricks. Keep the plastic in place for 4 to 6 weeks; do not move it or lift it up to look under it. The heat of the sun, increased by the plastic, is cooking the weed seeds and making them so they will not sprout.

The trick to proper solarizing is timing. Ideally, it's done in the late spring or summer, when the sun is hotter than it will be in fall, winter, or early spring. Ideally, the soil temperature under the plastic should reach 125° F (52 ° C). "But," you may be thinking, "by then I should have my garden planted!" However, if you solarize in the summer, you can still plant a fall garden in August. Should you decide to solarize earlier in the spring, many weed seeds will die - but not all of them. I recommend being patient and solarizing when the weather is warmer.

Lasagna gardening can also do a great job of eliminating weed seeds, but it delays planting by a couple of seasons. For this method, lay down newspapers over the garden area, 1 inch thick. Add an inch of peat moss, then 3 inches of shredded leaves or chemical-free grass clippings. Repeat the layers of pea moss and leaves or clippings until you have a pile that's about 2 feet tall. Cover with a sprinkling of wood ashes. When the layers are mostly decomposed (2 seasons later, usually), you'll have a rich garden bed that's nearly free of weed seeds.

What About Barriers?
Many gardeners think the best way to prevent weeds is to lay down landscaping fabric or black plastic, cover it with a little soil or mulch, then cut holes in it for their plants. Honestly, I've never seen this work very well, especially for more than one year. Fresh soil, solarizing, or lasagna gardening all work better - are are easier, to boot!

Every vegetable garden needs pathways. Without them, food is likely to go bad in the garden, because you can't see or reach it. And if you climb into the garden to harvest food, you'll compacting the soil everywhere you step, making the garden far less fertile.

One way to keep pathways weed free is to till them. If you use a narrow tiller, the pathways don't need to be more than a few feet wide - which is about as wide as you need them to tend the garden anyway.

Thick layers of weedless mulch work almost as well. Or you might choose an organic weed killer. For example, boiling hot water poured over weeds kills them, as does applications of white vinegar during hot weather. You can also keep weed seeds from germinating by sprinkling corn gluten meal in pathways. Please note that these methods are best kept to the pathways; you don't want to accidentally kill vegetable plants.

Maintaining the Beds
The first rule of keeping the garden weed free is to never let weeds go to seed. So if you see buds forming on the weeds, make it a priority to get rid of them. This is how you will keep your garden weed seed free. I cannot stress enough how important this is. If needed, make this a family affair. Even toddlers can learn to pick off the buds or flowers of weeds. (You'll still need to remove the weed itself later, but you'll accomplish the all-important task of delaying the day those weeds go to seed.)

Mulching the beds is also helpful, but mulch shouldn't be applied to the garden until after the soil is well warmed in the late spring or early summer. (Otherwise the mulch can keep the soil cool, which in turn makes the plants grow slowly or not at all.) You do not need to purchase mulch. You may use, for example, grass clippings from the lawn mower (as long as you don't use chemicals on your lawn), dry leaves from your trees or your neighbors' trees, homemade wood chips, or homemade compost. If you must purchase mulch, consider buying a bale of weedless straw (not hay) at a feed store; I buy them for about $7 and a bale will mulch an average backyard-sized vegetable garden once or twice.

Some weeds will still appear in the garden bed. But their quantity will be very small, if you follow the guidelines in this article. To remove them, simply pull them by hand after a light rain or watering. Or, if you prefer, use a sharp hoe to chop off their tops. The latter requires more frequent weeding, but doesn't require bending or stooping. And if you have chickens, don't neglect to toss them the weeds; they think they are a fine treat!


  1. Kristina, we just bought a new house back in June and after doing lots of renovation we finally picked a place to plant a garden. We don't want to start big so I was thinking of doing raised beds or the berms you just mentioned. How do I start? Which one is easier the contained beds inside wood boards or the large berms? Can you point me to a tutorial?

    My DH was going to buy a tiller and just prepare the soil for a garden patch (that's what most people do around here that have 4+++ acres available do. that's what he saw his grandfather doing and helped him with when he was a boy.) but we really don't have hundreds of dollars to spend in tools right now. What do you suggest? Would a raised bed be cheaper?

    thanks so much,

  2. Easier is a matter of opinion, of course, but I think it doesn't get any easier than berms (wide rows). It's cheaper, too. Over time, they will erode a bit - especially if you don't plant a cover crop for winter. But if you're adding compost each year, I don't think this is problematic. Here's a pro and con list to help you decide (and if you follow the Colorado State University link, you'll learn more about berms): For info on how I made my berms, go here: If you decide to build a framed raised bed, there are tons of tutorials online. Here's one:

    A tiller isn't necessary for any garden; you can always dig instead - though of course it feels like more work. But a tiller is absolutely unnecessary with a raised bed/berm, as long as you don't walk on the soil and add compost each year.

    Hope this helps!