Geoff Stebbings Garden Tips

Geoff Stebbings Garden Tips

Fri 11 March

Weed control without chemicals

Whatever your style of garden, the one thing you can be sure of is weeds. They are exasperating because the battle against them is never done. But there are clever ways to get on top of them. Just never be fooled that you have won the war because bare soil will always be colonised by one plant or another.

In my own garden do resort to weedkillers every now and then and occasionally use a glyphosate-based weedkiller for perennial weeds such as bindweed, docks, dandelions and couchgrass when appropriate. But there are other ways to control them if you prefer not to use weedkillers at all.

Weeds and how to control them

Weeds can be perennial, meaning that they live for many years, or annuals, which grow from seed, flower and spread more seeds in just a few months. Annual weeds are easy to remove and they will not grow from any roots left behind, but they grow and spread quickly. They tend to be more common in disturbed soil, where you cultivate regularly, such as among bedding plants and vegetables They cannot compete with thick vegetation. In my own new garden, I started off with few annual weeds but they appeared quickly as seeds blew in.

Bittercress. I started off with no bittercress; the weed cannot grow in a field, which is what my plot was. But this small plant has explosive seedpods and a plant can flower and set seed in as little as two month. My plants all came as weeds on plants I bought, growing in the top of the pots. It rapidly spread because I did not pull up every plant before it set seed. I should have known better.

Bindweed. This is the most serious of all weeds because it spreads underground and the stems wind up and over your garden plants. It can spread in from next door no matter how hard you try to keep it out of your plot. If it gets into your border and among the roots of your plants it is impossible to dig out. Any small piece left behind will grow. If you are able to pull out every shoot as soon as you see it you can eventually weaken it but this needs to be done weekly. Glyphosate works well but you can’t spray it onto your plants so where the bindweed is smothering your plants you can’t spray it on. The best way is to use glyphosate as a wipe-on product and coat individual leaves. It takes ages but will eventually work.

Ground elder. This is another problem weed but at least it is low so can often be sprayed. It can also be dug out and it is best to do this in dry weather in summer. It has creeping stems, just below the surface, that invade clumps of plants. When you dig it up these snap and leave bits behind but when it is dry and wilting the stems are less brittle and easier to remove.


This is the best way to control annual weeds, chopping them off at the surface. If they have not set seed they can be left to wilt but otherwise rake them off and compost them. Hoeing also keeps the soil surface dry and loose to prevent other seeds germinating and prevents moss and liverwort. Keep your hoe handy and hoe off weeds regularly.


Covering the soil with a loose material can retain soil moisture and prevent annual weeds. But most mulches will not suppress perennials and these will grow through. Bark is a popular mulch but will not prevent nettles, bindweed or creeping buttercups growing. Garden compost and well-rotted manure can also contain weeds although they are better because they actually improve the soil and provide nutrients. Bark can actually deplete the nutrients in soil.

Weed fabric

These are usually laid and covered in bark, gravel or chippings. They will prevent weed growth but it is then impossible to improve the soil. If you cut holes to plant through any weeds often creep and sprout through the gaps, which looks awful. Bindweed and others can also move sideways and pop up at the edge of the fabric. But it is sensible for paths and areas that will not be planted.

Ground cover

The idea of planting ground cover to suppress weeds is delightful but it is not as easy as it seems. Firstly you must remove all perennial weeds before you plant – your new plants will not smother bindweed! And you need to get rid of annual weeds until the new plants cover the ground. Make sure your chosen plants will thrive in the site – there are ground cover plants for sun and for shade. It is always best to plant lots of small plants, about 30-40cm apart rather than a few large plants, for quick cover.

Hand weeding

It may be back breaking and slow but hand weeding is often the only way to keep on top of weeds. The big advantage is that it gives you the opportunity to observe your plants and spot any other problems as well as to enjoy them. You can hoe off annuals and dig out perennials to give a thorough job.

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