Removing Unwanted Plants Safely

Personally, I try not to use the word “weed.” It’s a catch-all term for wild plants that we don’t know the names of, that are unwanted.

My two cents? Learn the names of your local so-called “weeds,” find out what role they play in the ecosystem (many provide sustenance for pollinators, and even food or medicine for humans, for example), and then decide if you want the plants or not. If you don’t want some plant that has sprung up on your property of its own accord, there are many ways to remove it without introducing more toxins into the environment than we already have.

Recently in one of the gardening groups I belong to (Central Florida Gardening Friends, linked at the end of this post), someone asked how to get rid of weeds without applying poison. It’s a question that comes up a lot. Here are some responses she got:

Q. What do you recommend as a natural weed killer alternative to glyphosate that does not include salt?

A. (From me): “As an alternative to chemically killing unwanted plants, I find it easier to ‘chop and drop’ them — keep them cut to the base while leaving the roots alive, use the cuttings as mulch, and fill the space with plants that you want (which will then crowd out the unwanted plants).”

Q. (The original questioner clarified that this is for a subcontractor who uses it in large areas so that won’t work.)

A. (Another respondent suggested using a Rototiller and then raking up the roots.)

A. (From me): “‘Solarize’ the unwanted vegetation by putting sheets of black plastic over it for a few days. The killed vegetation will serve as a source of nutrients for the (desired) plants you plant next. And unlike with tilling, the beneficial microbes, fungi, and other soil biology will be preserved.”

A. (My favorite response, from a member named Valerie McClain): “Killing weeds is based on a view that certain plants do not belong on your lawn or your garden or in your eyesight. But weeds have a purpose, many have medicinal qualities and are edible. For example, in Florida, Spanish needle (Bidens alba) was once considered for use as a crop. It is a prolific plant that attracts a lot of bees. The flowers can be eaten and the young leaves steamed and eaten. It has antibacterial qualities. Some weeds only grow under certain conditions and can tell you much about the soil. Addressing the problems of weeds is about a person’s perspective. There are tools like a weed wacker or a scythe for large areas or hand pulling for small areas. All labor intensive but these options do not damage the health of humans, animals, and the environment.”

(In appreciation to Valerie for allowing me to quote her excellent advice, I would like to share her blog with you. Valerie is a lactation consultant, employed by WIC to improve breastfeeding rates. Check out her blog Human Milk Patent Pending. Very worthwhile reading, punctuated by relevant quotes from the likes of Vandana Shiva and George Orwell. How appropriate that someone who’s a breastfeeding advocate would also be a proponent of natural, environmentally friendly approaches to gardening. Thanks again Valerie!)

A. (From me): “Valerie McClain, So true! And I love Bidens!* (Also: Since the questioner mentioned that it’s a landscaper taking care of a large area) — “can’t they just maintain by mowing? My friends have a nice thick green yard that is a mix of grass and so-called ‘weeds’ — forms a dense carpet, no bare soil, stays green with no irrigation.”

(Note: They mow it enough to keep it reasonable height but not too short.)

*It is true about the very common (here in Florida) “weed” Bidens being edible and having medicinal qualities. I enjoy it cooked in soups and stews. For more information, you can look it up on

Further Exploration:

Your homework assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to find a Facebook group, email group, or other online forum(s) where people in your geographic area share information about gardening, particularly ones that are focused on natural methods for cultivating native, adapted, or edible plants. Sign up and enjoy!

Central Florida Gardening Friends and Central Florida Staple Food Gardening are a couple of the ones I belong to. And I just now found & joined Central Florida Permaculture Gardening too.