Susan Appleget Hurst for Better Homes & Gardens on safely eliminating weeds from your yard.
Keep unwanted plants in check without harming your furry (and non-furry) family members.
Weeds are inevitable in the yard and garden. Unfortunately, many of the chemicals marketed to combat them can be harmful to the health of your pets if they are not used carefully. Even so-called environmentally friendly or natural herbicides are capable of injury if used improperly. This is especially a concern if you have a dog that likes to dig and roll in lawns and gardens. But our furry friends can pick up herbicides and other pesticides just by walking through the yard, too. Those substances get on their paws and fur, which they may then lick and get into their bodies while grooming themselves. Here’s what you need to know to keep your pets safe while dealing with weeds.
Before you waste time, effort, and money on products that don’t work or that may pose a risk to your pet, put some thought into your level of tolerance for lawn and garden weeds. On one hand, a few lawn weeds aren’t problematic as long as you work to keep the grass healthy the weeds aren’t likely to take over. Mulching garden beds well and regularly will keep weeds from taking over ornamental plantings. Alternatively, if you have no tolerance for weeds, then you’ll need to think carefully about what methods or chemicals to use in your yard. Here are the best weed control options to consider.
1. Weeding by Hand
The most effective means for eradicating lawn and garden weeds is still removing them by hand. It can be tedious work, but it’s the best way to ensure that the root of the weed is gone, as both toxic and non-toxic weed killers might leave it behind to regenerate (dandelions have particularly long roots). There are lots of handy weeding tools on the market that help speed up the process, so if your problem is sporadic weeds popping up, this is one way to handle them without using chemicals. It’s best to think of hand-weeding as an ongoing practice and it’s most effective when begun in spring. In garden beds, weed seedlings can be eradicated by hoeing.
The other primary benefit of weeding by hand is that you can be selective; only the plants that you want to kill will be damaged. Most environmentally friendly herbicides and weed-killing methods are not selective; they’ll kill or damage any plant they touch.
2. Smothering Weeds
Like any plant, weeds need sunlight to thrive. If you block their access to light, weeds will die. The easiest way to do this is by laying down a thick layer (3-5 inches) of organic mulch such as wood chips or pine needles. (Avoid cocoa mulch, which is toxic to dogs if eaten.) The mulch allows water and air through but keeps sunlight out; soil stays healthy but small weeds and seeds hidden under the mulch don’t survive. When you’re creating a new garden, opaque plastic sheeting, layers of cardboard, or carpet scraps can be laid over the area where you want to kill all plants. Leave the layers in place for about 6 weeks during the growing season to get the job done. Avoid tilling the soil afterward to prevent buried weed seeds from germinating.
3. Horticultural Vinegar
Vinegar, in a concentrated form for herbicide use, can kill young, tender plants. It’s non-selective, meaning it will damage any plant it touches. Keep in mind that concentrated horticultural vinegar used as a weed killer is a strong acid so you should avoid getting it on your skin (make sure to wear garden gloves) or in your eyes or nose. Make sure the vinegar dries before your pet walks on treated areas. Read and follow label directions carefully. Horticultural vinegar works well for cracks in the sidewalk or driveway. It only damages the plant tissues that it touches, so it may require repeated applications to destroy established weeds. Although vinegar sounds like an inexpensive solution, the concentrated type that kills weeds can be as expensive as standard commercial herbicides.
4. Burning or Boiling Weeds
If occasional weeds are a problem such as those pesky sprouts that pop up between patio pavers or cracks in the driveway, they can be burned with a weeding torch or scalded with boiling water. But of course, both those options require care to prevent personal injury. They also don’t kill roots of established weeds and may have to be repeated several times over the summer.
5. Other Natural or Organic Options
There are several commercially available products that use concentrated essential oils, soaps, or other ingredients. Very few of them are selective weed killers so they’ll damage anything they touch, and they have different levels of effectiveness. Although a product may claim to be made of natural ingredients, that doesn’t mean that it won’t irritate skin, eyes, or noses. Corn gluten meal showed initial promise as a pre-emergent herbicide, but timing of application is critical, and it doesn’t affect established weeds. Some products do work but take days to show results, and many require repeated applications. Read and follow label directions carefully, don’t expect instant or permanent results, and keep pets away from newly treated areas according to the product’s instructions.
What Not to Use
Some household products suggested for killing weeds, such as salt, borax, or sugar are not only ineffective, but they can damage the soil. For example, borax will inhibit plant growth but it’s also illegal to apply it to the soil in many areas. Salt also can cause a serious imbalance in soil chemistry. Sugar attracts pests of all kinds and might even entice your pets or wildlife to eat something they otherwise shouldn’t.
No matter what method or product (if any) you use to control yard or garden weeds, your pet will benefit from the careful thought you put into it.