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Weeds: Why We Don’t Spray and What To Do Instead

Updated: May 13

We get this question all the time: what is a safe and effective organic weed spray for my lawn or garden? The answer is nuanced in some ways, but in others, it’s pretty cut and dry: 

There’s no safe way to kill weeds with spray. 

That’s right. When practicing EarthCare, the answer to this question is always no. We never recommend spraying anything that is intended to kill something. While that is a simple rule for us, let’s dive into the more nuanced reasons why we don’t recommend sprays, exactly where we think this rule can be more flexible, and most importantly, what to do (and not do) instead. 

Four women's hands reaching into the soil where weeds are growing.

Shifting Perspectives: EarthCare vs. Warfare

The conventional perspective on weeds in the lawn or garden is that they don’t belong and must be eradicated. In the “fight against weeds,” chemical sprays are a go-to weapon. Gardeners and folks with lawns operating in this way are in a constant battle to destroy invaders and protect the plants they deem desirable. As we shift to an EarthCare perspective, the dynamics of warfare in the garden begin to shift as well. 

Gardening for pollinators and wildlife calls us to change the way we think about what “doesn’t belong.” The foundational concept of “Right Plant, Right Place” certainly leads us to make informed choices about where and how to introduce plants into the landscape. It’s not that weeding is out of the question for EarthCare practitioners. Rather, it’s an invitation to rethink what we consider to be “weeds” and how we approach their presence in our landscapes. 

Left photo: gardener with gloves on, practicing EarthCare, weeding by hand. Right photo: three gardeners practicing EarthCare, weeding a garden by hand and tossing weeds in plastic buckets.

Spoiler Alert: Spraying Doesn’t Work Anyway

Let’s get some clarity first - spraying isn’t worth it in the long run. Sprays often fail to address the root causes of weed issues. Nature tends to fill open soil with whatever is ready to thrive, so weeds will inevitably crawl into unintentional spaces. And this is brilliant. The type and quantity of weeds can also tell you about soil quality, and sometimes they’re there to fix a soil imbalance. Sprays may also, quite literally, fail to reach the root of the concerning plants, leaving dry and decimated plants above ground with roots that won’t quit below. 

What About Homemade + Organic Sprays?

We still don’t recommend using organic soap solutions, vinegar and salt, essential oils, or commercially available organic sprays because of their impact on soil health. These compounds disrupt the soil’s pH balance, causing harm to the microbiome and making it difficult for healthy plants to grow in the future. If it kills something, it’s harming the life in your land. 

The ONLY time we think it’s okay to use homemade solutions or other organic spray, is if you’re targeting weeds that pop up between paver stones, cracks in the sidewalk, or anywhere that you’re not intending to grow other plants. If that’s the case, you may choose to make a calculated compromise and use an organic or homemade solution. We recommend this kind of two gallon deck pump sprayer for DIYers to mix and achieve safe application and storage. 

EarthCare Note: Be sure your area of spray isn’t on a slope where your salt and soaps will end up washing into the watershed as well. We’re here to encourage a wider perspective of how we operate, not only on our land, but with the land as a whole, which goes beyond borders. Protecting our living waters is one of the most important things to us. No amount of ease in our landscape management process is worth adding to the clean water problems we already face. 

Pro Tip: Sprays only kill the surface plant matter (the leaves), which means it’s still there, just brown, scarred and dead. That doesn’t look better, right? So you still end up clearing the area manually to get rid of the dead plants. This combo doesn’t save anyone time or money. We really don’t see the point. It’s a leftover belief and behavior from a dead way of doing things. We’re here to encourage a new lifestyle of stewardship because it benefits everyone. 

Oh! But What About Weed Cloth?! 

Landscaping fabric is another common “weed prevention” item we get asked about often. 

Sadly, this is one of the biggest scams of the landscaping industry. This stuff not only doesn’t work, it makes life miserable soon in the future, and never has any benefits (as a weed controller). We only use it occasionally when we are installing gravel in a moist area where we need to keep it from sinking into the ground over time. It will never prevent weeds. 

The reason weed cloth doesn’t work is simple and easy to understand, but needs some explanation. Most weeds don’t come from some mysterious vault underground. There is the seed bank of course, the ecological memory of the land before turf grass and English gardens became dominant and suppressive of native plants. But we want to encourage that seed bank to return in most cases, at least to see what’s in it. Covering up the ground with thick cloth after disturbance further suppresses your chances of learning what’s present in the land. 

Most weeds come into your garden from above - dropped in like bombs from birds, and blown in on the winds of change. When you have weed cloth installed (which isn’t cheap or easy to do), it gets covered up by mulch. If it’s on a hillside, which is common, the mulch just slides off, which looks even worse than a scraggly weed hill. The mulch is organic material, which decomposes and holds moisture. This is the perfect landing for many weed seeds. But the nightmare only begins there. 

Once the weed seeds germinate in the dark, moist little cracks between mulch bits, they stretch their tiny little rootlets down toward the fabric and easily penetrate through it… as they grow, they begin to grasp deeply into the soil below, where there are more nutrients. Suddenly, they act like an anchor bolt, with the fabric now securely skewered into the land by weed roots. When you attempt to pull it, the whole section comes up, or it rips, or the weed just gets stuck. 

We have excavated hundreds of square footage of this stuff from lawns and gardens, often removing it from choking out trees, shrubs, perennials and plants that grew larger than the hole that was originally cut for them as well, barely surviving the chokehold. 

And to add insult to injury, the fabric decomposes over time, sinking microplastics and chemical toxins into the soil and waterways. Goodbye spray alternative. 

OK, What About Stone Mulching? 

Stones are great natural landscaping features, and we use them often to create walking pathways and winding waterways, but we never use them as mulch in a garden bed. 

Rocks attract heat and act like energy storage units, charging up in the sun all day, and slowly releasing the heat all night. This is a great strategy in certain gardens where you want to grow plants that tend to prefer warmer, drier climates, but it’s a death sentence for most plants who need to chill out overnight, like Nature allows. 

Stone beds change the moisture, temperature and soil conditions of the plants growing there, and still don’t even prevent weeds from sprouting, since they still drop in from the sky. Add this to the list of common no-spray alternatives that won’t help you manage weeds.

Left photo: a gardener practicing EarthCare, removing weeds by hand. Right Photo: dumping a bucket of removed plant material into a woodland area.

What to do instead: EarthCare Strategies for Managing Weeds

So, you care about pollinators, wildlife, and soil health, and understand why spraying is detrimental - but you still have weeds in your landscape and you feel like you need to do something. How are weeds managed in an EarthCare practice? 

First, Observe + Interact. 

Take a moment to see what is present before taking a heavy-handed approach to removing plants. Can you identify the weeds? What light, water and soil conditions are they thriving in? What can these plants tell you about the soil, and possibly what it needs to be healthier? Are you feeling the urge to eradicate them because they look messy, cause a nuisance, or simply don’t belong because of their label? 

Some “weeds” actually provide benefits for soil, pollinators, insects, wildlife, and even people. We invite you to spend some time learning about the plants growing in your Place, and gently reconsidering the “rules” of the lawn and garden. Maybe some weeds are okay!

Check out the Weeds 101 Guide inside our Mindful CleanUp Guide to get started with identifying common weeds and their benefits. 

A gardener practicing EarthCare using a hori hori Japanese gardening knife.

Choose an Intervention: Kill ‘em with Kindness

Sometimes observation will reveal that certain plant species can be discouraged to allow others to thrive, and that’s a supportive action for wildlife and pollinators. In that case, here are a few options for managing weeds that align with an EarthCare practice. 

⇾ Weed by hand Benefits:

  • Pulling weeds by the root delivers the best long-term results. The younger the better!

  • Maximum protection for soil health. No poison or excessive disturbance necessary!

  • Great way to observe + interact. Getting up close and personal with the plants and soil is a core practice in EarthCare, and regular hand-weeding is a perfect opportunity.

  • Time outdoors, regulating your nervous system, getting vitamin D, sweating out toxins. 

  • Enjoying your Place -  getting to know the land, plants, insects, all the little things.

LadyBug Recommendations: 

  • Schedule this time as EarthCare = Self Care and make it part of your wellness routine. 

  • Host a garden party! Many hands make light work, and weeding is a great kid-friendly activity. Make it simple or fancy. Invite neighbors and friends. Make mountain mint tea :) 

  • Exchange work days with your friends in a rotating schedule, or just your BFF, helping each other out at the peak points in the season. It’s a great way to spend time together.

  • Use a hori hori - a Japanese gardening knife, and our favorite tool (which we wrote all about here). This versatile hand tool is perfectly suited to get down to those deep roots.

Pro tip: For larger areas, where plants are not growing (such as sidewalks, brick patios, stone driveways, etc), you don’t necessarily have to weed by hand. Consider using boiling water or a weed torch - very carefully, and not during fire season! These methods are also less harmful to waterways than the natural spray solutions. 
An added benefit of torching weeds is that it will kill some of the seed bank as well, truly getting at the root of the issue. Other species are fire dependent! All the more reason to get to know the land, the plants and the ecological functions of them all. 

⇾ Leave the leaves in Fall. Maybe mulch in Spring.


  • Rather than harming soil health with sprays, enhancing soil nutrients with leaves or mulch will often benefit the plants currently growing, as well as future plantings.

  • In the fall, the leaves are falling anyway, so let Nature do the work and leave them as a warm blanket on your beds for winter, and a great weed suppressant in spring.  If you don’t have trees nearby, there are hundreds of neighborhoods giving them away. 

  • In spring, if there’s a lot of bare soil or disturbance (from weeding or other ground work), then a 2” layer of organic mulch can help suppress weed growth while keeping soil nourished and moisturized through the heat of summer. 

  • Mulch can be a lot of different mediums (wood chips, straw, leaves, chopped plant matter, compost), so choose the one that works best with the land, soil, conditions and plants you are building relationships with for best results.

LadyBug Warnings: 

  • Do not fertilize or add compost to your beds in the fall. Let things die back and rest. If you leave the leaves, they will slowly decompose over winter and add nutrients for growth by spring, just like Nature intended. 

  • Be mindful of the fact that mulch is a suppressant. If it’s suppressing the weeds, it’s also suppressing the plants you could be growing for free. 

  • Roots that spread with deep, strong shoots should be able to spread well in spite of the mulched layer, but shallow creeping things and plants that spread by seed will struggle to replicate over mulch. Straw or something light works better. 

  • Mulch can affect the pH of the soil, so if you have plants that are sensitive to these shifts, you need to consider that as well. Anything you add will change it. 

  • Our goal is to reduce inputs and slowly let Nature take over with some of our help, so the expense of mulch year after year to suppress weeds isn’t ideal.

  • Allowing your plants to spread for free is smarter. Weeding by hand is still best.

⇾ Plant beneficial ground covers (“green mulch”).


  • Helps manage weeds naturally as dense plantings out-compete weeds for resources.

  • Keeps the soil moist and healthy. Everyone loves a happy microbiome! 

  • Prevents erosion, keeping sediment and chemicals out of the waterways, and keeping the soil and nutrients in your landscape, lawn and gardens.

  • Provides essential food and shelter for native insects and pollinators.

  • Many are aesthetically pleasing!

LadyBug Recommends:

  • Prioritize native ground covers. Not only will they help reduce your weeding workload, but they also provide habitat for native insects and pollinators. This small, simple step has a huge impact on the health of the ecosystem! Remember “right plant, right place.”

  • Consider leaving some non-native ground covers if they are already present. Plants like clover, plantain, dandelion, dead nettle and many others are often eradicated with poison, but they provide similar services, while you are transitioning as a steward. Many are medicinal and don’t spread so rapidly that it will become a problem. 

  • Focus on removing the most aggressive non-natives first, before they go to seed, to reduce your labor over time, rather than getting behind. In our area these would include japanese stiltgrass, garlic mustard, turf grass, honeysuckle and many more. 

Left photo: a gardener practicing EarthCare, using a hori hori to remove a weed, with another gardener holding her tool bucket in the background. Right photo: EarthCare practitioner using a hori hori to remove a weed.

Learn to Live and Let Live

Gardening for pollinators and insects calls us to reconsider many conventional gardening practices, and managing weeds is one of the biggest areas of impact. NBC News reported in 2019 that “an average of almost 130 pounds of glyphosate herbicides were sprayed per square mile in U.S. counties.” Choosing not to spray is a radical act of committing to the Earth’s healing. 

By incorporating these no-spray management practices, you are promoting soil health, supporting pollinators and native insects, and protecting the health of your own body and loved ones as well. You’re also getting the wellness benefits of an active EarthCare practice! 

We know it can still feel complicated, so we’re here to support you on your journey.

Here’s how we can help: 


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