Managing Weeds: Naturally + Easily


Weeds are on your side. They’ve come to heal the soil from its historical treatment. They do this in many ways – drawing minerals that are missing, soaking up toxins, moderating excessive minerals, adding organic matter, improving soil structure … they are nutrient dense, mineral rich powerhouses – and the fastest way to awesome soil, is to tap into, and use them.

Rather than weeding/ spraying them out, you and your soil, are better served when you support them to fulfil the role they came to play. Its about identifying the moments where you can allow weeds grace, and the moments to manage them.

The great news is, gardening with weeds isn’t hard, infact your gardening life is about to become ridiculously easy. Read on gardener!

Smart tactics

The ground beneath a peach tree transitioning from buttercup and dock to artichokes and comfrey
Globe artichokes, Urenika potatoes, comfrey and clover are gradually spreading out and overshadowing the previously dominant buttercup, rye grass and dock.

Because weeds have come to do a specific job for your soil, its smart to let them fulfill it. Ripping them out or worse, spraying, keeps the same weeds in play – of course they stay, their jobs not yet done! We bemoan the weeds, and yet its us perpetuating this silly cycle of – spray or pull, the same weeds return; spray or pull, the same weeds return…. I imagine all the weeds out there in the fields – sighing in despair.

Lets be smart about it, and easy!

  • Improve your soils. As the soil changes, so too the weeds, moving from hard to manage buttercup, dock, thistle for example to gentler, annual weeds like chickweed, dead nettle or veronica. It helps to remember that the current weeds are but a phase. As your soil evolves, so too your weeds.
  • Never leave your soil bare – an invitation for weeds if ever there was one. Weeds colonise bare soil speedily – as part of natures overall healthy soil game plan. Beat them to it and either mulch generously, plant densely or leave the weeds there.

Here are my 5 favourite, non back breaking ways to work with weeds.

1. Smother

Nothing clears the ground of stubborn weeds like a sheet of plastic. Especially through the hotter months. Hold it in place with planks – if its secure, you can forget about it for a while. No digging, no spraying, no hard yakka – just time and a bit of cunning.

Weeding in this way is great for soil – all those weeds melt back in, adding organic matter, feeding up a whole new guild of life and imbuing the soil with missing minerals (or whatever job the weeds came to do in the first place.) And even though its plastic – the soil always seems happy, the worms aren’t put off at any rate.

weeds cleared beneath the black plastic
After the plastic is removed – weeds are melted into the soil and hello worms!

When no greenery remains, peel off the plastic and proceed with mulching and planting. The key thing here is to plant the space up right away.

2. Mulch

old hay spread thickly to mulch a vegie bed
Old hay spread on top of wet cardboard, on top of this very weedy bed – a life saver in a months time – full of worms, no more weeds and ready to plant.

Mulch blocks light to weeds and at the same time builds soil – such an energy efficient, delightful way to ‘weed’!

  • To ‘weed’ an established vegetable bed, lay wet newspaper over top of weeds, then cover with mulch. Either wait for the weeds to melt back into the soil or if needing to plant right away, make pockets into the mulch without breaking through the newspaper, fill with compost and plant away.
  • To create a new bed, slash back any persistent weeds first, then lay wet cardboard on top before piling on the mulch. Make pockets in the mulch and plant. If you are on a slope, make temporary but robust terraces with hunks of driftwood or some such, to retain the mulch until the plants fill the space.

The bonus of going on top like this, is that you avoid releasing more weed seeds, or chopping into and dispersing roots – which many vigorous weeds thrive on.

Weeds that pop through mulch (and they will!) are easily removed in the soft layers of organic matter. Over time as you continue to pile mulch on, soil will improve no end and the weeds will lessen and change.

3. Interplant + outcompete

crimson clover, phacelia artichokes and fennel guild beneath the figs
Converting from buttercup and dock beneath the Figs to my chosen guild of groundcovers: clover (nitrogen+ bees), fennel (tap root + beneficial’s), phacelia (soil building + bees), artichoke – (tap root + bees)

Many weedy areas can be transformed with subterfuge. (‘Many’, I hope you understand, is a caveat.) The trick to outcompeting vigorous weeds, is to use equally vigorous plants. Achieve this by choosing plants that suit your soil type + climate really well, because these are the plants that will grow like mad. Choose a combination of taller plants/ shrubs/ trees to tower over, alongside covering the ground with dense plantings.

  • Evergreen perennials are the most competitive plants because they cover the soil year round. Winter dormant perennials are next on the list and annuals are last, apart from the few enthusiastic self seeding annuals that hold ground as well as any perennial eg: nasturtium, fennel and borage for instance.
  • Notice the plants that perform the best at your place – the ones that are down right rambunctious and that self seed easily amongst grass or weeds – these are the plants to use.
  • Plant in communities, establishing one or two densely planted strongholds rather than lots of little separate, vulnerable marooned islands.
    Expand these communities outward little by little, adding new plants each season.
    Let the plants that don’t work go, and lean on the plants that thrive, and one day – the weeds will no longer dominate – not necessarily gone, but interspersed among plants you love.

You aren’t ever going to get rid of weeds, they’re part of nature. A brillinat, clever part of nature. With a relaxed mindset, lots of mulching, keen observation of what works and what doesn’t + alot of patience – it comes together.

4. Manage the seedheads

borage self seeding through the grass
Borage self seeding through the grass and buttercup.

One years seeding = seven years weeding! Sometimes this is a bonus – it plays right into our hopes and aspirations – let all the plants you adore, self seed and colonise the gardens! Easy peasy!

Sometimes, though, in the case of plants you dont want – it does not. Slash off the immature seedheads of plants you dont want repeating, and let them drop on the soil for an improving mulch. There’s no chance of them self seeding if you get them before the seeds are ripe.

Use this same chop and drop technique to knock back weeds around crops or newly planted perennial areas. The aim is to bring a bit more breathing space to preferred plants while supporting the weeds to play out their natural cycle.

Give and take is the name of the game. Its interesting watching it all play out and seeing how little tweaks make all the difference, and that on the whole – less is more.

5. Let the weeds be

An opportunity amongst shelterbelt plantings to let the weeds go full cycle. The only interuption here is that I whip off the immature dock seedheads once in a while.

My neighbour Steve is in the process of letting his farm re wild. The first year offered up swathes of ragwort, striking fear into the heart of neighbouring farmers. Steve was soon telling me about a little caterpillar that had arrived and started gobbling up the flowers, after which the caterpillars began eating each other! Observation teaches you all you need to know. Without the observation, chemicals and mass panic ensues – when there is absolutely no need for either.

In the space of just three years, the ragwort is greatly reduced, and the downward trend continues. No sprays. No mowing. No worries. Just observation and letting it be.

Many weeds work in this way – naturally evolving on with the help of animal or insect or simply because their job is done. Where can you let weeds be?

  • under trees
  • around newly planted trees + shelterbelt plantings.
  • in areas that you wont be able to plant for a few years – how about begin, by letting the weeds and groundcovers do their thing? Let nature take care of your soil. What an education this is!
  • driveways and parking lots are another good place to play with leaving be. You can always step in and weed eat or mow if it gets too much for you.

Learn Your Weeds

Weeds come in all shapes and sizes – from vining and strangling convulvulus to rhizomateous california thistle to super competitive kikuyu. Learn your weeds by observing them.
Watch for the timing of their flowering and when they arise from dormancy or are they annual? or evergreen perennial?
Figure out the soil and environment they prefer and how they spread?
With this info under your belt you are well on your way to a successful collaboration.

Funny thing is, that often, as you observe and ponder and more importantly do nothing, the natural evolution plays out and nature sorts it. Just like in Steve’s case.

Use the philosophy described here as a baseline and tweak it to suit. If trickier weeds are your lot, then check out the article below – it speaks to a few of the harder weeds.


  1. Hi Kath
    Just re-read your bit on weed management and noted your cautious mention of using wipe on glyphosate.
    Not being at all fond of the stuff yet having cleared several acres worth of blackberry manually over the years in established (over-run!) gardens I have found a more sensitive way of applying glyphosate than cut n paste.
    What I found was that unfortunately too often my tin of glyphos, which I always dye up strongly with food colouring so can see easily where it has been used, quite often the tin with brush in it would get knocked over.
    What I found is that a squiurty bottle, like sat window cleaner bottle, on a fine jet is very effective, efficient, and accurate way of applying glyphos to fresh cuts.

    • Thanks for those wise words Adrian, and yes to the dye – I would love for glypho to be dyed by law – if folks could see the insidiousness of spray, they’d change their mind quick smart, and as you so rightly point out, a clear view of where you have been. You remind me of one of my first gardening jobs in my early 20’s – cutting gorse ‘trees’ off at the base and immediately squirting a mix of glyphosate and diesel on the stump (the landowners sworn combo) via an ex sunlight detergent bottle. It certainly worked wonders and was my introduction to thoughtful weed control on a large scale.

  2. OK. So at home I’m good with all this, but I just took on a role as school gardener and I’ve inherited a huge space which I am trouble deciding the priorities to manage in a the limited time I’m employed for.
    Sandy soil and rhizomatous weeds. Yarrow, couch and sorrel are everywhere.
    We’re supposed to be growing veges above the ground as it’s the site of an old maori village.
    I feel like we would do well to focus on building soil for the next year. Any further suggestions or hints for management?

    • Hey Suzie -I feel ya! My experience in schools, is that its a brilliant idea to go forward slowly. I love the idea of container gardens right by the kids classrooms so they can begin to experience crops and instant joy! Strawberries, peas, cucumbers, cocktail tomatoes, potatoes in buckets, flowers – all go really well in this way and yes, your idea to spend a year building soil is spot on. Finding regular sources of OM is the key and donated wood chip from local arborists makes a huge impact.
      Is this the one and only option for food gardens, is my question here. Big weed issues + no time is not the wisest combo! Generally my advice in schools in weedy areas esp, is to grow fruit trees and a low maintenance food forest style that will in time, outcompete the bulk of the weeds in a way that annual vegies never will and explore other places for the annual vegies.
      If you want to explore your school site in this way then I am happy to contribute an hour consult and help you go over your basemap with you when its ready.
      Use the contact form on my website to touch base if this is the case.
      All the best!

  3. I used to have masses of tradescantia, but now I have chickens! Unfortunately even the chickens draw the line at the pretty inedible mint with which this garden is infested. I don’t know what former resident of this home planted it, but they’re never going to be on my list of favourite people, I can tell you that.

    • 😀 Those tricky weeds!!!! Have you tried the black plastic method?

      • Not yet! It appears that some past resident tried either that or the plant-through black mulch fabric, because every now and again I find myself pulling tattered degraded black stuff out of the soil.
        I have tried the old cardboard-and-then-masses-of-mulch approach, and that definitely slowed it down (and made it easier to pull up). One step at a time, I guess.

        • Thats the one Deborah – just keep on with plastic and card + mulch and eventually you’ll transform the soil which in turn transforms the weed. Persevere! And keep your eyes out for whatever grows through it, natural competitors or the next succession will at some point arrive.

  4. Hi Kath
    Thanks for all your great info!
    The weed which gives me the most grief is oxalis…
    Can I just chill and ignore it? It’s in my glasshouse and raises its head all over the Vege garden over the summer. Any tips on getting rid of it if I need to get rid of it?

    • Ah yes oxalis! Its tough to manage in an annual garden because it thrives on disturbance. It can be outcompeted with evergreen perennials eventually so my 1st check in this regard is can you begin a no dig annual garden in another spot and use the oxalis spot for fruit trees and perennials or some such?
      If not then my advice is to keep going on top of each vegie bed by laying cardboard and compost/ mulch and planting into that each time – do as little digging as you can, preferably none! In any spare space in the greenhouse/ vegie beds plant perennials.
      Then break off the tops of the oxalis as and when – photosynthesis gives the bulbs energy so keep knocking it back. Bring ease by not aiming for elimination! Good luck.

  5. Kia ora, after 2 years and acres of cardboard and several felled trees’ worth of mulch, I’m getting the hang of large garden weed control. However, one area has remained a challenge and I’m hoping you can recommend a couple of plant species that will have a chance at winning out via subterfuge/outcompeting. I’m in the lower North island. The area is the shallow boggy banks of a 100m long waterway that has a small stream in spring but otherwise is just a river of buttercup two feet deep., interspersed with raggedy clumps of pasture grasses. The soil is almost always waterlogged, any hole dug quickly fills with water and makes a sucking noise on the spade. So far, carex secta and another forgotten carex variety have emerged victorious over the buttercup, but I’d like other options and hopefully productive/loved by pollinators ones. it is otherwise a very pretty area with a boardwalk and poplar trees with dappled sunlight. Bluebells seem to be doing well on the fringes, and I’m going to try renga renga – but any other recommendations would be greatly appreciated! I’ve put many a plant to death in this area so far, including some very poorly selected lavender – I know now it didn’t have a chance, but it would have looked great, and I’ve learned a lot since then! Thank you very much

    • Oh Evie how exciting! Be fab to focus on natives alongside the waterway, esp trees they will absolutely transform the waterway by shading it, cleaning it up and bringing back life (insects, freshwater fish, birds) and if the landowners all along the waterway join up, you could return it to a year round running creek, restoring the eco system at large. Cleaning waterways is possibly the most important job us kiwis can do!
      I’m going to recommend natives here to do this job and wonder if you can get the pollinator kai into your land in other spots? Stick to natives that grow locally to you along riversides. Your regional council should supply the plants and advice, hit them up. Heres some ideas to get you started – Trees – Ti Kouka, Pukatea, Nikau, Putaputaweta, Plagianthus Shrubs – Mingimingi, Manuka, Pate Groundcovers – wiwi, sedge, flax, libertia. Rushes for example immediately alongside the water moving into shrubs then trees. Looks stunning, these wetland plantings and is incredible to watch the life return and the water begin to flow and the buttercup ebb away and to know you had a hand in setting the wheel in motion.
      Check out any local water restoration projects and copy what they are planting.
      Ka rawe! Well done you!

  6. Ingrid Gotlieb says

    Excellent tips on weeds – as a landscape designer I find customers can get overly focused on weeds. You articulate so well on how to smartly manage weeds in the garden. While I too work this way – tradescantia is to me the most difficult weed to deal with here in Wellington. It doesn’t seem to mind being blocked by the light and spreads extremely fast over large areas. Do you have any tips on dealing with this weed?

    • Tricky old Tradescantia! Yes, there’s more tips in the article I linked to at the bottom of the post “Here’s a more detailed post that speaks individually to the trickier weeds” though everything I wrote applies – fry it under plastic or some such, to get a good head start then mulch thickly and outcompete with equally vigorous plants teamed, of course, with ongoing management. Its about adapting my overall philosophy to your unique situation and acknowledging that you never get rid of weeds, but can greatly minimise them and your labour component. You’re right, yes – mindset makes the biggest difference of all. Enjoy!

  7. Claire & Brian says

    Hi Kath,
    Thanks for your information v helpful. Hubby and self went from towny ( lawnmowers experience) to country living, new build & land 1 /2 acres. Hubby chose mowing lawns with ride on. I wrongly chose sloping veggie patch have hand terraced to make it easier on body aches. Constantly battling weeds, thought they had to be pulled out ( don’t like spraying) but can’t tell weed from sprouting plants many a crop lost as it looked like a weed ? so now attempting your suggestions great lists of what to plant to counter weeds but no idea what the plants look like🤷‍♀️ I think we are on right track with your monthly email and your books. We have had success with salads and tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, melons onions etc. I get so excited going down the veggie garden and come back with food for cooking 👍 we planted fruit trees stone fruit is a challenge, my best was a baby fig (that in 3 years is ginormous and very giving) other fruit trees coming along well as soil is 100 years of sheep & cows. Also no idea of what we are doing but again hand terraced ( not safe for a machine) north facing hill and planted 120 grape vines ( Chardonnay) just because we could, they have a great view of the ocean, sometimes a bit windy but mostly sheltered, ( North Island BOP) we have adopted vertical shoot positioning system ( sounds like we know what we are doing but alas no !) and have posts and wires as copied from proper wineries. We are hoping to get fruit this year (so hubby building a cellar ASAP) we have no idea what we are doing ( viticulture by u tube) but finding last year the grapes were looking great and healthy and then something ate the fruit from the inside small black insect size of an ant but not ants (do not want to use sprays). As they are young vines we removed all the fruit again. We will cover properly with insect nets this year. But just wondered if you may have idea what insect it was that we have? Or what companion planting may help ? We are playing so it’s not an industry or a money making venture I just got carried away when ordering the plants and thought probably half would not survive but so far they all have. This season coming will be year 4.
    Thank you for any info

    • Dear Clarissa, Yes its a big transition from small section to large – I’m glad if my blogs help you out!
      Just to say that the size and scope of this awesome question makes it a garden coaching session – all the details are on my website. Or, get yourself along to your local garden club or organic NZ group or treecroppers – all of which are excellent support on your garden journey… so much to learn! Enjoy Kath