You buy organic food. You opt for all-natural cleaning products. You favor herbal remedies over any kind of prescription meds. So it stands to reason that you’ll apply this same “keep it real” philosophy when it comes to your yard. You want to treat it like nature intended—i.e., without harsh chemicals.
But just how well do all of those easy-peasy, chemical-free lawn care strategies actually work? Let’s break down the myths you’ve heard—and talk about what’s true instead.
Myth No. 1: Boiling water kills weeds
Truth: “Pouring boiling water on leaves and stems of weeds and plants you don’t want is an effective way of killing them,” admits Ty Jones, president and owner of Deans Services, a lawn care and pest control business in Leesburg, FL. “But it’s not going to have any sort of long-term effect.”
This is especially true if that crazy-hot water doesn’t get all the way down to the roots of the weeds. The good news? Because it’s just good ol’ H2O, “it has no negative effects on the environment, and it’s a really good tactic if there are weeds in the cracks of your sidewalk or driveway,” Jones concedes.
Bottom line: It’s a labor-intensive and time-consuming way to handle a whole yard full of weeds.
Myth No. 2: Vinegar’s acidity wipes out weeds, too
Truth: The active ingredient in vinegar is acetic acid. But in order to actually kill weeds—not just make them smell like a vinaigrette—”you’d need a vinegar with a concentration so strong that it becomes hazardous,” Jones says.
Household vinegar has a 5% concentration of acetic acid, while horticultural vinegar clocks in at 20%. It’s known as a “burndown” herbicide, meaning it kills any plant it comes into contact with, sometimes over a matter of hours.
“This vinegar is powerful enough to knock out your weeds, but it can also burn your skin or eyes; corrode tin, aluminum, iron, or concrete; and be devastating to beneficial insects and wildlife in your yard,” Jones cautions.
Myth No. 3: Epsom salt gives you lush, green grass
Truth: Epsom salt does contains magnesium, so it can promote germination, uptake of nutrients, and general health. “But it’s more of a secondary nutrient,” Jones says.
In other words, it works best when it’s used with a commercial fertilizer product. (Which might defeat the purpose of using Epsom salt in the first place.)
How much good Epsom salt can do also depends on the type of soil you have. Sandy or particularly acidic soils might be lacking in magnesium or sulfate, which Epsom salt provides. But if your soil has plenty of those nutrients, it “won’t make too much of a difference in your lawn,” Jones says.
Myth No. 4: Baking soda is a natural herbicide
Truth: Baking soda is a desiccant—meaning it sucks the water out of plant cells, drying them out and weakening them until they die.
“But baking soda won’t discriminate between your healthy grass and weeds, so be really careful if you’re using it on your lawn,” Jones warns.
Plus, like so many DIY methods, baking soda’s likely going to damage the surface of your weeds, but won’t penetrate the roots.
Myth No. 5: Soda or beer provides instant fertilizer
Truth: Carbonated water could have a positive impact on the health of your lawn. But proper watering from your hose or sprinkler will work just fine and be cheaper in the long run. And as for soda? It’s a flat-out no-no.
“Carbonated water and club soda have most of the macronutrients required to encourage plant growth, but sugary sodas actually prevent plants from being able to absorb water,” Jones says.
And before you reach for a can of Bud Light, know this: Beer does contain yeast and carbohydrates that benefit microbes in soil. “But there are higher-quality organic options that will be more effective than pouring cheap beer on your lawn,” Jones says.
Myth No. 6: Pouring dish detergent on plants will kill insects
Truth: Most dish detergents contain phosphate, bleach, dyes, and fragrances—in other words, all the chemicals you’re trying to avoid to be truly “natural.”
“Because these soaps have to dissolve fats, oils, and waxes on your dishes, they’ll also remove the oils and waxes that protect your plants,” Jones warns. “Without a protective coating, your plants are more at risk of disease and pest problems.”
You’re better off using an insecticidal soap (made using potassium instead of sodium), which won’t harm your plants. But you can’t make these at home (no matter what the internet says). And it’s worth noting that these soaps have to be sprayed directly on pests—not in your yard—to be effective.
Organic lawn care that actually works
If you’re set on organic yard care, then you’re going to have to work a little harder than pouring an IPA out in the grass. The good news, according to Jones: “It’s extremely possible to have an organic lawn care regimen that works effectively.”
Such a regimen includes the following:
Picking the right grass: “One of the reasons homeowners give up on organic products is that they’re trying to grow the wrong type of grass for their area,” Jones says.
Pay attention to the sun and shade your yard gets—plus the amount of foot traffic and any deficiencies in your soil. (You’ll need to test it first.)
Removing weeds the hard way: Stop looking for a clever shortcut to get rid of weeds. There isn’t one.
“The best way to remove weeds without harmful chemicals is to remain vigilant about pulling them as soon as they emerge,” says Matt Michaels, an expert at Lowe’s. Yanking ’em out will prevent them from leaving seeds that cause more weeds.
Knowing the best time to pull weeds: Hint: It’s easier to pull weeds when they’ve been wet for a few days.
“Wait until after you water or a rainfall to make it a no-fuss process,” Michaels recommends.
Using mulch as more than decoration: You didn’t think it was just there to look pretty, did you? Compost or other organic mulch can keep weeds from seeing the light of day, thereby suffocating them, Michaels says. Cover the bases of your plants with a 1- to 3-inch layer of compost, which also serves to fertilize.
Hiring an (organic) lawn care company: Yeah, you’re shelling out extra bucks for lawn care you could be doing yourself. But think about what you’re getting.
“Most professional organic lawn care programs focus on the health of your soil, feeding it with natural materials that nourish the organisms that help your lawn grow strong,” Jones says, “whereas chemical fertilizers feed your plants directly.”
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