These options will keep unwanted plants in check without harming your furry (and non-furry) family members.

By Kate Richards
Updated April 30, 2020
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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.

Rachel McGinn

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.

Jacob Fox

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.

Brie Passano

2. Smothering

Weeds need sunlight to thrive, and if you limit their access to light, they'll die. This is just one reason why the use of garden mulch is such a widespread practice. A thick layer (3-5 inches) of organic mulches such as wood chips or pine needles allows water and air in but keeps sunlight out; soil stays healthy but small weeds and seeds hidden under the mulch do not survive. Spread mulch over garden beds to help mature plants thrive while keeping new weeds at bay. If widespread plant-killing is required (when you’re creating a new garden, for example) opaque plastic sheeting, layers of cardboard, or carpet scraps can be laid over the area where you want to kill all plants. You’ll need to leave it in place 4-6 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 plants that are young and tender. It is non-selective, so it will damage lawns as well as weeds. Keep in mind that it is a strong acid so you must take precautions to avoid getting it on your skin (like wearing garden gloves) or in your eyes or nose, and it must be allowed to dry 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.

Andy Lyons

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 do not 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 offer selective weed killing 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 can’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.

Kate Sears

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 is 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.

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