Natural Weed Killers: A Guide to Organic Herbicides

Weed killer on lawn

Weed control is critical to keep unwanted pests from competing with grass, flowers, or veggies for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. While organic gardening and organic lawn care continue to gain popularity, choosing the best natural weed killer can be confusing. 

To help you make the best choices for your yard and garden, here’s a look at organic herbicides and how they’re used.

Organic Herbicides List

When compared to conventional herbicides, the market offers relatively few organic weed killers. The list includes some of the commonly used organic herbicides:

What Are Organic Herbicides?

Herbicides are a class of chemical compounds used to kill or inhibit the growth of unwanted weeds.

Chemicals are classified as inorganic or organic based on the compounds they contain. Inorganic herbicides are synthetically created in a lab; organic weed killers are made from naturally occurring chemicals. Glyphosate, commonly sold under the name Roundup, is a well-known inorganic herbicide. Horticultural vinegar is a well-known organic herbicide.

How Do Organic Herbicides Work?

Simply put, chemical herbicides disrupt biological processes within the cells of targeted plants to kill weeds.

Herbicides are classified into different categories based on how and when they affect plants when applied: contact vs. systemic and pre- vs. post-emergent. Understanding these categories allows you to choose the best herbicide for your yard and garden.

Contact and Systemic Herbicides

Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Herbicides come in two major classes:

  • Contact herbicides disrupt the biological processes only in the plant tissues they contact. They are fast-acting, but in most cases, require multiple applications to kill the entire plant.
  • Systemic herbicides act through absorption. The weed’s vascular system carries the poison from the shoots to the root system to kill the entire plant.

Organic herbicides for weeds fall into the category of contact herbicides. These organic products are also non-selective, meaning they’ll kill perennial weeds, broadleaf weeds, dandelions — whatever they touch. So careful application is key.

Pre-Emergent and Post-Emergent Herbicides

Spraying on plants
Photo Credit: Pixnio

Organic herbicides can be either pre-emergent or post-emergent.

  • Pre-emergent products prevent weed seeds from sprouting above the soil surface, stopping the problem before it starts. Organic pre-emergent herbicides include corn gluten meal.
  • Post-emergent weed killer targets weeds that have germinated and are actively growing above the soil surface. Organic post-emergent herbicides include vinegar and citric acid.

Organic Herbicide Active Ingredients

Corn gluten meal
Photo Credit: Jon Rehg / Canva Pro / License

Just a few organic herbicide ingredients exist. Corn gluten meal, one of the earliest, remains the most popular. Corn gluten meal (CGM) is used as a pre-emergent weed killer, primarily in turf. 

Dr. Nick Christians of Iowa State University discovered CGM’s weed-killing properties while researching a pathogen found on golf course turf. Patented as a natural herbicide in the early 1990s, the corn-milling byproduct inhibits root formation for broadleaf weeds and grassy weeds. However, it works better in some climates than in others.

Other organic weed killers are post-emergent products. The following contain active ingredients that work by removing the waxy cuticle on plant leaves or damaging cell walls to cause desiccation (loss of moisture) and senescence (loss of the ability to divide and grow).

Active ingredients in organic herbicide products:

  • Herbicidal soaps containing long-chain fatty acids
  • Vinegar or acetic acid (In high concentrations, it is often called horticultural vinegar. Regular household vinegar is ineffective as a weed killer.)
  • Citric acid
  • D-limonene, a common terpene found naturally in citrus peels such as orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, and mandarin
  • Essential oils such as clove, summary savory, cinnamon, and red thyme
  • Chelated Iron. This consists of the iron product generally used as a soil supplement. However, it is bound to a chelating agent (HEDTA or hydroxyethylenediaminetriacetic acid) that keeps it liquid. It’s effective against broadleaf weeds.

Here are some other common organic herbicides and their respective active ingredients:

  • Weed Pharm (20% acetic acid)
  • Weed Zap (45% clove oil + 45% cinnamon oil)
  • Whitney Farms Lawn Weed Killer (1.5% Iron HEDTA)
  • GreenMatch EX (50% lemongrass oil)

Homemade Organic Weed Killer

Photo Credit: Pixabay

If you can’t find an organic weed killer, or the budget won’t allow for one, you can make your own. Two popular methods are:

Vinegar: This is the most popular homemade weed killer and is usually combined with soap (but avoid dish soap). However, the cider or white vinegar in your pantry likely isn’t strong enough to do the job. You’ll want vinegar with an acetic acid concentrate of up to 20%. One gallon of 5%-20% vinegar and 1 cup of castile soap, and you’re ready to take on the weeds.

  • Caution: Horticultural vinegar can cause blindness and burns on your skin, so follow all safety recommendations before using.

Boiling water: If you can boil water, this DIY all-natural weed killer is within your reach. This method requires a kettle, water, and a stove. It works well on young weeds and is a good choice for patios and driveways. Pour the water directly and carefully on the weeds so as not to burn yourself or kill the wrong plants.

Tips for Effective Organic Herbicide Use

Organic herbicides present challenges not found in inorganic products, so keep the following in mind when utilizing them.

  • Use in conjunction with hand weeding or other cultural weed eradication methods for best results.
  • Organic herbicides typically are contact herbicides, so they must cover the entire plant.
  • Perennial weed plants have a greater ability to recover, even if the herbicide is applied well.
  • The best time to apply is when temperatures are above 75 F on a sunny day.
  • Reapplications may be necessary for best results.


When is the Best Time to Apply Organic Weed Killers?

The sooner, the better once weeds begin to emerge. Organic herbicides work best on younger, smaller weeds. Research conducted by Thomas Lanini of the University of California has proven the best results come when the weed killers are applied at the cotyledon or first true leaf stage.

What’s a Good Non-Chemical Weed Preventer?

Mulch is a good way to prevent weeds, and it keeps moisture in the soil. Spread 2-3 inches of mulch in the area you want to keep weed-free. Commercial weed-blocking fabric also works and can be applied under mulch. For a less expensive landscape fabric alternative, try a few sheets of newspaper or cardboard.

Can I Use a Torch to Burn Out Weeds?

Flame weeding, with a propane torch or other fuel-burning implement, works on young weeds and on solid areas, such as driveways. But don’t set the weeds on fire. Instead, just apply a brief burst of heat that ruptures the weed’s cell walls. Works well on dandelions and other broadleaf weeds.

Use extreme caution with this method: Wear appropriate clothing, be careful when handling the torch, and do not flame weed on windy days, near dry grass, or other flammable materials.

When to Call in the Pros

It’s important to choose the right organic herbicide for weeds and apply it properly. If you’re not confident about doing this, consider calling a lawn care professional. A local pro experienced in organic weed control can keep the weeds at bay and help you achieve a more sustainable lawn.

Main Image Credit: Shutterstock

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Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.