Question. Dear Mike: Our church has gone "green", but the grounds people still insist on using Roundup. Our local school district's IPM (Integrated Pest Management) manager told me they have not used Roundup since the late 1980's and recommended that the Church stop using it as well. He said that the 'inactive' ingredients (stickers, spreaders, etc.) are more toxic than the active ingredient! Perhaps this would be a good subject for your show...
- ----Mary Kane;Main Line Unitarian Church, Radnor, PA
Answer. Thank you, Mary! It's been WAY too long since I went on a good garden chemical tirade! I always assume that people realize the extreme dangers posed by herbicides and other garden poisons. But I tend to forget how bombarded they are with ads imploring them to use the junk, often implying that the toxins are somehow harmless. (Like when Monsanto says that their Roundup is harmless as table salt-which is actually kind of true, since salt is one of the most corrosive substances on the planet.)
And yes, evidence strongly suggests that Roundup's so-called 'inert ingredients' (a decision often made solely by the manufacturer) are even worse than the 'active' ingredient, the extremely nasty chemical glyphosate. That's why, when Monsanto talks about their popular Calliban of weed killers, they always say "the active ingredient in Roundup does this or that". They never talk about the actual product,which kills earthworms and beneficial insects, has been linked tonon-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and is taken up internally by any plants it doesn't kill-so if you foolishly use it to control weeds in your veggie garden, you'll be eating Round-Up for the next two years. Yum.
You can get all the scary details from one of my favorite organizations, Beyond Pesticides. I'll post a direct link to their factsheet on glyphosate with this Question of the Week. You can also visit their home site at BeyondPesticides.org
I actually prefer to let others do the scaring you to death part.(Which is more than just a phrase in this case-although they're actually scaring you AWAY from death). My job is to turn you on to the many non-toxic alternatives to poisons like Roundup-like my Fantastic Four of Weed Warriors: Flame, heat, soap and vinegar!
But of course, I MUST first mention mulch. An inch of shredded fall leaves, straw, or clippings from an herbicide-free lawn is your best defense against garden weeds. DO NOT USE WOOD CHIPS, SHREDDED BARK,SAWDUST, "COLORED MULCH" OR OTHER WOOD PRODUCTS AROUND PLANTS-they steal nitrogen from the soil and prevent water from reaching roots.Don't use them within 30 feet of your home or car either-unless you like impossible-to-remove shotgun fungus stains.
…and 'mechanical controls'! I use a weed whacker on the grass that grows in the lanes between my raised beds. I used to use woods chips in the lanes-a place in which they are perfectly safe-but I've come to prefer whacking once a month. The grass 'captures' nutrients that leach out of the beds, and then I 'harvest' it for mulch and compost making. Plus I get to make a lot of noise and get all dirty and then run through the sprinkler.
OK, your top four non-toxic alternatives to nasty chemical herbicide sare:
No 'weed whacking wound up' would be complete without an incendiary device now, would it? Flame weeders are great; you just attach a small, 'camp stove' size propane bottle to the long metal wand, click it on, wave the fiery tip over the tops of plants you dislike and they dehydrate and die. Perennials, like dandelions, may require a second treatment-or you can just linger there a while and really toast the suckers.
My personal favorite-BernzOmatic's "OutdoorTorch"-is available at hardware and garden stores, or direct from BernzOmatic for about forty bucks, including shipping; call them toll-free at 1-800-654-9011. Get Model JT 850; its push-button ignition makes it much safer to use. There are many similar devices out there,as well as larger flamers that use refillable gas-grill sized propane tanks and adapters that let you hook big tanks up to the smaller,hand-held devices.
Note: Be careful not to burn yourself or set dry brush or mulch on fire with these things. Always wear protective footwear and have a primed garden hose handy in case of emergency. And NEVER, EVER burn poison ivy, oak, sumac or similar plants.
Instead of open flame, Swiss made "Infra-Weeders" use propane to produce 1800º of radiant heat that 'cooks' weeds away! The"Dandy Destroyer" has a two-inch round spiked head that you plunge into the hearts of dandelions and similar long-rooted weeds to send them to their Eternal Reward. The "Eliminator" withers weeds in patios and walkways with a 3 x 7 inch heated plate. About $200 apiece (American)from the Canadian company Ritten house; on the web at www.rittenhouse.ca.
Herbicidal soap sprays kill weeds by smothering them with a soap bubble-like film. Gardens Alive (www.gardensalive.com; 812-537-8650)calls their herbicidal soap "Weed-Aside"(say it out loud). And you'll find products like Concern's "Fast Acting Weed Killer" in classier retail stores. Read the labels carefully-the active ingredient should say something like "potassium salts of fatty acids".
A POWERFUL herbicide! (So be careful not to splash your 'wanted' plants!) You can just fill a spray bottle with regular old white vinegar and spritz away, or use products like "BurnOut Weed Killer"from St. Gabriel Labs (800-801-0061; www.milkyspore.com). The original version-a mixture of vinegar and lemon juice-was very effective. "BurnOut II" (the sequel!) also contains clove oil, which they say makes it even better.
Note: Soap, flame, heat and vinegar all work best when the weeds you want to waste are nice and dry and a hot sun is beating down. Don't use them on a cool, cloudy or wet day. If it's rained recently, give the plants a day to dry out-or pull them by hand, which is MUCH easier in wet soil.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath