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Whacking Weeds With Flame, Soap and {quote} 'Vinegar'


Q. I've been hand-pulling weeds for four days in a row and I'm in not even a third of the way through! Perhaps there comes a point when one turns to the help of chemistry, although I'm really afraid for safety of my outdoor cat. Any suggestions?
    ---Lena in Mississauga, ON, Canada.
I recently moved to a house with a brick walkway. Unfortunately the bricks do not have any concrete between them and lots of weeds keep coming up. I have heard you speak about flame weeders, which sound much better than chemicals. Where can I purchase one?
    ---Terri in Telford, PA
I have been searching for the tool you say you use to burn weeds, but have been unable to locate one. Could you please provide a source?
    ---Kathe at the Viking Resort in Penn Yan, NY
I was thinking about using concentrated Acetic Acid to kill weeds in the grout lines between our pavers. Will 20% vinegar harm flagstone?
    ---Haia in Reading PA
Clearing my patio by hand usually costs me a full Saturday and a good deal of knuckle skin. But even when I manage to get the roots, they come back in full force inside of a month. I've read about solutions that involve vinegar, salt, and boiling water. Of course, Round-Up is out of the question. What ARE the easiest ways to get these weeds?
    ---Tom in Norristown, PA
A. Yes, it's been a nasty weed year. The historic heat wave many of us recently endured shut down everything I planted in my garden, but the weeds loved it!

And yes, the weeds that grow in between the bricks, pavers, flagstones and such in pathways can be especially annoying. And although Terri in Telford bemoans her lack of mortar, it's a necessary fault of walkways—if those spaces were sealed up, the whole thing would crack apart from heat and cold stress.

Never use vinegar on any kind of paver, brick, flagstone or concrete; it WILL damage the surface. Same for salt. And the oft-recommended 'boiling water' will damage your surface. You ever try and carry a big pot of boiling water? It sloshes a little more violently with every step until some goes ever the edge, burns your hand, you drop the pot and scald your legs, feet and tootsies.

Herbicidal soap sprays are a much more safe and effective walkway weed wanquisher. Similar to insecticidal soaps, they smother their designated pest with a soap-bubble film—and leave your walkway clean and shiny! Soak the weeds well with the soap at the hottest part of the day during a dry spell and they will wither and die.

And yes, one of my favorite garden tools—the trusty flame weeder—also works very well. I use BernzOmatic's "Outdoor Torch"; you screw a camp-stove sized propane bottle into one end of the long wand, click the igniter and a cute little flame comes out the other end. Wait for a dry spell, wave the flame over the tops of the weeds, and they will dehydrate and die. Any hardware or home supply store can order one for you, many stores have them in stock this time of year, and you can order directly from BernzOmatic by calling their toll-free #, 1-800-654-9011 (they don't sell online)

A number of other companies sell similar devices; the Canadian company Rittenhouse, for instance, sells a basic flamer and a more expensive device called the "Infra-Weeder Dandy Destroyer" that uses high-powered radiant heat instead of open flame. It has a spike on the end (designed to plunge into the hearts of dandelions and cook them to death) that looks like it would do a swell job in the spaces between pavers. (Both of these tools use the same small, disposable propane bottles as the BernzOmatic.) Rittenhouse used to also have an "Infra-Weeder" with a flat head—HEY! I heard that!—that was designed just for walkway use, but it appears to have been replaced with a similar looking but very expensive professional model that uses a big refillable gas-grill sized propane tank and sells for over a thousand bucks as opposed to a couple hundred.

If you do choose flame, be careful not to set leaves or brush—or yourself—on fire. This shouldn't be a problem on pavers (the leaves and brush, anyway), but once you have one of these things, you are tempted to use it everywhere. So if you wander off with your flamethrower, have a helper handy with a hose.

Or limit your pyromania to the patio and use a soap or {quote} "vinegar" spray to kill weeds in driveways and garden beds. I say "quote" because it is technically illegal to call vinegar an herbicide. In their slightly-less-than-infinite wisdom, the EPA has deemed vinegar safe to use and exempt from pesticide regulations, but only as an inert substance, despite the fact that vinegar is pretty much the opposite of inert. But the government says it is and if you argue with them they will fine you and have you stopped at airports for the rest of your life.

You can buy 10% and 20% acidity "high strength" vinegars—they're available in some retail locations and via the Internet—but by law they can't call them herbicides on the label or tell you how to use them. The best they can do is label them "horticultural vinegars", the assumption being that you will use them instead of nasty bleach to clean your pruning tools, nudge, nudge; wink, wink.

That's why the various organic herbicides popping up on retail shelves these days declare a different active ingredient; clove oil is a popular choice. Most also happen to include a fairly high strength vinegar—typically 8% acidity—but of course only as one of their {cough, ahem} 'inert' ingredients. Like herbicidal soaps, these things are very good weed killers; just be careful not to spray them on wanted plants—or your nice patio.

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