Chemicals with your veges? No way. It’s not hard to convince people to lay off the sprays in the vegetable garden. When it comes to roses, though, we hesitate. The promise of that perfect bloom, perhaps bringing back fond memories of grandmothers, makes it intolerable to have new buds blighted by aphids or leaves spotted yellow or blackened by sooty mould. But the chemical we’re most likely to use without blinking is weedkiller. We don’t even mind that its title states its intention; this chemical is clearly targeting those invaders: weeds.
I have always had the impression weedkiller is the lesser of two evils, especially in the battle against aggressive and invasive weeds that threaten the environment.
In my days of garden maintenance, we always donned the gas masks and spacesuits when using insecticides, but we were more relaxed with weed sprays that were said to be biodegradable and environmentally friendly. But the truth is that some chemicals commonly used in some weedkillers are being reported as a potential risk to health and the environment.
Some components may be harmless and even ineffective on their own as herbicides, but studies show that when combined with other additives they may become potentially dangerous.
Why nurture homegrown produce or spend money on organic food, then step outside and spray with something that may contain carcinogens?
So, if we’re not going to use weedkiller, how can we control those weeds in our well-nurtured gardens and the cracks in our paths? There are alternatives. A simple formulation of salt and vinegar into the cracks in concrete should do the trick. Steam or a kettle of boiling water will also knock back most plants.
If you’re prepared to make a small investment, consider a flame thrower, which is what organic farmers use. Done sensibly, this is a reasonably low-risk solution that was the norm before being replaced by a chemical solution.
But beyond all-out warfare, I’m convinced that, especially for garden beds, the key is to out-compete the enemy. Even oxalis will be defeated if a garden is planted with plants tall enough to overshadow this pest. Overplanting and then thinning as the garden develops is an effective way to out-compete weeds and also retain moisture.
For a new garden or vegetable patch, mulching instead of digging will make a huge difference. At home, I use a combination of bark mulches on my flower beds. I use pea straw on my vegetable garden and for shrubs and hedges as well as the back of garden beds, anything from lavender clippings to cabbage-tree leaves. Although cabbage-tree leaves are not encouraged in commercial composting, their fibrous nature makes them effective at the back of beds where weeding can be frustrating. This combination reduces weeding, keeps the garden looking kempt and is highly effective in retaining water.
Banana leaves are also a fantastic mulch, especially for vegetable gardens where they can be laid between rows as a quick-fix weed suppressant. For more vigorous weeds such as convolvulus, I have to question how effective weed sprays have been, anyway, as these curly characters are masters at entwining themselves around everything.
When it comes to problem weeds, there is often no quick fix. This is where my mother’s advice is best: “Instead of wasting time and money at the gym, just get down on your knees and your hands in the dirt and get the job done.”
To be successful, we need to persist but also concentrate on out-competing the problem plants by focusing on the health and suitability of plants we use to replace them. Around paths and driveways a weedeater takes the same amount of time and is actually a more instantly gratifying choice than a weed sprayer, and edges can be dealt with by planting with tight-growing ground covers.
Mondo grass is a great example of a hardy but non-invasive groundcover that is effective at creating a green defence in places where weeds will otherwise move in, such as under fences and beneath hedges.
Little harm can come if we take a more cautious approach, instead of attacking our gardens with a raft of chemicals to help them grow, to stop insects or to hammer weeds. Although we have little control of what happens outside our garden gate, within it we can plan to be more safe than sorry.