Features and Occasionals

In the Garden: An Organic Gardener’s Dilemma

By Pax Rasmussen

Occasionally we face dilemmas that offer only unsavory solutions. If the situation arises where you must use a chemical weed killer, and Roundup is the best weapon for the job, do it right. The Big Gulp, Super-Sized approach doesn’t cut it—at best, it’s a waste.

If Monsanto, Dow, Bayer and Du Pont had their way, the first line of response for a couple dandelions in the drive would be a hefty dose of glysophate (Roundup). And that’ll work—but as much as Monsanto would like you to believe, it’s not the safest option. Flip back to April 2012’s CATALYST and check out Alice Toler’s article, “Roundup Unready” (or go to tinyurl.com/roundupunready) for some pretty convincing evidence about why glysophate isn’t the safe, worry-free compound the chem manufacturers say it is. The stuff is an endocrine disrupter, it washes off into waterways, and it’s found in the urine of just about everyone in the U.S. and Europe.

Most of the problems posed by glysophate are caused by large-scale, industrial agriculture use. Big Ag sprays (literally) hundreds of millions of gallons of the stuff each year in the U.S. alone. While it’s unlikely that a gallon carefully applied in the yard will hurt you or your family, each drop contributes to the overall environmental contamination by this chemical that is turning out to be more pervasive and persistent than anyone thought.

Occasionally we face dilemmas that offer only unsavory solutions. If the situation arises where you must use a chemical weed killer, and Roundup is the best weapon for the job, do it right. The Big Gulp, Super-Sized approach doesn’t cut it—at best, it’s a waste. At worst, it’s harmful (and may make your neighbors hate you). Use it correctly, and you will minimize environmental glysophate contamination. Small amounts break down quickly in sunlight and in water.

My wife and I use it in our yard from time to time—judiciously. You see, we have bindweed. Lots of bindweed. Our property was a rental for many years before we bought it, and the hooligans and crackheads that owned our house before us neglected (read: completely and utterly ignored) the landscaping.

Bindweed loves an uncultivated yard. We’ve tried several unsuccessful methods of bindweed eradication, including shouted insults and recriminations, solarization, landscape fabric and mulch, vinegar, boiling water—and these things do work, but only to a point. You can kill the bits of the plant above the surface, but bindweed has roots that can go down up to 30 feet, and it can survive two years without sunshine or water—waiting, like Alien egg pods, for the return of hosts, er, nutrients. I’ve heard reports on the Internets that three or more years of cutting/mowing bindweed, allowing it to get no more than eight inches tall/long, will eventually kill the main plant, but it can travel under cloth/mulch more than 25 feet in search of borders. Cement is no barrier. I admit I’ve been tempted to let loose with a hellfire cannon of glysophate—but guess what? Even Roundup doesn’t work so well against the stuff. Sprayed at the wrong time of day, not much is absorbed through the leaves, and sprayed at the wrong time of year, nothing much happens at all. It will yellow (and maybe kill) the bit of the plant above ground, but it won’t solve the underlying problem.

To kill bindweed with Roundup requires either heavy, repeated applications over a period of years, or one or two applications properly timed: in late fall and/or early spring.

How Roundup works

Roundup does its dirty work by being absorbed into a plant through its leaves and traveling to the main body of the plant—where it inhibits an enzyme the plant needs to live. The problem is, bindweed is tough and can handle a small dose of glysophate just fine. During the summer, when most folks are spraying weeds, bindweed isn’t transporting much nutrient down to the main plant body underground. Instead, nutrients are leaving the main body and being used to make flowers and seeds. In the fall, however, after going to seed, bindweed is storing up water, nutrients and energy from the sun, bringing all that good stuff down deep underground where it is used next spring to make the first growth. (This is also how it survives two years under plastic without sunshine). To a lesser extent, bindweed is also bringing nutrients down in the spring after the first growth has appeared, in preparation for summer’s flowers.

Applied in the fall or spring, glysophate is absorbed and transported to the main plant body. This is a much more effective way of killing a well-established bindweed infestation.

So right now, I’m mowing my bindweed to keep it from going to seed (the seeds can remain fertile up to 50 years!), and will be spraying small, targeted amounts of Roundup this fall. I’ll make sure to do it on a warm, sunny day, and spend the extra time using the sprayer with low pressure, targeting the spray to coat only the bindweed leaves. I don’t want this stuff anywhere else in the yard. I’ve even heard stories of folks applying Roundup concentrate with a cotton swab, or with a cotton-gloved finger dipped in the stuff (latex glove on underneath, of course!).

Also important is to make sure that glysophate doesn’t get on or near any blossoms (not usually much of a problem in late September or early October), because it’s hell on bees. Making sure to not to spray when it could rain within 48 hours is also important: Roundup either absorbs completely into the plant or breaks down in the sun fairly quickly, but even a short shower will wash it off, rendering it ineffective and contaminating nearby plants.

I’m not categorically against using a little weed killer here and there, but a little research goes a long way in figuring out how to use it smartly.

This article was originally published on June 28, 2013.