Weed Is the Word

 

There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.

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Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

 

Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. They are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a highly hybridized rose bush.

Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.

One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.



Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

 

The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
— Izzy

 

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Sour Grapes

 

Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.

 

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

Wilted thistle
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.

 

A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy

 

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Three Sisters

 

The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture are corn, beans, and squash, grown together where they can complement each other and, when eaten together such as in succotash, they can complement each other nutritionally. The Three Sisters get on so well together that it’s tempting to ascribe their harmonious relationship to one of the many Native American legends describing it, ignoring the thousands of years of human trial and error, experimentation, and opportunistic capitalization on circumstance that played into the development of the relationship.

 

Corn provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb upon, and her deep roots help stabilize the soil and pull up nutrients from deep down. Beans fix nitrogen from the air, providing fertilizer for herself and her two sisters. Squash sprawls on the ground where her large, prickly leaves keep away some pests and provide a living mulch for her sisters, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weeds.

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Gateway image of the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash at Little Turtle Waterway in Logansport, Indiana. Photo by Chris Light.

The nutrients available from all three plants provide most of what a person needs. Add to that the capacity for all three to keep dried in storage through the winter, and it’s easy to understand how Native Americans in North America adopted them as the foundation of their diet. This Thanksgiving, along with hearing or reading some entertaining and philosophically informative legends about the Three Sisters, there can be great enjoyment in tasting one of the many recipes for succotash as part of the holiday dinner.

“Single Girl, Married Girl”, an Americana song from the Carter Family catalog, sung by The Haden Triplets on their eponymous 2014 album, produced by Ry Cooder. The song, the singers, and the producer all share deep roots in American music. For more of The Haden Triplets, view their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, where they lead off a four song set with “Single Girl, Married Girl”.

Most succotash (derived from a Native American word, like numerous others) consists of a base of corn and beans, leaving out the squash, but for autumn dining, and especially for Thanksgiving with its reminders of the autumn harvest and the debt of European immigrants to Native Americans, adding squash to a succotash recipe can only improve it for the season. The squash and its seeds will add many of the benefits a person could get from eating turkey, another native of North America, including tryptophan, the chemical many believe is responsible for a satisfied diner’s desire to relax on a couch after Thanksgiving dinner, as well as lazily escaping from kitchen cleanup duty.
— Izzy

 

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It Grows without Spraying

 

A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.

WEEDING SUGAR BEETS NEAR FORT COLLINS. (FROM THE SITES EXHIBITION. FOR OTHER IMAGES IN THIS ASSIGNMENT, SEE FICHE... - NARA - 553879 (cropped)
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.

 

Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.

 

Empty Glyphosate (Herbolex) container discarded in Corfu olive grove
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.

The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.

Because scientists have found traces of glyphosate in the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
— Izzy

 

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On Edging

 

At mid-winter it’s still too soon to start preparing garden beds for spring planting, even in areas of the country that aren’t under permafrost. There are cleanup tasks, as always, and if the garden beds are in need of edging this would be a good time to do it as long as the soil isn’t too mucky and hard to work. For gardeners who will do the work themselves, the kind of edging to do, or whether or not edging is desirable, depends on tolerance for heavy labor. Those easy-to-install plastic edging strips are also quickly and easily heaved out of the ground by frost and soon become useless.

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Garden vase, flower beds, and stone edgings in the Avenue Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, in July 2010. Photo by Rept0n1x.

Almost every heavy duty and reasonably attractive garden edging is going to take back breaking labor to install, though it’s true that installation may last a lifetime. There does appear to be one fair compromise between heavy labor, appearance, and durability and cost of the installation, which is to use a low profile nylon no-dig edging material that is staked down on the grass side of an edge made up of paver blocks laid on fast setting concrete. Dramatically decreasing the preparation work takes out much of the heavy labor, leaving only the lifting and setting of paver blocks, which can weigh up to 25 pounds apiece, and wrangling 50 pound bags of concrete mix.


Roger Cook of This Old House gives an overview of the easier ways to edge.
The durability of such edging can be increased by resorting to some of the shovel work and use of drainage rock or sand that is the method for standard paver installation. Without a drainage base under the concrete, no-dig edging, and paver blocks, there will inevitably be some cracking of the concrete and consequent heaving of the materials. As mentioned earlier, however, this type of installation is a compromise between all of the elements of an edging job, and is particularly intended to cut down on back breaking shovel work and cost of additional materials. The best way to ensure the eventual frost heaving does not render the edging completely useless and unattractive is to deploy paver blocks that are as large and as heavy as possible without themselves being back breaking.

No-dig gardening is a method that has been gaining adherents for over a half century now, and it makes sense for gardeners interested in saving themselves some labor and possible injury to apply the same method elsewhere when possible, such as in edging garden beds. The simplest method of edging, and certainly the cheapest, requires digging an edge straight down three or four inches into the lawn, and then shaving that edge back in a slope toward the garden bed. This presents an attractive edge for a few months, but grass and weeds from the lawn inevitably infiltrate the bed, muddying the clean line of the edge, with the result that the gardener has to renew a cut edge at least once a year to keep it looking its best. That is obviously the opposite of no-dig gardening.

Mark Powers of This Old House demonstrates the full on labor and expense method of edging a garden bed. The editing makes the job look easier than it is, and while the edge looks great, this method is only for the most dedicated gardener.
A gardener who is healthy and strong and unafraid of hard work can certainly install a beautiful and durable garden bed edge and stand back to admire it as a job well done when it’s finished. The extensive materials required for a really top notch installation may cost quite a lot, but since the goal is lifetime durability, then the cost is a one time expense. For the gardener who may not be entirely healthy, or very strong, or interested in expending enormous energy in the garden, there are easier and cheaper edging alternatives, but such a gardener should beware foolishly wasting money and time on some of them advertised as cheap and easy.


No-dig edging seems a reasonable compromise, though one thing to be aware of when installing an edge on top of the ground rather than level with it is to avoid grading soil down from the top of the paver blocks toward a building. To avoid improper drainage toward a building, soil should always grade away from it. It would appear to be a rather obvious error to avoid in theory, but it is an error too often made in practice, though usually gradually over a long time. That means there may still be some shovel work necessary to finesse a no-dig edging installation. It would be nearly impossible to do every job in the garden without wielding a shovel at all, though some can thankfully be made easier on the gardener’s back.
— Izzy

Men-at-work-148408
Pause from Work, a road sign diagram posted to Pixabay with the Portuguese caption Pausa no Trabalho.

 

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Why Worry

 

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”
― from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.

There is no end to the availability of advice, how-to manuals, and chemical poisons to help gardeners rid their lawns and garden beds of crabgrass and dandelions, two weeds most prevalent in late spring and early summer. Are they weeds? Only the individual gardener can say. If the gardener lives under the watchful eyes of a homeowners’ association, the association will say.

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A meadow full of dandelions in The Netherlands; photo by Alias 0591 from The Netherlands. A meadow full of crabgrass would not be nearly as beautiful.
The guidelines of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) state that a pest is what the gardener says it is, whether plant or animal, and that each gardener has a tolerance level for pests. Those with zero tolerance spend a fortune and a lot of time pouring poisons on crabgrass and dandelions in an effort to eradicate them. Have they been eradicated? Maybe on a few tiny patches of the planet which are now toxic spill zones.

 

Mow high! That’s the cry which often goes unheeded because some folks don’t like walking through tall grass. Mowing high really does help desirable grass compete with weeds like dandelion and crabgrass, however, and if the grass is kept healthy with applications of compost and lime, so much the better. The main thing is to keep bare spaces to a minimum, because those are the places where weeds can move in and start to take over. Keep the applications of synthetic fertilizers to a minimum, or do without the stuff altogether, because in the long term they contribute to soil toxicity.

What’s a conscientious, organic (or mostly so) gardener to do then in the good old summertime when there are patches of crabgrass and dandelions in the lawn? Well, if an hour’s worth of hand weeding once a week won’t take care of the situation, maybe that mostly organic gardener could consider turning some of that lawn on the property over to some other purpose, so that it’s more manageable. Either way, the situation calls for a more relaxed tolerance level, especially in the summer. A suggested tolerance level would be one that calls for lying in a hammock under a shade tree, drinking from a cool glass of dandelion wine, reading a good book (see above), and listening to the peaceful sound of the crabgrass growing.
― Izzy

From 1988, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, by Bobby McFerrin, with Robin Williams and Bill Irwin along for the clowning.

 

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Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.

Bombus veteranus - Trifolium pratense - Keila
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Pollination Bee Dandelion
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.

Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.

Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.

– Izzy


Dandelion fluff
Dandelion fluff. Photo by Djordjer.

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