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How to Remove a Weed Without Poisons . . . Let Us Count the Ways

Poor installation and/or maintenance of a sprinkler system causes excessive weeds (unwanted plants including grass) to grow on this school track in California.

This post comes with a warning: we are going to pick on some people. Some folks in California apparently hold themselves up as grounds professionals and caregivers of children. We’d like to think that those two vocations, at least in North America, could walk hand in hand in the name of safety and what’s generally best — but they’re clearly not in this case.

This issue is a middle school track. We won’t name names, but if you’re the person in charge and you happen to see this post with these photos, you’ll know who you are. If you’re a parent at this school, you have every right to be outraged at what is depicted herein.

In this situation the decomposed granite track is watered, apparently three to four times weekly, by a sprinkler system that someone doesn’t know how to aim and calibrate properly. Parents have complained about this waste of water, but the response has apparently been that this aim is as good as it gets. So the track — at least according to these photos — is watered about 9 feet out from the sports field where the water is supposed to land. Errant grass and other weeds like the water and, as the photos show, all sorts of stuff is growing on the track where no one wants it.

Not having grass on the track is probably something we can all agree upon. The watering? That’s obviously the first problem here. No sprinkler system is perfect, but this system allegedly run by a professional is worse than the one run by my amateur neighbor who keeps our sidewalk and roadway wet each morning.

The related issue is what to do about these weeds and grass. Until recently the school has reportedly been on a program of spraying Roundup and other synthetic chemical weed killers at least once every three months. Recently, from what we’ve been told, the track is sprayed by Roundup every three weeks by a groundskeeper who reportedly told a parent: “He just needs to knock it down with a doubling up.” That is typical, unfortunately, of a vast number of Americans who believe that — when it comes to weed and insect killers — “if a little is good, then a lot will be great.” The more the better!

So the track is sprayed to look like this:

Weeds and grass are killed by Roundup, but left in place.

Apparently, in this case, the groundskeeper thinks he or she has done a job well by turning the weeds and grass from green to (mostly) brown. Never mind that the weeds and grass are still in place and continue to present the very tripping hazard that, presumably, is the reason for taking action in the first place.

This next photo, at left, is, perhaps, the most disturbing. Unsuspecting students are sitting straddling the sprayed grass and track. We don’t have any verification on how long it’s been between the spraying and the students sitting there . . . but we do know that it’s not as if the poison goes away. Yes, some of it drains into the soil. Some of it drains into the surface water, which in this case is but 1,500 feet from the ocean. Some of the poison volatizes into the air the kids breathe. But some of the poison sits there for a long time, where it comes in contract with shoes, uniforms and clothing and the skin of bodies of students that are not fully developed.

SO . . . What about those weeds? Is there something else that the grounds crew could have done rather than to spray chemicals known to cause birth defects, neurological disorders and other impairments in our children? Here are just a few:

1) PULL THEM OUT! — My son is just starting out as a professional landscaper in Maine and his least favorite job is pulling weeds; he finds it boring. I have all sorts of friends in the industry who would rather take a beating than to bend over (or kneel down) and pull out a weed. Spraying is somehow much more . . . professional. But pulling these weeds, especially in areas where children are running, is the ONLY solution that really makes sense (other than fixing the sprinkler problem in the first place).

I know of loads of communities who have field “weeding days.” Barbecue some hotdogs (or tofu burgers) and get some free labor out of the deal. Make it a girl scout badge event, or a Parent-Teachers Association get-together. The synthetic chemical industry will point to this and say, “See, the organic solution means you’ll have demeaning work to do!” Oh, the indignity. But, really, pulling a few weeds, especially out of a decomposed granite track with the proper tool(s), would take six moms and dads less time than it takes to fire up the grill and charbroil the dogs.

SPRAY THE WEEDS WITH NON-POISONOUS STUFF — From horticultural vinegar, to oils of fatty acids, to lime juice, clove oil and naturally occurring chelated iron, the alternative landscape industry is firing out new products at an exciting rate. Some of them will require more than one application to kill an adult weed; some of them, like the aforementioned vinegar, require protective gear so the applicator doesn’t burn his or her eyes and skin. But the bottom line is that there are plenty of alternatives to Roundup.

This weed torch hangs unused in the potting shed.

FLAMING — Purists don’t like this approach because it utilizes fossil fuels. But, honestly, one of the more handy tools to have in the shed can be the propane weed flamer. I own one and I haven’t taken it out in years; I think it’s a last-resort kind of tool. But when I was a working landscape professional, we used the device to hit weeds that grew up in cracks where plants were really, really difficult to dig by hand. Among the cautions with this tool is to be wary of using it during drought conditions where plants are already too dry; they can catch fire quickly.

We could go on and on about weed control . . . and we will. Check back tomorrow for some additional tips.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/phyllis.s.winkler Phyllis Schneider Winkler

    I am so highly allergic to poison ivy that pulling it out is not an option. What then?

  • http://www.facebook.com/phyllis.s.winkler Phyllis Schneider Winkler

    I am so highly allergic to poison ivy that pulling it out is not an option. What then?

  • Carrie

    Flame it or use vinegar or some other product. Also, you could “tarp it”-that’s something we do in California to eliminate Arundo. Basically you suffocate the area that is infested with poison ivy by placing a large plastic bag/tarp over it for a few weeks. Weeds be gone!

  • Carrie

    Flame it or use vinegar or some other product. Also, you could “tarp it”-that’s something we do in California to eliminate Arundo. Basically you suffocate the area that is infested with poison ivy by placing a large plastic bag/tarp over it for a few weeks. Weeds be gone!

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