ask-ruth-pictureHi Ruth,

My problem is weeds!!! Crabgrass is taking over. I have tried not to spray Roundup for the past three years, but now I have more weeds and crabgrass than plants. I try to use the weed eater but still can’t keep up. I work full time so my time in the garden is limited. Right now the weeds are winning and I’m not enjoying my garden. I would like to know how bad is Roundup in the environment and for me. Is there anything else I can do?

Ready to move to an apartment!


Dear Denise,

Please don’t feel discouraged, and don’t give up your patch of ground yet. There are many things you can do to reduce your weeding time, and increase your fun factor. I will assume for the sake of this discussion that we are talking about a vegetable garden. First we’ll talk about some alternatives, and then we’ll touch on Roundup.

Weeds are a fact of life when it comes to gardening, and an ever-present challenge to most gardeners. Here are a few techniques that might lighten your weeding load.

Place your garden close to your house, so you visit it on a regular basis. Out of sight, out of mind…and suddenly weeds have bullied their way into every possible place & it’s downright scary to even look at your garden.

Reduce the size of your garden to a size that is manageable. It is better to have a small garden that is satisfying, even just in pots, than to have an out-of-control garden putting you in a bad mood.

Or…keep your garden the same size, but plant only ¼ of your space, and manage ¾ of your garden differently. Bare ground invites weeds, so any bare ground should be either planted or mulched. Nature will fill in the bare space (probably with weeds) if you don’t. First remove existing weeds; then plant a thick cover crop over ¾ of your garden. This will improve soil structure AND crowd out weeds. Rotate to a new quarter each season. Add space back in, one quarter at a time, as you are ready for a larger garden. Alternatively, instead of a cover crop, apply mulch to ¾ of the garden ~ wheat straw, leaves, cardboard, newspaper …anything to cover the ground. Mulching is one of the best labor-saving garden devices, and it also retains moisture in the ground.

Same as above but after weeding, incorporate any soil amendments, and cover the area with heavy-duty landscape fabric. Pin it down with sod staples. Determine a garden layout that includes the foods you like to grow, factoring in some versatility to allow for crop rotation. Draw your plan on the landscape fabric, and then cut “x” shapes through the cloth big enough to accommodate planting. After planting, you can mulch with straw, if you don’t want to see the fabric. FYI: Landscape fabric is a petroleum-based product, so this approach does have environmental ramifications. Take good care of the fabric and it should last for numerous seasons, possibly decades.

Weed following a good rain. Weeds are way easier to remove when the ground is moist. Alternatively, deeply moisten the ground a few hours prior to weeding. Loosen the soil with a garden fork prior to pulling the weeds ~ and your job will go even faster.

I am still learning this one the hard way (I work full time too!)…weed early. It is easy to eradicate baby weeds. It’s a major workout when you need a chainsaw to cut down the overhead-sized lambs quarters or ragweed.

Don’t let any of the weeds go to seed, and you will have less weed pressure next year.

Plant Jon Jevons /French Intensive style. Stagger your plants in a zig-zag. As the plant grows, very little bare ground will remain. Your garden plants will shade out the weeds, and you will be maximizing your available planting area.

My favorite garden-scale weeding tools are: a sharpened hoe, a tool called a Groundhog ( pictured at right: a handheld mattock with a cultivator on one end and a transplanter on the other end), a garden fork, and my hands. You mentioned using a weedeater…weedeaters will keep perennials weeds beat back, but you will have to actually remove the weeds if you don’t want them to return the following year. Weedeaters can knock down the weeds until you have time to get to them, however generally when you cut the tops off, the roots just get tougher to pull. Weedeaters can keep the areas surrounding your garden cut low enough to allow for good air circulation, and they’re perfect for small-scale removal of cover crops.

Crabgrass is relatively easy to remove. Try working on small sections at a time & follow with mulch before moving on. According to folklore, crabgrass germinates when the forsythia are blooming. Start keeping a sharp eye out for crabgrass after the forsythia blooms have faded, and nip it in the bud while it is easy to pull out. You can also try Corn Gluten as a natural pre-emergent that will also fertilize your soil. It must be applied prior to the weeds sprouting.

If your problem is actually Bermuda grass…that is one very mean weed. Check out this link for some advice.

Alternatives to Roundup? My friend, Donna Price of The Dirty Hoe Landscaping, uses a product called Burnout. It is OMRI approved, and its active ingredients are citric acid and clove oil. It should be applied when temperatures are at least 73 degrees. Donna always adds a sticker-spreader (from Gardens Alive) to the mix. For regular use, she dilutes Burnout concentrate 3 -1 and applies it to tender weeds as needed. For Poison Ivy, she dilutes the concentrate 2 -1 and applies weekly. The smaller the weed, the more effective is this product. Donna doesn’t recommend Burnout for vegetable gardens because it is fairly strong. Her advice? Get an oscillating hoe [hula hoe, stirrup hoe].

RoundUp…When I undertook writing this article, I thought finding straightforward concise information about Roundup would be easy. Google mostly brought up 50-200 page research papers on the subject, and Monsanto’s (the product’s manufacturer) website is massive. Much of the research has been done specifically on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and EPA safety levels for RoundUp are based on tests using glyphosate, not the actual RoundUp formulation. While glyphosate is considered to be one of the less toxic herbicides; research has shown that glyphosate and some of Roundup’s “inert” ingredients are troubling, to say the least.

Factoid: Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the U.S.A. In the U.S., 5-8 million pounds are used every year on lawns and yards, and 85-90 million pounds are used annually in U.S. agriculture.

According to Scientific American EarthTalk, “conventional herbicides such as Monsanto’s RoundUp will take weeds down in a jiffy, but the negative effects on people, animals, and the environment may be profound and long lasting. Independent studies of RoundUp have implicated it’s primary ingredient, glyphosate, as well as some of its “inert” ingredients, in liver damage, reproductive disorders, and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as well as in cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nerve and respiratory damage…California’s department of Pesticide regulation reports that, year after year, RoundUp is the number one cause of pesticide/herbicide-induced illness and injury around that state. RoundUp is also blamed for poisoning groundwater across the U.S. and beyond, as well as contributing to a 70% decrease in amphibian biodiversity and a 90% decrease in tadpole numbers in regions where it is used heavily.”

Eve Davis, former president of Slow Food Asheville, responds intuitively and emphatically to the question of Roundup. “If it makes things curl and shrivel up like that (she demonstrates), it can’t be good! Make sure you tell pregnant women NEVER to use it!” Eve’s intuition is actually backed up by recent research on Roundup. “In the new study, scientists found that RoundUp’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns…One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide [glyphosate] itself.” A Canadian study of farming populations in Ontario found that glyphosate exposure nearly doubled the risk of late spontaneous abortions.

According to a recent New York Times article, “researchers found that glyphosate can significantly increase the severity of various plant diseases, impair plant defenses against pathogens, and immobilize soil and plant nutrients, making them unavailable for plant use”. No gardener wants to invite these sorts of problems, especially when improving soil biology is the very foundation of organic gardening. On a broad scale, many scientists are concerned about the increased volume of herbicide usage on RoundUp-Ready crops, and have documented the development of super-weeds that are resistant to RoundUp as a consequence of the herbicides application on these crops.

All of us have probably fantasized about a magic wand that disappears every single weed without any work. Personally, I think the risks of using RoundUp far outweigh the benefits ~ these risks have implications for your own health, your children’s health, water quality and the entire environment. We are taking about food that you and your family will be eating. Ultimately, it’s up to you to juggle the risks and the benefits of any pesticide, and decide for yourself.

If you decide that the benefits outweigh the risks and choose to use RoundUp, here are a couple of reminders. RoundUp is a broad-spectrum herbicide, so it will kill everything it touches (except RoundUp Ready crops). When you spray be careful that it does not touch the plants you want to preserve. READ THE LABEL. Be sure to protect yourself with appropriate clothing, rubber gloves, and other recommended safety procedures as described on the label. There are different RoundUp formulas. Check to see that the formula you will be using has been designated for use on food crops, and how close to harvest it is safe to apply the product. This should be standard procedure when applying any pesticide, whether the product is conventional or organic – as well as determining that the product you are using actually targets the insect or disease causing the problem. If you are interested in doing some further reading, check out the links list below.

Take heart, and I hope this helps!

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School


Some links to check out related to Roundup:

Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells

Glysophate Toxic and Roundup Worse

Cancer Incidence among Glyphosate-Exposed Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study

Impaired Plant Defenses & Soil Responses to RoundUp Application

Monsanto’s Technical and Safety Info

Superweeds Created By RoundUp

Environmental Protection Agency

Farm Family Glyphosate Exposure Study

Roundup Ready Alfalfa

Fedco takes a stand on Monsanto/Seminis

Glysophate Fact Sheet

Asthma, Children, and Pesticides

Ruth Gonzalez

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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