8-28-2014 3-06-19 PM

Why I’ll Be Using RoundUp In My Backyard (gasp!)

I know what you’re thinking – this must a be a joke. Certainly Christine and Ben would never use an herbicide on their backyard farm.  These two organic types would not pollute their landscape, their own food supply, and themselves just to make their weed pulling routine a bit easier, would they?  The answers to the above questions are, well, complicated.

As you’ve heard me post before, Ben and I are losing the war to weeds.  Specifically, we are losing the war to bindweed – one of the most notorious and devastating weeds around.  Bindweed, in case you’re unfamiliar, is aggressive, fast growing, and will strangle everything on your landscape (think small scale kudzu).  It has massive root systems (like 40′ long), responds to being pulled by sending up more shoots, has seeds that are viable in the soil for years, and can spread by cuttings or root pieces.  In other words, if you’ve got bindweed, you’ve got problems.

So let’s back up a step and talk about how we got to where we are.  I am part permaculturalist, part backyard farmer, and all practical.  If it doesn’t work, I don’t do it.  When I became certified in permaculture I was introduced to several alternative methods for managing pests and weeds.  These methods work, and many of them work very well.  Weeds growing up through my driveway?  No problem – white vinegar knocked those bad boys out in one application.  Aphids on my kale?  A weak mixture of 10:1 water and isopropyl alcohol misted on with a spray bottle and the aphids were bye-bye.  Pocket gophers cruising my yard?  A mass planting of daffodils and the little buggers were gone.  Natural methods do work, and these methods work without all of the nasty side effects of pesticides and herbicides.

Where natural methods fail is with bindweed.  Bindweed is so tough, so resilient that really nothing but an herbicide will kill it.  There is a mite that feeds exclusively on bind weed that is showing some limited success, but not great results.  The Colorado State Extension Office even states that in order to be pleased with the results you should lower your expectations.  The mite will not eradicate bindweed from your property after an application.  In fact the mite may not eradicate bindweed from you property ever.  Over time the mite may significantly stunt your bindweed, but it will most likely not end your bindweed problem.

Please understand that I dislike herbicides and that I distrust their claims of safety.  Ben and I have encountered a few stubborn Chinese Elms on our property as well, another example of a plant that you can only kill with and herbicide (or some equivalently nasty concoction).  We reluctantly used brush and stump killer on the plants.  After we cut the suckers down, we used a paint brush and painted the fresh cut with the herbicide.  After application, we covered the stumps with upside down clay pots.  That was four years ago, and the pots are still in place, covering the offended area.  We really don’t like herbicides.

But, the reality is this – the bindweed is taking over.  I took two days off of work and spent the entire time in my yard clipping bindweed (if you pull it, it comes back stronger so you have to cut it off at the soil line).  After that I hired a landscaper to take over bindweed duties.  No luck – the bindweed looks just as strong as it did before my 16 hours of weed clipping and the landscaper’s hours of work.  I simply can’t keep up with this plant, and I am unwilling to succeed my backyard farm.  My choice, as I see it, is to resort to an evil to combat a bigger evil – employ Roundup to kill the bindweed.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something along those lines.

If you’ve been to our place you know that we have fruit trees and vegetable plants all throughout the yard, and we have a honey bee hive.  We have to get rid of the bindweed without killing any of our fruit trees, damaging our garden soil, or killing our bee hive.  As luck would have it, this year, with all of it’s ups and downs, just might be the perfect year to launch an all-out assault on the bindweed.

Here’s the plan:

  • We will use Roundup because it can break down in soil over time.  Don’t let that fact fool you into thinking that this product is safe, because it is not.  Roundup is really bad stuff and is freakin’ everywhere right now – including human breast milk.  According to the literature on Roundup, it should break down out of our soil in about four months, long before the next growing season.  That being said, we need to use extreme caution when applying this product, only apply the minimal amount, and handle disposal correctly.
  • Because bindweed should be treated in the fall, our timing is good.  Bind weed stores energy in it’s root system all summer so that it can emerge in the spring.  If the bindweed is treated in the fall, the Roundup kills the energy-filled tap root, knocking out it’s ability to come back in the spring.
  • The lack of production due to the devastating hail storm in May of this year makes us more willing to use an herbicide – we really have nothing left to lose this growing season.
  • Because we have bees, fruit trees and a vegetable garden, the herbicide cannot be spray-applied.  The herbicide must be applied to the leaves with a sponge tied to the end of a long stick (now, what do I do with that when I’m done?).  Just like treating the Chinese Elms, the plant will be treated directly, and only the plant will be treated.  Dead plants will be removed from the soil surface and thrown away (which does not give me a warm fuzzy  – poisoned plants to the landfill).  The plants absorb the glyphosate and pull the poison into the root system.  This is our best chance to destroy a root system that stores energy, generates new shoots when disturbed, can be 40′ long, and is rumored to be, in some cases, 20′ underground.
  • As long as the flowers are kept off of the bindweed, our bees will ignore the plant.  Right now the Russian Sage is blooming, and our bees are crazy for Russian Sage.  No blooms on the bindweed should equal no impact to the bees – the girls are off and busy with their favorite plant of the season.  We pulled all of the honey for the season in July, so again, there should be no impact.  Some bee discussion boards claim no impact on bees from Roundup at all, while other sites point to studies that suggest some impacts to honey bees.  I’m inclined to believe that Roundup will negatively impact honey bees, so it is imperative that there be no flowers on the bindweed when we apply the Roundup.
  • The garden beds will not be treated in any way.  The bindweed in the garden beds is minimal; I am confident with consistent pruning, coupled with the (hopeful) death of several bindweed tap roots, the garden beds will be managed just fine without an application.
  • Because Roundup is known to negatively impact mammals, the dog and the cat will need to be kept away from the treated areas until such time as it is deemed safe for them to be allowed back in those areas.  One area we can fence off to keep them out; another area I’m still working on a solution.

If you’ve never battled a rippin’ case of bindweed, I would humbly ask that you reserve any judgements that you might want to level against us.  Ben and I have tried for four years to keep this unbelievable weed at a bay, and we have failed miserably.  The guilt and disappointment when we spy a strong patch of bindweed taking over a fruit producing shrub or tree is causing an avoidance reaction in both of us – we don’t want to venture too far into the back yard and once again be confronted by our epic failure.  Using an herbicide is a fall-back position, and an option of last resort.  We’re out of ideas, out of energy, and frankly we are out of time.

Thoughts about herbicide use on a backyard farm?  Please leave your comments below – we’d love to hear from you. 



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2 Responses to Sustainability Experts Sound Off

  1. Tascha October 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Christine – what a great question and diverse answers. I’d like to think that the shift in demand is an indicator, but as you know, most of the demand is still through our traditional food sources (big chain grocery with an organics line, fast food with healthier choices). Jury is still out on whether they are truly sourcing from sustainable ag. And as I look around Colorado Springs, yes we have great farmers markets and CSAs, but many of the farmers markets are selling right off the same trucks that come from Mexico to supply grocery stores.

    What I do see is that people are questioning more and more information is getting out there. I also think that as the economy starts to pick up again that more folks will allow their money to follow their values (spending a bit more in order to get sustainably grown food).

    • Christine October 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Ya’ know, I tend to agree with you, Malik and a few others that the most significant indication of a “shift” is the fact that people are talking about this. Folks are having real conversations about food, agriculture, sustainability, GMOS’s, organic, and humanely raised. This is new and radical, and in my mind it is moving our culture closer to a sustainable food system.

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