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16 Natural Alternatives to Herbicide Use

November 9, 2015

How to weed without chemicals

As I sat in a building and watched someone spray a herbicide outside the window, apart from the immediate sense of disappointment, the first thing I noticed was that they weren’t wearing any protection. Judging by the way they were emptying the liquid into the spray bottle, quite possibly they hadn’t paid any heed to the recommended dilution either. I asked if it was Roundup® and whether they had a mask and gloves. The response was “yep it is”, and “ah sure”

It set me wondering. How much do people know about herbicides (often lumped in the same group as pesticides), and in particular the popular Roundup®. Why are people still using it despite all the warnings?

Do they believe that if it’s sitting on shelves in DIY and garden centres, or if they ignore the dilution instructions that it’s safe to use? There’s a vast amount of information available about why we should be concerned about excessive herbicide use and quite possibly an equal amount of reports claiming it’s safe.

I’ve re-written this article several times in trying to narrow my own thoughts and help you choose alternatives. If you want to skip the reasons and head straight to the 16 alternatives below, just scroll down to the list. If you can think of any more, please leave them in the comments. However, I’m beginning this post with some background on Monsanto, the company that make Roundup® and one who recorded profits for the quarter ended 28th February 2015 of $1.43 billion.


Do you remember DDT? It was one of the first, and most widely used pesticides that came onto the market after World War II and was heralded as the answer to farmers dreams as it wiped out pests across acres of farmland. It was banned in the US 40 years ago, yet it took until 2001 before it was banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention for Agricultural use for Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Many people living in Ireland remember DDT being dusted in beds and even on themselves as they grew up, to rid homes. However, long after the pesticide has ceased to be available, residues continue to show up in food and human blood supplies (hence its persistent pollutant ban). Its health implications are alarming with pages of research undertaken about its harmful effects. One report I came across indicated that “girls exposed to DDT before puberty are 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age, according to the President’s Cancer Panel” and I’m now wondering if this is why breast cancer rates are high and growing.

Rachel Carson

Yet in the early sixties, a courageous American scientist by the name of Rachel Carson highlighted the dangers of DDT in her book Silent Spring, alerting people to the terrible consequences of the overuse of insecticides, which triggered the establishment of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Why was she so courageous? Because this woman went up against the incredibly powerful and wealthy pesticide industries who did their utmost to professionally discredit her, and are still trying to do so. Although banned for agricultural use, DDT is still being used in affected countries to fight malaria.

What’s the big deal about Roundup®

Why am I bringing the story of DDT up now in relationship to the weedkiller Roundup®? Because it’s impossible not to see parallels once you start looking.

DDT was a product of Monsanto who, in the 1970s, brought a new herbicide to market called Roundup® which contains among others, the chemical glyphosate. This chemical in particular is being linked to many of our current day health and neurological diseases and groups around the globe are now fighting a similar battle as Rachel Carson once did, trying to have it removed from shelves and food chains. It took forty years before DDT was banned for agricultural use worldwide. Do we have to wait another 40 years for Roundup® to go, when it’s already been linked to new worries?

How is Roundup® used?

Apart from killing weeds in urban and city gardens, the biggest users of the world’s most popular herbicide are farmers as they try to find ways to control the weeds around their crops. As a result of its extensive use, Roundup® is impossible to avoid as residues are contained throughout our food chain. It’s sprayed on fields before seeds are sown, on or around plants as they grow, and again to kill of the top growth before harvest. The sprayed grains are fed to our animals which we then consume, we wear cotton clothes sprayed with Roundup® and we eat fruit and vegetables regularly doused with it.

Friends of the Earth undertook a study and found Roundup® residues in the urine of 44% of people tested from 18 European countries but it’s used by 160 countries – great news for Monsanto and their stockholders, but a horror story for our soils.

Although their second quarter sales in 2015 for pesticides and herbicides dropped 14%, Monsanto’s productivity agricultural sales still managed to reach $1 billion.

Roundup® Ready Seeds

Apart from pesticides and herbicides, a huge part of Monsanto’s business is in seeds. They develop and own the patents on genetically engineered seeds, known as Roundup Ready, which produce plants such as corn, cotton and soybeans that resist the herbicides sprayed in the fields around them.

Within the space of 15 years in the US alone, Roundup®’s use grew from less than 11 million pounds in weight to almost 300 million pounds. And yet this quick fix solution to protect fields from weeds seems to have backfired as the weeds are evolving to be resistant to glyphosate and are growing back stronger and thicker than ever.  So with nature being what she is, strains of super weeds have evolved, resulting in farmers having to apply increasingly more Roundup™ or turn to stronger weed killers.

Roundup® Acts on Plant Enzymes

Representatives try to reassure us that glyphosate, the active ingredient contained within Roundup®, acts on an enzyme that exists only in plants and not mammals, so we don’t have to worry, yet as its use dramatically increases, so too do human diseases. Coincidence, or something more worrying? Whilst research has to be undertaken on the active ingredients on glyphosate, it doesn’t on the inert ingredients. Nor does it have to be carried out on how chemicals react when they meet different ones, or as far as I’m aware, the accumulation or cocktail effect.

Personally we’d rather not take the risk with our own family’s health. There are many things in this day and age that are considered harmful, including smoking, drinking, eating sugar and eating meat, but we can choose whether we want to do those.

The use of Roundup® is so pervasive, it’s impossible to avoid, unless we switch wholly to organic which can be difficult for financially strapped families, though the Holistic Life blog has a post on how we can try. Roundup® use on conventional food is the number one reason we grow our own food here at Greenside Up.

Nature is Complex

Nature is complex and constantly evolves, and I’d suggest an area that scientists will never fully understand in our lifetimes. Can scientists, hands on hearts, swear that the herbicides and pesticides or GMO’s they’ve created won’t harm us, our animals, or the soil and microorganisms they land upon?

There are alternatives. They might take a bit more effort, but they are effective. If you’d like to ditch the chemicals and switch to organic methods of weed control, here are 16 ideas to get you started.

16 Natural Alternatives to Using Herbicide

1. Garden Design

When you’re planning your garden, consider keeping it as low maintenance as possible. Look at the problem areas and think of alternatives. Use gravel under fruit areas, plant shrubs that will cover the soil, or pave pathways. Anything you can plan now to make your garden as low maintenance in the future will pay dividends.

2. Mulching

Mulches can have a double benefit depending upon the type. Well rotted compost, leafmould and animal manures spread on top of soil will not only feed it, but also suppress weeds – a double bonus. You can find a more detailed post about mulching here.

3. Ground Cover

It’s recommended to keep our soil covered to prevent soil erosion and maintain nutrients. Mulches can do this but so too can sowing a green manure that can be cut and dropped, or cut and dug in again. It will feed the soil and if your timings are right, will prevent weeds coming through. In flowerbeds and borders, choose ground hugging plants to grow between shrubs and perennials and try not to leave space between plants, which will attract weeds.

4. Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is one of the fundamental systems of soil management. It not only helps to prevent pests and diseases building up in the soil, it also helps to prevent weeds. Some crops such as the Brassica – cabbage and kale – will suppress weeds as their large leaves grow and they prevent light reaching the soil and subsequent weed germination. Others like alliums, leave lots of space for weeds to accumulate. Moving them around each year will disrupt weed life cycles.

Covering the soil over winter, or preparing it in the spring a few weeks before sowing will allow the weeds to germinate and offers the opportunity to remove them easily before the new crops are sown. With careful crop rotation it’s possible to almost completely eradicate weeds, as can be found in the example on a farm here.

5. Good Soil Management

Good soil management is a combination of 2, 3 and 4 above, along with adding an annual dose of well-rotted manure or garden compost. As you manage your soil each year and learn to understand it better, the weeds will become less troublesome.

6. Biological Control

Whilst I’m familiar with biological controls for pests in the form of nematodes, I was intrigued to find they’re being used successfully along waterways here in Ireland, as well as by exasperated farmers in the US who are trying to move away from the GM/Roundup cycle they’ve found themselves. You can read more about biological weed control here.

7. Organic Weedkillers

I tried Irish Organic Weedkiller for the first time this year as we’ve put down a gravel drive and it did a great job on the stray dandelions and scutch grass. It’s a vinegar based product and if you’re reading this outside Ireland, look out for similar products in your own countries or simply try dosing the weeds with distilled vinegar.

8. Flame Guns

Flame guns (a small gas cylinder on the end of a rod) are great for spot weeding pervasive perennials and annual weeds and are another example of a technique that can be used on paths and driveways.

9. Hard Work & Hand Weeding

Hand weeding or hoeing weeds, roots and all, is one of the best ways of weed removal but it can be time-consuming and at times, hard work digging them out. Many people find hand weeding therapeutic and the trick is to do it little and often. An hour or so once a week is far easier than a full day once a month. If you don’t have time to keep on top of the weeds, consider employing someone to help. Gardeners for general maintenance can often by found advertising in local papers and ads in news agents and will welcome the opportunity to get stuck in for a couple of hours each week.

10. Strimming

If you’re worried about how untidy your road fronts or garden edgings are looking, invest in or hire a strimmer. If you strim before the weeds flower and the seed heads set, you’ll keep knocking them down and prevent the problem escalating. Yes, you will have to keep doing it, but you’ll have to keep spraying with weed killers too as they don’t eradicate the problem for ever.

11. Power Washing

Again, invest in or hire a power washer to remove moss and weeds from Tarmac or paved drives. Power washing is a great way of cleaning up, without adding chemicals to your frontage.

12. Livestock

If you’ve a large area that you want to cultivate later on, or are having trouble keeping on top of a lawn, consider getting some sheep, a goat or pigs. Whether for pets, or for the freezer, goats are fantastic at tackling brambles, sheep will keep the grass and weeds nibbled down, and pigs will not only eat the weeds, they’ll turn the soil over ready for future planting.

13. Weed identification

Learn weed life cycles. If you begin to understand the weeds in your garden, whether it’s the roots, the seeds or both that cause the problems, you can address them. Some annuals like Hairy Bittercress burst their seeds into the air, covering everything around them, whilst Docks root deeply and new plants will grow from them if you snap their roots.

14. Make Fertiliser

Nettles make a fantastic natural fertiliser that your plants and vegetables will love you for. Here’s an archive post with the recipe.

15. Eat the Weeds

Many weeds are edible and once you’ve correctly identified them, can be used in the kitchen. Hairy Bittercress and chickweed can be added to salads, as can dandelion leaves or their flowers made into honey. Red clover can be steeped in water for a hot tea, plantain can be sautéed with garlic and sorrel added to stir fries. Buy a wildflower identification book or borrow one from a library and familiarise yourself with this additional bounty.

16. Learn to Love Weeds

The clue was in number 15… the majority of weeds can be found in wildflower books and many have herbal properties. Some are beautiful, most are listed in herbal preparation books whilst pollinators and bees love weeds. To them they’re just another food source – just look at a Ragwort flower in late summer.

Moving On

If you’d like to learn more about switching to organic methods head to the Organic Trust or IOFGA in Ireland or the Soil Association or Garden Organic in the UK for more information; or search for similar bodies in your own country. Above all try moving away from herbicides and to a more natural approach to weed control. Your garden and everything within it will love you for it.


Note: whilst every effort has been made to link to cited papers and reputable news sources which are highlighted throughout this post, the author cannot take responsibility for the content contained within the links.


A breezy couple of hours in the vegetable garden

March 29, 2013

At last, a few hours working in our own breezy but dry vegetable garden.


There’s nothing like a rant, rave & wrestle with a vegetable bed full of creeping buttercups to clear the mind, or the satisfaction when the job’s finally finished!

Three beds have now been cleared of kale and sprouts stalks in readiness for the onions and root veg.

The barrow loads of pernicious scutch grass and buttercup wont be heading for the regular compost bins (don’t want them multiplying in there) but to the big heap in the corner of the garden.


It was lovely to get some help from our nine-year old too. She was looking for a job so I suggested she plant the garlic.

She read the packet, split the bulbs, spaced all the cloves ready for planting and marked the rows. She then exclaimed “when I grow up mammy, I’m going to marry a man who’ll grow our vegetables for us” slightly puzzled at her ‘traditionalist’ outlook I ask her “why wont you grow them all yourself”, “oh I’ll be busy doing something worthwhile, like rescuing wild animals or dogs tied to posts” she replied… hmm, not sure what to make of that!

planting garlic

Hope we get a few more dry days as lots more gardening to catch up on after the last wet or frosty months. How are your spring garden preparations going?




The Greenside Up Vegetable Garden – Video Blog

June 5, 2012
Structures in the Vegetable Garden

It’s a ‘soft’ day here – Structures in the Vegetable Garden

My Vegetable Garden (4th June 2012)

So here we are three months after my first video and it’s starting to look like a ‘proper’ vegetable garden once again. All the frames and structures are in place with seeds, seedlings and plants growing in most of the beds now.

Herbs in the Polytunnel

An insect eye’s view of the herbs

We’re picking and harvesting herbs, broad beans, lettuce, spinach and strawberries and with the warm weather a couple of weeks ago, at last we’re all noticing growth in everything. It’s been slow this year with the cold night-time temperatures causing many people I speak with problems. Even the heated benchdidn’t help us much here – my chilli seedlings are still tiny! The hope now is that the potatoes don’t succumb to blight when vegetable growers have only just got over the frost damage.

Slugs have been the most destructive pest here to date. I’ve tried egg shells (not bad), coffee (seems to deter them), organic slug pellets (see the photo on last month’s post – they were rubbish) and NemaSlug (think it was too hot for them and despite watering, the soil just not wet enough). I’m now trying a sample of Slug GoneWool Pellets around a couple of bean plants to see how they fare.

The Greenside Up Garden - 5 June 2012

The Greenside Up Garden – 5 June 2012

The best method I’ve found by far has been going out to the garden and picking the slugs off the grass surrounding the beds or even the seedlings themselves. I know Jane Powers suggested in her recent Irish Times article that the kindest way to dispose of slugs is by snipping them in half with scissors but I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it. So into a bottle of hot water it is for them 🙁 maybe my nerves will strengthen in time and I’ll try the more humane method soon.

If you have any questions, observations or comments on the methods I’m using here please feel free to ask/say. Feedback is good and I might learn something!

Vegetable Garden

Can You Tell the Seeds From The Weeds

May 25, 2012

seeds & weedsHave you ever wondered why we sow seeds in neat little rows?

seeds & weeds - close up

Because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to tell the weeds from the seeds!

Hope you have a sunny day in the garden this weekend.



Vegetable Garden

One little “weed”

May 16, 2012

I referred to my one little “weed” in my last video blog but if you missed it, here it is…

Foxglove - Digitalis purpurea

Any ideas? I hadn’t a clue what it was when I first spotted it growing in my ‘roots’ bed. It was certainly nothing I’d ever planted or seen growing in my veg beds before.

I was intrigued – what could this stray little plant be? I didn’t pull it out as I had been doing all morning with the creeping buttercups and dandelions.

I let it be until it had been identified as a friend or foe.

Foxglove - Digitalis purpurea leavesI racked my brain – what had been growing in this patch in previous years? Nothing we’d ever planted of that I was certain. So I headed indoors with a cup of tea, fired up the PC and spent a half hour or so googling “weed” images but came up a blank. Hmmm dilemma, what to do now? Thank goodness for friendly gardeners – I sent off a picture to a gardening guru friend for some professional help – they were thrown too given it’s location. However, a couple of days later a simple text reply came back and I laughed, as no doubt they had too…

Haha! How could I have missed it? My little ‘weed’ was none other than a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)! These biannual plants are currently popping up all around our hedgerows but I hadn’t dreamed of or expected to find one in my veg patch and it had me completely thrown.

Foxglove flower

Image courtesy of

Foxgloves are such pretty plants, the bees love them and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said

“What is a Weed? A plant who’s virtues have never been discovered”

Well in this case the foxglove’s virtues have most definitely been discovered – both ornamental and medicinally. I have no plans to use it for the later – extracts from it are used to treat heart conditions making it toxic to those of us who aren’t chemists. I love to see flowers growing in vegetable gardens though – from nasturtiums to marigolds, Calendula to borage. They attract insects and give vegetable gardens character and colour. My foxglove will be just another addition – albeit a stunning one.

“A weed is just a flower growing in the wrong place”

So as I’ve decided that all the stray foxgloves are staying exactly where nature intended them to be, that now puts them firmly in the flower category …

Do you have a favourite flower growing in your garden that others might classify as a weed?

Food & Drink

How to Make Dandelion Honey

April 18, 2012

Recipe: How to Make Dandelion Honey

I adore dandelion clocks but have had a love/hate relationship with the plants themselves for years due to their pesky roots, until I discovered how beneficial they are for honey bees. We can also make a delicious dandelion honey using their vibrant, yellow flowers, a recipe that I’m sharing now.

As ‘weeds’ go, dandelions, are hugely beneficial as they attract pollinating insects at a time when most other flowers are yet to share their delicious nectar. Dandelions can be eaten, made into drinks of all descriptions and are loaded with vitamins and minerals, namely A, C and K as well as iron, potassium, calcium and manganese. They’ve also been around for over 30 million years – it’s no wonder their roots are so deep and strong!

Dandelion Clock

Photo credit: Catherine Drea, Foxglove Lane

Almost every child I know has heard the tale that they make you wet the bed (indeed I was taught the very same) which stems from the plant’s use as a strong diuretic, though the roots are used for this purpose, not the flowers.

It wasn’t until @zwartblesIE mentioned Dandelion Honey on twitter that I’d seriously considered using the flowers in the kitchen. Suzanna generously shared her recipe and if you’d like to try this intriguing sounding dish, here it is:

4 cups dandelion flowers
3 cups water
3 whole thick cut lemons
2 1/8 cups sugar

Place the flowers, water and lemons into a saucepan and simmer for 30 mins, leave to cool and stew overnight. In the morning strain through cheesecloth (or coffee filter paper) then bring the liquid to a slow boil, stirring in the sugar until dissolved, then slowly simmer for about one and a half hours and you have your honey.

dandelion honey recipeIf you start to notice the mixture turn darker, whip it off the heat quickly or it can develop a burnt caramel flavour.

If you’re feeling adventurous you could  try adding a few drops of vanilla essence as @NiamhMaher on twitter did, or a few drops of alcohol as @Justcallmelet suggested.

Honey is perhaps a misleading name as the resulting flavour is more like marmalade – guess it got its name from the gorgeous colour.

Have you ever tried food or drink made from dandelions? Did you enjoy it?


Vegetable Garden

Weeding without Chemicals – What Are Your Options?

March 10, 2012


Weeding without Chemicals - What Are Your Options?

Photo credit: Catherine Drea, Foxglove Lane

A few people have asked me recently what jobs they should be doing in the vegetable garden right now.

It’s still too early to sow most vegetables outside but we’ve had a few mild days over the past week, making ideal conditions to get out and prepare the beds for the growing season to come. Part of soil preparation is weeding and knowing how to weed effectively is essential if you want to keep on top of them.

Weeding Without Chemicals

It seems obvious now I’m used to getting down and dirty in my garden, but it’s not that many years ago that I looked out at the wilderness and asked myself how on earth I was going to tackle all of those weeds.

When you’re gardening without using herbicides and pesticides, and in particular weeding without chemicals, there’s no getting away from the fact that it takes a bit more effort and hard work. Long term however it’s well worth the effort.  Sandro Cafolla of explains it very well here why Roundup isn’t the long-term solution to weeds.

How to Get Rid of Pernicious Weeds Without Chemicals

Rhubarb, strawberries (honestly), creeping buttercup & scutch grass

So without reaching for the chemicals what are the options to us smaller scale gardeners?

Some people like to use a homemade weedkiller by pouring distilled vinegar onto their weeds, or burning them off with a garden flame gun. If you have animals that graze they’re great for clearing weeds in orchards or relatively new to the market here is Irish Organic Weed killer, but in the vegetable patch where we’re growing food to eat, my preferred method is settling down with my favourite tool and hand weeding.

I find the hardest part of weeding is getting over the psychological block of actually starting the job – once I’m out there I find it very therapeutic. Listening to the birds, being outside in the fresh air, stopping for a cup of tea now and again, relaxing and admiring the handiwork – it’s a peaceful and immensely rewarding time.

Weeding the garden without chemicalsThis particular bed had been overrun with creeping buttercup as seen above, and as pretty as buttercups are when in flower, they’ve been competing with space and nutrients in my strawberry patch so their days were numbered.

A good hand tool is essential for this kind of weeding and having survived for a few years with my cheap double-headed hoe, I’ve managed to break two in the last couple of weeks so will shortly be investing in a new one like this Chillington Double Headed Hoe I spotted recently.

I’ve also been using old compost bags to keep the knees from getting cold but this year treated myself to a Burgon & Ball Kneelo Kneeling Pad that I adore – it’s warm, comfy and moulds to the knees (showing my age). So with those couple of items and a pair of leather gloves (nettles, blackthorn suckers and creeping thistle also hang out in this bed so gloves are essential), that’s all the equipment needed, well that and a bucket or a wheelbarrow to collect the weeds in.

Weeding without Chemicals - What Are Your Options?

Weeds for Sale in A Local Community Garden

Most of the weeds I’ve mentioned are known as *pernicious perennials – meaning plants that are destructive to other plants. They need to be removed completely where possible and the only way to do that without chemicals is to dig out all the roots, or cover the area with black plastic for a year or more, or if you have a large area (like the four hectares mentioned in Sandro’s clip) bring them up, harrow them off, dry them out and repeat if necessary. It’s essential to keep on top of the weeds though and not allow them to flower and produce seeds.

Don’t add pernicious weeds to the compost heap either as unless you have a very hot heap the weeds wont die off. They can however, be placed into a black plastic sack, tied up and left for a year to die, then added to the heap (yet to try this).

The double-headed hand hoe works for smaller weeds (pernicious or not), a garden fork might be needed for deeper rooted weeds such as dock or dandelion and a garden hoe is handy for tipping off the not nearly so bad annual weeds.

So best of luck. Try and think of your weeding as a pleasure and not a chore, and if you have any other tips for ridding gardens of weeds without using artificial chemicals please share them below.

*Some common pernicious weeds include dock, creeping thistle, nettles, creeping buttercup, horsetail, bindweed, ground elder, plantain, comfrey and daisies


Food & Drink

Edible Weeds: Hairy Bittercress

January 8, 2012

Edible Weeds: Hairy BittercressAs weeds go you can do a lot worse than Hairy Bittercress, which is just as well as it’s currently taking over one of my uncovered vegetable beds (it’s giving my soil protection from the winter weather).

This is an annual to biennial weed – seedlings can withstand the severest frost, making it a very hardy weed. It carries hundreds of explosive seed pods that when ripe, can explode suddenly in all directions up to a metre around you (so weed in glasses!).  The seeds generally germinate between April to December.

Edible Weeds: Hairy BittercressHairy Bittercress is easy to remove from the soil with a hoe or by hand and it’s important to do so as it can quickly smother beds containing your small vegetable seedlings, competing with them for space and light. Once removed the weeds can then be added to the compost heap.

If you don’t mind eating *weeds however, Hairy Bittercress is edible, apparently tasting of watercress. I promise to give it a go when it stops raining ;)… Have you tried eating it?

The following is an audio clip of my tasting session. Apologies for the slight mad excitement of being out in the fresh air again, am new to audio!

Hairy Bittercress – tastes surprisingly good! (mp3)

A weed is just a plant that’s growing somewhere that it’s unwanted.