James Pinsky: Just say no to weeds, organically


Americans like to think of themselves as tolerant. We’re not. Just ask the weeds.

Weeds are the scourge of our beautifully manicured lawns, gardens and flower beds. We spend millions of dollars annually trying to kill and deter them. We cut our hands, pop knees, twist ankles and break nails to rid ourselves of them. Even the most southern of our local belles will admit to a snarl or two when it comes to these pesky plants. And, take note; there are no weed support groups or lobbyists in a country where just about anything and everything can find a friend.

Yet weeds thrive. Apparently good self-esteem isn’t a requirement to be a plant because any weed I’ve ever met was greeted by words which would make a salty sailor blush. This was especially true the first time I met the devil-spawn of weeds, Solanum carolinense, better known by its street thug name horsenettle, without my gloves.

I digress.

Technically, a weed is any unwelcome green-eyed punk plant that sees fit to bully, steal or photo-bomb your lawn’s Better Homes and Gardens’ pictures. While I am sure not all plants are as demon-possessed as horsenettle, even plants with a good personality and bad geography are considered weeds. Don’t think so? Try planting a rose bush in your mom’s tomato garden.

So, what can we do to win the global war on weeds? Victory can be a lot simpler than you may think. All you need is a little sweat, a few tools, some vinegar, and maybe a torch.

There are a few ways to mitigate the annual weed invasion without trashing your soil with toxic herbicides. First and foremost you ought to know, a healthy dose of weeds in your lawn, garden or flower bed may actually be a sign of unhealthy living, at least as far as your flowers are concerned. Since weeds are nothing more than the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, their presence may be an indicator of low soil fertility, high or low pH, compacted soil or being too stressed (the soil, no one cares about our stress). If so, this may be one of those times when it’s perfectly acceptable to kill the messenger.

How? Well, there’s always the tried and true way of simply digging them up by the root one by one. Ugh. My back hurts just thinking about that method. Thankfully, there are other ways that the good folks at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and us here at the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District recommend — like using a spray of 10 percent vinegar. This tasty collard green dressing is Kryptonite to weeds, and all plants, really, so spray your mist of weed death with caution. Take note, common household vinegar isn’t as potent as other forms of acetic acid so adjust your application ratios accordingly. For the more flamboyant gardeners amongst us, you can always torch the little garden ghouls with a propane torch or go the less intense way of giving weeds a permanent dirt nap by spreading corn gluten on established lawns in the early spring. Just be sure to remember that corn gluten contains nitrogen, so make sure you account for that when and if you fertilize.

Most of us wish weeds would go the way of the dinosaur, or the rotary phone and simply become extinct. Until then, be sure to keep your soils healthy to give your lawns, gardens and flower beds the best first line of defense against weed growth. If that doesn’t work for you, then resort to try our suggested use of plain-old sweat and shovels, vinegar, (very) controlled burning or corn gluten. Chances are you’ll solve your weed problems and have the added bonus of not doing irrefutable damage to our water supply with toxic chemicals.

Most Americans don’t have any tolerance for that either, thank God.

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.