Weed Killer

I’m an organic gardener, I don’t like weed killer and have avoided using it as much as possible which used to mean total abstinence and that used to be easy. But life gets more expensive. There isn’t enough organic work and it certainly doesn’t cover the rent, other jobs come up and inevitably I’m faced with the dilemma of not spraying the weeds or not paying the rent. I spray the weeds. I’ve done this a few times over the last couple of years and have become desensitised to it. At first it was a troubling moral dilemma, it really felt like crossing a line, but spraying weed killer in a chemical soaked garden of ornamental plants where the owner is already fighting a full on assault against nature makes about as much difference as dropping litter at a landfill. It’s wrong, it’s complicity, but it becomes part of the accepted hypocrisy that slowly wears away at you in a subtle, numbing non-confrontational way. There is however a level above this, a direct assault on nature, on myself and my family, that I am being forced into.

For the last four years I have lived in a property that for all its faults has become an oasis for nature. There weren’t many good weeds when we arrived, dandelions, plantain, sheep sorrel, not much of a salad. But I’ve been collecting, wild garlic, garlic mustard, sow thistles, burdock and creating little patches for the early colonisers, hairy bitter cress, broadleaf willow herb. The weeds here are brilliant now, hogweed and meadowsweet have jumped the fence to join in. I’ve put some hazels in too. Mushrooms have crept in from the woods, honey fungus is getting to work on the ornamentals and a cep even popped up on the lawn last year.

When you give the weeds a helping hand, the animals follow. Upon my return from work each day, my youngest daughter, since she was a year old, has insisted that we tour the garden looking under every rock, sheet of iron and debris to find, stroke and befriend the occupants. This routine has given me a greater understanding and closer relationship to this land than any book could have. We started with two black ant colonies and now have seven, we put bin lids over them in winter to help them survive. Mice and voles like to live under corrugated iron, voles in particular are so tame that they can be handled and returned, one even came in to the house for biscuits and milk. We had a toad that lived under the same rock for more than 3 months and graciously received a visit every day. If anyone in the house received an injury an excited toddler would arrive moments later, toad in hand to kiss it better. We get loads more butterflies because we let the grass grow, sextant beetles and buzzards because we leave a deer’s guts and ribs out after it’s been butchered.

It’s taken a fair bit of effort to assist this paradise in creating itself but it also created a great and problematic divergence in perception. Where we see the ants metropolis, others see discarded bin lids, the mice nests are probably best seen as corrugated iron because underneath its vermin. An unkempt lawn is lazy, purple orchids won’t grow in straight lines so cutting around them just looks messy. The deer guts are even harder to explain, until you’ve seen a sextant beetle but most people won’t hang around that long. Even family members have banned me from wasp farming. No one on earth could convince me that this little patch of ground isn’t a thing of extreme beauty that should be maintained and allowed to grow. But this argument is about to come to a head, and I have no choice but to do the complete opposite of what every logical and moral fibre of my being is striving to achieve and preserve.

There’s one person that has a veto over all my ambitions, morals and every living thing on this patch of ground: the landlord. He’s given a weeks notice of an inspection, legally he only has to give 24 hours, but even that small grace isn’t enough to dig my way out of this one. I work more than full time at this time of year, the hedges, grass and worst of all the gravel need done. My worst fear is that if I don’t do it and make it fit with his perception of what it should be, then he will. I’ve got the impression he doesn’t give a shit about ants, won’t go round the orchids and will have a fit when he finds the deer processing area. The scrap pile, smoker, bonfire site and manure delivery are all going to need a good tidy too. In short, this is physically, organically impossible but if it isn’t done I lose the lot.

I’ve decided on a strategy, and hope I’ve set the scene for the immoral act I am about to commit for the greater good. Writing that sentence even makes me suspicious of myself. I’m going to sacrifice the gravel out the front to make a good impression, hopefully prevent further investigation and tidy/hide the rest. I’ll cut all the hedges, carefully go round all the best flowers in the grass, weed around the ants nests and veg plot and with great sadness and anger spray weed killer on the gravel.

It’s two days to go and I’ve cut the hedges and am tidying every evening. I’ve bought the weed killer, Monsanto roundup, it’s like a pact with the devil. Having done it for other people on their mismanaged, deranged, industrially produced gardens, it felt distant, no great loss. But I am about to commit a crime against the life I have encouraged into this place. I can justify the lack of choice but ultimately no matter how the strings are being pulled this feels like my decision even though it is not my land or my right to stop it.

My fear of short term risks, the landlord ruining the whole garden or worse, kicking me out, are making me take part in long term irreparable ecocide. World wide, this is why forests are being cleared and fish overexploited. Some may be doing it for greed but many are just trying to stay on the treadmill, keep a roof over their head and feed their families. Without rights over land the freedom to make moral decisions regarding respect for the other lives we share a space with is fatally undermined.

And the deed is done, it was worryingly easy, targeting, spraying, like a kid with a water pistol, a familiar mechanism and a water-like spray, no immediate sign of damage. The problems I’m causing hide themselves as they happen. If I chose not to think about it, there’d be nothing to remind me of what I’m doing. The bottle reassuringly claims that glyphosate is broken down by micro organisms in the soil. They’re no longer allowed to make that claim in most European countries. The poisoning of the groundwater, the insects, the risk to my own children, myself, no crossing of a red line, just a subtle repositioning, people do this all the time, I’ve been making myself stand out by not doing it.

The farmer has just done it to the neeps across the road, the neighbours all do their gravel drives, I didn’t see anyone do the field beside us but there’s not an orchid in site. I can almost feel the approval hitting me like sunlight, the leylandi are cut straight, one orchid remains on an otherwise well trimmed, bee free lawn. The gas tank now draws the eye as the main garden feature, there’s no butterflies messily parked on dandelion heads and the car sits neatly on its freshly cleansed square. Like a badly hung picture, our garden tilted towards the woods and the gorse. Now the whole plot appears repositioned to line up with the road, the fences and the mechanical lines of chemical drenched crops. The gravel hasn’t transformed as I’d expected, I think I’ve been a victim of advertising, this stuff takes ages to work. I just hope I’ve poisoned enough ground to not be evicted.

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  1. SteveT says:

    That’s as beautifully written & powerful a piece about our crooked relationship with the natural world as I’ve read in a long time. It made me think of standing in my father-in-law’s back garden last weekend as he proudly showed me his latest victory: the thick, gnarled root of a 30 year old tree that he’d just had chopped down and prised out of the ground. Now the 50 foot expanse consists of a rectangular lawn of bowling green length and regularity, regimented rows of perennials and roses with great bare expanses of soil, and a concrete slab patio regularly scoured clean of every piece of moss and dirt by a high-pressure hose. I wonder how much environmental destruction is not about evil or greediness, or even a need to survive, but a deep human desire to control – to make nature ‘nice & tidy’?

    1. greeta von longtail says:

      “the bushes scream while my daddy prunes” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpgyVxP8OG8

  2. raddledoldtart says:

    And not just the fear of being evicted by the landlord, but the fear that when you apply to rent other properties, the landlords/agencies demand a reference from your last landlord. And if that reference is critical, you’ve no chance of getting the tenancy.

  3. Jane Kidd says:

    Maybe you should show him the post you wrote and get him excited about wildlife too?

  4. Valerie says:

    A beautifully written piece, infill I came to those horrible words – Monsanto Round up. I do see you have struggled with the decision tho.

    I don’t use any chemicals, and just do hand to hand combat with brambles and ground elder – grounding day!

    There is a growing lobby in the US, fighting very hard against huge agribusiness to get food labelled, proper info on round up treated crops etc. It all increases your bodies chemical load, and is mostly endocrine disruptors at play.

    You couldn’t pay me enough to eat those neeps 🙁

  5. Broadbield says:

    “Silent Spring”

  6. catriona grigg says:

    It’s sounds like heaven. But alas! I have now got to the age where I must simplify my garden to make it manageable as I get even older. ‘Why?’ you ask. I live in a village. I have neighbours on every boundary. Some are gardeners, some aren’t. I can no longer cope with avalanches of weeds from the non-gardeners and I don’t want the freebies of flowers the birds donate from the gardeners.

    I want a place where I can hide and enjoy the garden. I’m half way down a wide herbaceous border digging it up to replace it with a simpler design I’ll be able to maintain as my muscles weaken and my breathing gets more laboured.

    So far only cow parlsey and comfrey are the only plants so deep rooted I’ve resorted to glyphosate.

    The garden is full of birds, bumble bees and butterflies. I’ve seen the occasional lizard and toad. Sometimes a hare visits. The only unwanted visitors are cats. At times the sky is black with flocks of birds. I can’t put out feeders because of the cats but then, there’re so many berries I don’t think the birds will starve. In fact I lost my crop of loganberries and plums to them this year. But there’s plenty of other things I did harvest!

    I wouldn’t feel guilty about using Roundup. No-one lives in a vacuum. If we don’t have a landlord we have neighbours to rub along with. Enjoy your garden!

  7. Bidge says:

    Nice piece. I fully undertand and get what you are trying to do. I only have a few metres of garden, but I do everything to “wild” it as much as I can. I have planted various wildflowers (clover being favourite), this year I have gathered Thistle seeds and disperesed them.

    Too many my garden may look a mess, but I know that in my little garden, I am doing more for pollinators and other insects than the rest of my street combined.

    Well done. Hope all goes well for you.

  8. Steve Webster says:

    You didn’t consider just strimming it down to the ground ? Would have looked alright for his visit

  9. CathW says:

    Really feel for you, Billy. I garden organically and very much with the wildlife in mind. I shan’t resort to chemicals – though I understand the pressure on you to do so. Gardening to me is about a balance of control and ‘nature’ and I don’t think wildlife friendly needs to mean totally unkempt. In nature, grass is grazed and hedges browsed by wild and domesticated animals so total non-intervention maybe doesn’t replicate how everything would grow ‘naturally’? I find it helps a lot to have some well-ordered spaces (still organic, still good for the beasties) so that the completely wild and rough bits look intentional rather than neglected. Mown grass is much loved by blackbirds and hedgehogs for foraging and long, uncut grass looks great with a mown path through/beside it. I find loads of wild flowers, including lots of orchids, come up in whichever bit is left for them that year even if it was kept mown in previous years. I let nettles, bramble etc come up under the outer hedge but pull them out where they encroach too far. Anyway, hope you find a way to garden that is acceptable to you and others – you’ll win them over yet!

  10. caroline says:

    vinegar and salt 50 /50 soes a good job of kill loads of weeds

    1. leavergirl says:

      I use a weed torch. Quick once-over with heat, and they dehydrate and wither. Can’t be used among living things, but on gravel and paving stones, it works very well. The best one is the one made by Primus.

    2. Veronique says:

      Vinegar and salt will do quite a bit of harm to your soil structure and pH. The thing about weeds is much like all other plants. They thrive when the soil suits them. If you develop your soil to the extent that thistles, plantain, nettles etc won’t grow – to my mind it is a much better solution.

      Mind you, you can’t change the soil you have permanently. It requires annual dosing of nutrients that will keep weeds away. I am no soil scientist but have learned quite a bit about nutrient lock-up. It is worth the effort to study soils and their make-up to provide a better soil environment in which weeds (or some of them) don’t flourish.

      That said, of course weed seeds are blown in, dropped in bird and other animal droppings. They will always be a pest to eradicate.

      I have to say that looking through what Billy wrote and through some of the comments, you need to understand the chemistry that makes up the glyphosate molecule. Here it is:

      C3H8NO5P You can see it is made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and phosphorus. As a molecule it is held together and with the added surfactant is effective as a systemic on broadleaf weeds and grasses. However it does actually break down into its component parts which are found in the soil (and the air, for that matter). The molecule itself is unstable enough that it hits the leaf and is taken in and systemically down to the roots and that is what kills the plant. It needs heat to be really effective and the UK doesn’t really have the kind of heat that makes it work in a couple of days (as in Oz from where I hail). Especially now in October – 6 weeks for effective eradication if you are lucky.

      But, I must stress that the glyphosate molecule does not hold together once it hits the soil where it breaks down and individual components bind with other components in the soil. I have always been irritated by he scare mongering that has accompanied Monsanto’s development of Roundup. Not that I have any brook with Monsanto – a multinational behemoth of a greedy organisation with nothing to really recommend it. And, of course, the glyphosate patent has run out and now many companies make it in some formulation or another.

      It does seem to me that everyone (who knows nothing about chemistry or soil science) does this kneejerk reaction to Monsanto and Roundup. I really advise people to find out just what glyphosate actually is and start to act rationally.

      Here in Scotland, I use a concentrated form of glyphosate to kill the regrowth from tree stumps which would otherwise regrow. I hand weed most of the weeds that appear and plant ground covers to suppress more weeds.

      Mind you, I own my own home and can do as I please. Gravel – hmph! There are some hideous little weedy, grassy revolters that keep popping up. I spray the gravel in the driveway – no probs! Anyway, I await the barrage from you all. 🙂

  11. Fordie says:

    Why don’t you leave it and see what happens?

  12. Tom says:

    I remember these dilemmas well and they’ve cost me many references and a good deal of landlord-and-lady vitriol. Managing land well by anyone’s standards isn’t my forte, so I’ve given up trying. But I feel for you on your tightrope walk 🙁

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