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Herbicide Alternatives

man gardening and weeding
March 30, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

It goes without saying: herbicides kill.

And although the active ingredients in most herbicides have been declared “safe” for human consumption, that’s up for debate. Recently, the most common active ingredient—glyphosate—has been labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. That’s scary to say the least, considering how often we’re exposed to it.

But even if that recent finding doesn’t hold up, there are other reasons to worry.

For one thing, there are plenty of other ingredients in herbicides that haven’t been tested. What they do to us when we eat them is entirely unknown.

For another, while the active ingredients are often declared safe for human consumption, they can hurt us in other ways. For instance, most herbicides are extremely toxic when they enter waterways. And that can touch us further down the line.

That’s why I avoid herbicides as much as possible—both in what I buy, and what I grow.

I’ll tell you why. And I’ll also tell you what you can use instead of the nasty chemicals so often peddled your way.

Watch out for unpronounceable words

As a general rule, if you can’t pronounce a chemical within milliseconds of seeing it, you’re in trouble.

That certainly goes for the most common weed-killer on the markets—glyphosate. For years, the medical community thought it was safe. Now, unsurprisingly, it appears introducing strange chemicals into our bodies can have a very bad impact.

Glyphosate is also murder on any aquatic life it comes in contact with. Though glyphosate binds to soil, plenty escapes into waterways.

What happens when we eat anything poisoned by this substance? Considering it’s now a likely carcinogen, I’ll go out on a limb and say nothing good.

But glyphosate is just part of the problem. Polyethoxylated amine (POEA) is a common surfactant in herbicides—it helps get the glyphosate down into the roots. And it acts upon plant life in much they same way. Except POEA doesn’t bind to soil—it easily enters waterways, aquifers, you name it.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Herbicides are usually more “inert” chemicals than active ones. Those chemicals are part of the secret recipe—and we have absolutely no way to know what they do to us.

In short, you want to get conventional herbicides as far away from you as possible.

That means keeping them off your lawns, out of your gardens, and away from your groceries. Only eat organic or natural foods, so you don’t risk exposure to these harmful chemicals.

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But weeds are still a problem—especially for farmers. So what are some good alternatives?

Kill weeds the natural way

One of the best natural alternatives to herbicides is vinegar.

It’s completely healthy within the environment, and dissipates very quickly anyway.

It doesn’t attack the root system of plants, but instead burns away leaves. For that reason, you’ll have to apply vinegar a few times to kill a weed. But that’s a small price to pay for your health.

To make vinegar even more effective, mix it with some salt, and a small amount of dish soap as well. Add 12 ounces of salt, and 1 tablespoon of soap, for every gallon of vinegar you use. Shake your solution thoroughly.

There’s a reason salting the earth is still a common phrase—salt is a powerful plant killer. And the dish soap acts as a surfactant—it helps the vinegar and salt stick to plants, and travel where it needs to go.

Essential oils are another safe alternative, and work the same way as vinegar. These include clove, peppermint, citronella, and pine. Feel free to use these oils to defeat your weed enemies.

In addition to killing weeds in a much safer way, you also aren’t permanently damaging the soil. After you’ve killed off unwanted guests, the land will be ready for fresh, healthy produce.

Industrial weed destruction

There are some exciting inventions coming down the pike as well.

While you wouldn’t use it in your own garden, Bosch has created a new machine that can spot weeds, and stamp them out.

This machine uses no chemicals whatsoever. Instead, a smart system recognizes the difference between healthy desirable plants, and weeds.

And it then proceeds to stomp the weeds deep underground, where they quickly die.

While this machine will only make sense for large farms, it’s the future of healthy weeding. Don’t be surprised when commercially-available machines change weeding the way robot vacuums have changed cleaning around the house.

That’s still a ways off, but I’m always encouraged to see solutions like this on the horizon.

And until the day you can just tell your robot to go weed, break out the vinegar, spray down your weeds, and eat from your garden without worry.


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