Whether you're putting your green thumb to use in your garden or home landscaping, you're no doubt in a battle against weeds. Those pesky pain-in-the-you-know-whats for both people and plants cause many of us to turn to hardware store shelves for chemical-based weed killers. While it's true they pack a strong punch and do the trick, they can also cause a lot more harm to the environment than meets the eye. However, natural weed killers can do the same job as the chemical ones and with a lot less damage.
The Dangers of Commercial Weed Killers
Bees play a crucial role in pollination and in the ecosystem, but commercial weed killers are contributing to the problematic decline in population. The culprit? Glyphosate. The active ingredient in chemical herbicides punches bees right in the gut, quite literally. Andrew C. McCall, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, shares in an email interview, "The most common herbicide, glyphosate (Roundup) has been studied in bees, mostly. It can kill beneficial gut microbes in bees, which could make the insects more susceptible to harmful microbes. Glyphosate can also negatively affect navigation in honeybee workers. In particular, it looks like they have a harder time finding their way back to the hive."
But bees aren't the only arthropods who feel the toxic effects. "Glyphosate can also indirectly affect many insects, because it can kill lots of plants that insects eat — the most prominent example is the common milkweed, an important food source for monarch caterpillars," says McCall.
Given that chemical sprays land on the ground surrounding the weeds, it makes sense that the chemicals could affect the soil. "Glyphosate binds to soil particles and can negatively affect bacterial communities and fungi," McCall adds.
Even the ingredient used as the transport mechanism for glyphosate plays a harmful role. Polyethoxylated amine (also referred to as POEA) is known to be even more toxic to aquatic life, including fish, frogs, shrimp and algae, than glyphosate. It can easily trickle elsewhere since it doesn't get stuck in the soil and hangs around longer before degrading. So how do you kill weeds without harming the environment?
DIY Weed Killers
You can of course take the old-fashioned — and uncomfortable — approach and pull weeds up manually, but with just a few common household ingredients you can safely knock them out with less effort (and money). Here are three easy recipes for home-made weed killers you just have to try to believe:
1. Vinegar/Epsom Salt/Soap Combo
This simple concoction of three ingredients we most likely have in the pantry or under the kitchen sink is guaranteed to stop weeds in their tracks. A note about salt: Any time you add salt to soil, you will affect the soil and make it difficult to grow things there in the future. So if you are targeting weeds where you want nothing to grow, in a driveway or in cracks on a patio, for instance, go ahead and use the salt. If you want to plant in that spot in the future, leave the salt out, or use it sparingly.
- 1-gallon (4 liters) white vinegar
- 2 cups (473 milliliters) Epsom salt
- 1/4 cup (59 milliliters) liquid dishwashing soap
- Pour the vinegar, dish soap and Epsom salt into a spray bottle. Shake until combined.
- Let settle for 2 minutes then spray on the weeds. Make sure to soak the whole weed (but watch out: anything you inadvertently spray will also be killed).
- Let it stay on the weeds for 24 hours. The weeds should be dead within a day.
Note: For best effect, spray weeds on a sunny day when they are dry.
2. Boiling Water
This one takes simple and safe to a new level and is a great way to get rid of weeds in driveway or sidewalk cracks.
- Simply boil a pot of water and pour it on the weeds.
- Take caution and pour slowly, being careful not to splash any on yourself.
- The water will kill the weeds right away, but it won't kill the roots. So you'll likely need to repeat the process on new growth.
Put your leftover Sunday paper to good use with this easy fix for garden weeds.
- Use a weed wacker to knock the weeds down a notch, then cover them with newspaper. It will shut out the sun and air, stopping new growth.
- Lay down a layer of mulch over the paper. The combination of a layer of paper and a good couple inches of mulch will block the sunlight from reaching developing weeds and stop them from germinating and growing — the most natural solution in the world.
Bonus: Newspaper will break down over time, leaving nothing to clean up.
Looking for a Healthy, Long-Term Solution?
Keep it native. Planting native flowers in your garden and native grasses in your yard can help cut down on the amount of weeds. They're inherently better at competing for crucial light, nutrients and water. Or take it a step further and replace your lawn or landscaping with native ivy or moss.
With a little out-of-the-box thinking and a few household ingredients, it really is possible to win the war against weeds without harming the environment. Your garden, your yard and the bees will thank you.