Is there an alternative to harmful herbicides that will kill weeds but not harm backyard wildlife?
March 14, 2009 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Is there an alternative to harmful herbicides that will kill weeds but not harm backyard wildlife? My yard is full of weeds. It looks awful. We're having an awful time getting rid of the weeds because there are just too many to manually pull each out. So my husband wants to use a "Weed and Feed" or some similar weed killer on our entire lawn to kill the weeds, then start seeding grass.

Here is the problem - I'm an avid backyard birder. With all the bird feeders, birdbaths and bird houses in our backyard, I'd say we have at least 40 birds in our backyard at any given time. Many of these birds are ground feeders - meaning they eat the bugs, worms and dropped seeds from the ground. My husband's proposition to kill the weeds in our yard worries me. I'm concerned that these herbicides will hurt our birds and/or the bugs and worms that they eat off the ground.

So, metafilter community, can you offer any suggestions of methods we can use to get rid of the prolific weeds in our yard without harming the diversity of wildlife we enjoy? Do you know if "Weed and Feed" options will harm the wild birds, insects and worms? So far my research has turned up few alternatives to the "scorched earth" method my husband wants to employ.

posted by feeshbitZ to Home & Garden (32 answers total)

Here in the U.S. midwest, corn gluten has started to take off as an alternative herbicide. Information from Iowa State University here.
posted by webhund at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are some herbicides that are plant hormones, some that are synthetic hormones, some that are plant derived herbicides that otherwise occur naturally in the environment, and some that are just straight-up nasty shit that you couldn't pay me to touch. I don't know enough about them to specifically mention any of them but there is a pretty broad spectrum of toxicity when it comes to herbicides.

Dig a little deeper into your research and you'll probably find some middle ground with your husband's scorched earth policy.
posted by 517 at 12:18 PM on March 14, 2009

Dig a little deeper into your research and you'll probably find some middle ground with your husband's scorched earth policy.

In fact, a scorched earth policy might be just the ticket. I can vouch for its awesomeness.
posted by headnsouth at 12:35 PM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: RoundUp is almost exclusively toxic to plants. The information in the article there is pretty good; you're more likely to kill a bird by drowning it in RoundUp than you are through toxicity. Agent Orange or DDT this is not. The way you'd be using it there is almost no risk to the environment. I know several avid birders who use the stuff all the time with no ill effects. I mean the stuff tastes foul, and you really shouldn't get it in your eyes, so you should really stand upwind when using it (this is experience talking), but once it's been applied it's about as safe as these things get.

The problem here is that RoundUp is gonna kill all of the plants to which you apply it thoroughly. So if you've got grass underneath that you'd like to keep, this isn't the way to do it.

My suggestion: use this as an opportunity to do some good for your community by hiring someone to do it for you. These are tough economic times, and though you may not have the time to go through and do this manually, I'm betting there are plenty of people in your town who would love the work. Landscapers are probably looking at a rough summer, and they're all running low on work this time of year. But it doesn't have to be a professional landscaper either. Many people who have recently lost a manual-labor-type job would probably be glad for the work.

If you don't know of anyone personally, consider calling a local church or social service organization; I guarantee you they've all got people they're working with who have lost their jobs and would be happy to help you.
posted by valkyryn at 12:38 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to avoid chemicals, a weed wand is very effective (and great fun). It's basically a flamethrower in miniature. You sweep it over the weeds, and the intense heat boils the water in the leaves, causing the cells to burst. It can take a couple of days to be effective, but there are no lingering residues at all. One of the problems with this approach is perennial weeds. They will grow again from their roots, whereas annual weeds will not.

Another options you could consider would be to cover the ground with several layers of cardboard, and cover that with soil/straw. It will cut out all the light to the weeds, and it will weaken any perennial weeds that do manage to penetrate the barrier.
posted by Solomon at 12:39 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You do NOT want to use fire to get rid of weeds. That's overkill and much more destruction than you want to do for something that can be easily handled with an much more eco-minded approach cited in the article I posted above. Fire doesn't know the difference between a weed or a beneficial insect - it kills anything in its midst. Sheesh.
posted by watercarrier at 12:43 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

depending on where you live, perhaps you can rent a goat or two!
posted by lia at 12:44 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Roundup (glyphosphate) is comparatively benign. It breaks down in contact with soil, so only those plants whose leaves are wetted are affected, and even before it breaks down it's pretty non-toxic. Mulching, solarizing and such are great but if you really want to do something fast, easy and effective then Roundup is as benevolent a chemical solution as you'll find.
posted by anadem at 12:45 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

watercarrier, your article mentions flame weeders as a reasonable approach. They're plenty eco.

If I worried about respecting every beneficial critter in my garden I'd have to have a funeral service for every worm I accidentally bisect with the shovel.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:16 PM on March 14, 2009

Oh for goodness sakes, please don't use corn gluten unless you are absolutely sure there is NO ONE down wind of you who has an allergy to either. Several members of my family are so allergic to corn that walking into a restaurant that is using corn oil can make them itch for days. I cannot imagine what breathing in fine corn particulate would do to them. Ditto with the gluten problems.

I'd also say that really, simply because we deem these plants weeds and they look displeasing in the lawn finding means to destroy them is unneeded. I would agree with watercarrier in that the best way to have a weed free lawn without chemicals is a lot of very hard work. The reason chemicals are used is because they are easy.
posted by strixus at 1:23 PM on March 14, 2009

that the best way to have a weed free lawn without chemicals is a lot of very hard work

unless you have a Hula Hoe.

One of the quickest ways to manually weed is to use one of these. Changed my life and my 1/5th of a weedy acre.
posted by Vaike at 1:32 PM on March 14, 2009

Mowing your lawn short, and protecting the grass from damage with
water and low potency fertilizer disproportionately discourages weeds.
Weeds grow from the tip, and when you cut it off it takes a while for it
to re-organize apical meristems from which to continue growing. Grass,
on the other hand, grows from the base of the plant, and is not nearly as
discouraged by being mown or bitten off.

The only downside of this method is that it is slow but steady, in terms of
eliminating weeds, and some of the more resistant weeds will need to be
removed by hand, or at least prevented from seeding, which requires
vigilance. It sounds like you are watching the birds anyway, so that
shouldn't be a problem.

One more point might be important. If you watch those little feathered
freeloaders carefully when they are ground feeding, you might see that
some of them are actually grazing on greens that are growing in the yard.
Those little bastards neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom
nor barn, and yet they still eat. Glyphosate, one of the safest herbicides,
is slightly toxic to birds.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:32 PM on March 14, 2009

Mow, mow and mow some more. When dealing with large pastures (20+acres) regular mowing combined with a soil analysis/ amendments and the correct grass seed for your area this is by FAR the most effective method of weed control. The only one really. It'll get better every year that you keep it up too.

You'll probably have to hand pull a few rosette plants like dandelions or creeping ones like daisies (I like daisies so they can stay) but less and less and less as time goes on. Mixing some clover into your grass seed is helpful too imho.

If you live in an area that is not hospitable to grass (damp, dry, clay, wrong soil, lots of shade trees) look into specialty grasses, add lot so f soil amendments or consider making some parts of your garden into a non-grass lawn. Creeping thyme is nice, moss works in damp areas etc.
posted by fshgrl at 1:49 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the awesome answers! I think we'll try the Roundup solution. We did that in spots in the front yard (where wildlife is scarce - birds feed in the back) and it did knock out the weeds there. I was just afraid that it would be toxic to the birds, bugs, worms, bunnies, foxes, chipmunks, etc that we have flourishing in our backyard.

My husband also thanks you as now he'll be able to proceed with his plan to give us a functional backyard for our toddler to play in. :) If the Roundup fails, I'm going to try a couple of your other suggestions (cover, organic, corn gluten).

Thanks again, guys! I loves me some metafilter!
posted by feeshbitZ at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: RE: Strixus - We've lived in this house and have been fighting the battle of the yard for over 3 years now. We're hardly lazy or looking for an easy out. We're just fed up with trying to weed 3/4 of an acre lawn that is rife with all sorts of well-established weeds. Much of it is clover. We live at the base of a large hill, so all our neighbor's runoff drains into our yard. These weeds handle the excess water very poorly, to the runoff turns our yard into a mucky, useless mess for much of the year.

Our daughter is a toddler now, but has not yet spent a single day playing in our backyard because it is in such awful shape. We'll be reseeding the yard with sturdy fescue and planting natives that attract/feed birds and insects. And toddlers.
posted by feeshbitZ at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2009

If you have grass, and want not to kill it, you can spot treat the weeds. If you can find a product called Confront, this will work well and it does not have 2,4-D in it. Even if you have to use a 2,4-D product, you will not use much of it and I doubt that wildlife (other than the weeds) will suffer.

If you use corn gluten, you will not be able to germinate any new grass seed, since it works by preventing germination of anything.
posted by Danf at 2:09 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We have tried the method of mowing grass very short every week and seeding. After a couple of years with very poor results, my husband just wants to get rid of the weeds and start over. When we bought this house and its weedy yard, we knew it would be a couple of years before we could see results. However, the results we've seen so far are very poor. Some call it giving up or taking the easy way out. I think we paid our dues and are just in a bad situation.

I understand that some people are going to have their opinions about using any sort of weed control that they disagree with. I think that the fact that we're trying to be considerate of the wildlife in our yard is notable. We're surrounded by neighbors who have beautiful, lush yards thanks to companies like Chemlawn. We're trying to be responsible to the living creatures on our property and to the stream that runs along the lowest point of our property. The "easy" route would be to go with Chemlawn and get that gorgeous lawn in one season.
posted by feeshbitZ at 2:43 PM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: Danf - thank you for the suggestions! I had no idea that corn gluten prevented any germination.
posted by feeshbitZ at 2:45 PM on March 14, 2009

Alright, so this may be damaging to the environment or bad for the birds, but if you wanted to get a clean slate, what about covering the area in tarps or opaque plastic sheeting for a few weeks to kill all the plants and start over entirely? Good luck
posted by big open mouth at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2009

Also, to help with the poor drainage, could you dig a path for a stream in the area where the water collects? Perhaps try to incorporate it as an actual feature of the yard.
posted by big open mouth at 3:16 PM on March 14, 2009

The tarp solution works especially in hot weather. Water everything and then tarp it for a LONG time. Months. By watering it, you're encouraging things to sprout and then they die. It's scorched earth, though- you'll have to start the lawn from scratch afterwards.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:21 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

The absolute best thing you can do is get a nice, healthy lawn established. A thick healthy lawn, kept fairly long (not putting green length!) will naturally crowd out most of the weeds.

So your husband isn't totally off base. Talk to the Master Gardener at your local nursery about how to get from where you are today to a nice healthy lawn with minimal impact. It may take a couple of yeas, or it may be quick if you are willing to bulldoze the yard and lay down quality sod.
posted by COD at 3:36 PM on March 14, 2009

A word about the RoundUp: it'll kill everything sure, but you're still going to have to back there and pull everything out. Just because the weeds are dead doesn't mean that they're gone.
posted by valkyryn at 3:52 PM on March 14, 2009

If an area is really weedy, I would totally use the tarp method. Using thick black plastic is especially effective. The black will roast the earth. As far is burning is concerned, if you do it early in the spring, it won't effect the grass at all. Actually, it is an effective way of getting rid of matted dead material that impedes grass growth. In the midwest, ditch burning is quite common and my neighbor once set his two acre lawn on fire by accident one year and it came back looking better.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:38 PM on March 14, 2009

Doesn't Roundup kill grass too, not just weeds? Is that what you want?

I, too, am afraid to hurt my backyard birds and don't use any commercial weed/insect killer. It doesn't look nearly as good as it did when I used that stuff (unfortunately) but I love the birds more. I hand remove the stubborn weeds which can be somewhat time consuming but then my backyard is only about 60' x 60'. I commend you for your intentions - a healthy lawn with happy healthy birds isn't as easy as it sounds. Good luck!
posted by ourroute at 7:01 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

What fshgrl said. Most of the other advice is about treating the symptoms, not the cause of your problems, which I strongy suspect is a general pH and/or fertility problem. If I were in your shoes I would have a soil test done by a local university extension service. You might need to lime. Regardless of what the soil test says you need, if you want a hardy, kid-safe lawn then do what a farmer would do to establish a good permanent pasture: address soil fertility, seed a grass/legume mix appropriate for your region, let a good stand get going, and then mow, mow, mow. The weeds are a sign something is out of whack and attacking with glyphosate or flamethrowers isn't a long-term solution.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: For the drainage, we're probably going to use a combo of french drain and retaining wall. For that we will be hiring help and I'll definitely look into work outreach programs in my area (great idea, Valkyryn - my husband loved it). The Hula Hoe is definitely a tool that I'll be using in the garden, but for our lot, its just too small. We're aware that we'll be killing all vegetation, but will be bringing in an aerator before we seed. The soil is terribly compacted, which also adds to the drainage problems, so in order to get healthy growth, we'll have to aerate.

You're right, small_ruminant, I can be a little too cautious about our wildlife, but we have one of the few open spaces in our neighborhood that aren't chemically treated. We have a couple of nesting pairs of bluebirds that spend a lot of time feeding in our grass, so my concern was for their well being, mostly.

I must admit that it kills me to take out some of the clover as we have a nearby honeybee colony that just loves our yard, but the clover won't play nice, so out it goes. I'm hoping to plant something else the honeybees will like just as much but in a semi-controlled area that won't take over the rest of the yard.
posted by feeshbitZ at 10:34 PM on March 14, 2009

Mowing your lawn short

No. This is exactly wrong. Most people mow their turfgrass far too frequently and far too short for a healthy lawn, then make up for it with tons of weed and feed feritilizer.

Turfgrass needs sufficient blade to form nutrients to generate growth. Mowing your typical northern-climate grass shorter than about 2" is going to starve your lawn, especially during the summer when it needs it the most. Every time you mow, additionally, you're opening up a nasty wound on every leaf your blade touches. Most people don't sharpen their mowers often enough, so these are ugly disease-inviting wounds.

Wisconsin's own Melinda Myers, master gardener, horticulturist, and demi-celebrity, has a bunch of books named "The [Midwestern State] Lawn Guide" or whatnot. These will be an invaluable introduction to your own backyard and what it needs to be healthy and happy, which will make you happy as well.
posted by dhartung at 10:54 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Clover is actually good for your lawn.

I would bet that the root of your problem is the runoff water/ mud and I would guess that installing a French Drain or swale/ infiltration system is going to be the solution to creating a grassy lawn. Grass will not grow just anywhere. Even fescue.

If you've been mowing, weeding and reseeding for a few years and had zero results you do not have an environment that is grass-friendly and roundup won't help develop one. I have no problem with Roundup but the weeds are not creating the muddy conditions, the drainage is, and lawn grass will not grow in saturated ground even if you kill everything else there. You really need to get a consultation with someone who knows about soils, lawns and your local area. This could be a landscaper or a friend who is an experienced gardener, or maybe even call your local ag extension. You likely need to drain the lawn area, or have your neighbor re-direct his runoff (if they have french drains that dump our on your property it might be illegal btw, look into it). If your soil has been wet for years it will need amendments to make it grass-friendly because it has likely developed wetland soil characteristics.

Gardening is largely a matter of "if you build it they will come". You can plant things all day long but if the environment isn't friendly then they will just die.
posted by fshgrl at 2:04 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

btw, when I say mow it a lot I mean keep it short enough that nothing goes to seed and do it regularly so nothing goes to seed. 4" is plenty short enough.
posted by fshgrl at 2:07 AM on March 15, 2009

Lots of good advice here. We have gone mostly chemical free for years and with relatively little effort have managed to avoid a weed problem. First up, the key is mowing long, not short. You want healthy grass which crowds out the weeds. Grass is more vigorous than most weeds. That means feeding it with fertilizer and watering it, plus making sure it gets lime etc. if needed. We use organic fertilizers in part to reduce the chemical load on the yard but more importantly because they work better. You can load up with them and they release naturally, won't burn the lawn and don't wash away like many chemical fertilizers. Watering in dry times is important. We typically do not have water issues here so a few extra dollars watering in dry weather keeps the weeds at bay without wasting a precious resource. In areas with less abundant water this luxury may not be available to you. We use corn gluten and it helps greatly with weeds like crab grass that grow from seed every year, plus it keeps new dandelions minimized. We still weed by hand, but only an hour or two a month in prime weed season for a lawn about your size. Clover is a weed I cherish in my lawn. It fixes nitrogen into the soil from the air and thus fertilizes the lawn. Yards used to routinely contain clover, it was even seeded, until the appearance of 2,4-D weed killers. You can still seed it. The one downside, it does seem to stain kid's clothing far more than grass seems to. Weeds are opportunistic and every now and then after much stress to the lawn you will find them somewhat out of normal control. In those times I will use chemicals (I hope my wife isn't reading this) but only spot applications meant to get the lawn back on track. Roundup is more environmentally friendly than 2,4-D, but it kills the grass. Fine for dandelions or whole areas of weed that you want to just reseed, but I pull the dandelions and nuke those other areas with black plastic tarps. A little 2,4-D in a heavily infested section of otherwise healthy grass (it is usually just small patches a few feet across) can get them back. I have only had to do this a few times. I am loathe to do the whole lawn because then it will kill my clover. If just making a strong lawn fails then you might consider a single general application.
posted by caddis at 1:38 PM on March 15, 2009

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