Pesticide Reform – Herbicides Don’t Solve Weed Problems

Posted on Apr 13, 2016

Herbicides are intensively marketed as simple, relatively inexpensive, and quick solutions to weed problems wherever they might occur. However, this simplistic approach needs a complete overhaul. Quite apart from whatever health and environmental problems an herbicide might cause, using an herbicide to solve a weed problem poses a basic contradiction. Herbicides almost never change the underlying conditions that promote the growth of a weed. Therefore, they can’t solve any weed problems; they can only temporarily remove the evidence of the problem by killing the weeds that are present. They are “band-aids” and not solutions.

Using herbicides commits us to a treadmill in which we will have to use them over and over and over again in order to keep weeds at bay. Nonchemical approaches to weed management, on the other hand, start from a different premise. Weeds grow because we have created an environment favorable to the weed. In order to truly solve a weed problem we need to change the weed’s environment so that the weed does not continue to prosper.

We have a wide variety of choices when we make changes in a weed’s environment: every-thing from promoting the vigorous and healthy growth of desirable plants to encouraging natural enemies of the weed to reduce its abundance. In short, as a famous plant population biologist has written, “weeds are created by the gulf between the habitats man creates and the plants he chooses to grow in them.” Solving weed problems involves lessening that gulf. Weed managers, working on scales that vary from small backyards to hundreds of acres, have found efficient successful ways of discouraging weeds without using chemical herbicides. They have changed the weeds’ environment so that it no longer favors the weed, and thus have solved their problems for the long term.

Keeping Weeds Out of Lawns

Maintaining relatively weed-free lawns or turf without using chemical herbicides is straightforward. Cultural practices that promote the growth of desirable grass will almost always reduce weed populations to a level where they are no longer a problem. Even a reference book, like the British Crop Protection Council’s Weed Control Handbook, that is heavily oriented towards recommendations for chemical herbicides, writes that “excessive weediness can be caused by poor drainage, acidity or nutrient deficiencies in the soil or by faulty management. It may be more economic to control weeds by altering these factors than by a direct attack. The concept is simple. Lawn and turf managers need to design a management system that favors the vigorous healthy growth of grass that includes careful mowing, aeration, overseeding, and proper irrigation to keep weeds at bay. This will keep most weed problems at low levels. “The best defense against weeds is a healthy lawn,” wrote Warren Schultz of Rodale Press  (Organic Gardening). “If the lawn is thick and vigorous, there won’t be room for weeds to elbow their way in.” The idea is to prevent problems from occurring, so you don’t have to treat them. The concept applies whether you are in charge of your own front lawn or acres of park turf.

Keeping Weeds Out of Shrub and Flower Beds

Shrub and flower beds are an important part of many yards, parks, and the landscapes around buildings. Promoting the growth of these ornamental plants, and discouraging the growth of unwanted plants is important to both home gardeners and landscape managers. How can this be accomplished without the use of herbicides? Again, the most important steps to take are those that prevent weed problems from occurring. Weed management begins with landscape design and ends with landscappesticidefreezonesigne care techniques. Shrub beds can be designed to minimize weed encroachment and mulches can be used to prevent germination of weed seeds. Biological control, introducing weeds’ natural enemies to reduce their abundance, offers ecologically sound and cost-effective weed management on a larger scale. The few weeds that survive in a shrub bed that has been designed to minimize weed problems can be removed with simple nonchemical techniques like hand pulling or hoeing.


Herbicides kill weeds, but they don’t solve weed problems. In order to solve a weed problem, it’s necessary to change the conditions that are allowing weeds to thrive. Making these changes prevents weed problems, and provides a long-term solution.

Whether you are taking care of your own back yard, maintaining a city park, or a dealing with a different kind of weed problem, your goal is fundamentally the same. You need cost effective techniques to modify the particular environment with which you are working so that it no longer encourages or allows the growth of weeds. These techniques will allow you to prevent many of your weed problems and manage the others for the long term.

A preventive approach to weed management should be the strategy of choice in our lawns and back yards, in parks, on school grounds, and in other public areas. Spreading the word about successful preventive techniques will reduce our dependence on chemical herbicides.

Please return for the next installment of Pesticide Reform.