Finding natural solutions to garden and landscape

From time to time I hear from people who are interested in finding alternatives to chemical-based products to use as fertilizers or for weed control.

One such enquiry came from a reader who signed the e-mail "Green Duck," and said: "I have a well system for drinking water and do not want to use chemicals on my driveway or in my yard. Do you know where I can find (or how I can mix my own) natural ways to kill grass where it's not wanted (flower beds, driveway, etc), natural poison ivy killers and weed killers for my lawn, and natural plant foods for fertilizing pine trees, flowers, vegetables and fruit trees?"

We do have to exercise caution when we see a product that uses words like "nature" or "natural" in their descriptions, because some are a little more natural than others. However, I know what Green Duck means and I have a few suggestions. 

When it comes getting rid of weeds, I don't think you're going to like my first suggestion. Pull them out by hand. (I told you that you wouldn't like it.) It's an old method, it works and it certainly can be called "natural". I also call it "back breaking." Of course, this method is practical only for relatively small areas. If you do weed by hand, remember to dispose of the weeds carefully, perhaps into your compost pile. Shaking them can distribute the seeds back into the soil, and if you just pull up weeds and toss them onto your driveway or walkway, they'll probably find a way to get back where you don't want them.

When it comes to lawns, determine what percentage actually consists of weeds. If it's around ten percent, it's probably not worth worrying about. If you estimate that 25% or more of your lawn is actually weed rather than grass, then it's time to do something.

The folks at Enviro-Guard have a few suggestions for you. For a start, set your mower blades quite high (about 2 to 3 inches) as this will keep sunlight from reaching the dormant weed seeds and will allow the lawn to fill in on its own. You will need to mow more frequently but you should see fewer weeds. They also suggest catching the clippings to avoid spreading weed seeds all over again. Where there is a large area of crabgrass, spread black plastic sheeting on the ground and leave it for seven to ten days. The "real" grass will be yellow but alive and the crabgrass should have died off.

As for poison ivy, there's not much good news. You might want to check out the FDA's website that deals with the subject – – but don't expect a miracle. Their best (non-chemical) solution is manual removal as long as you get every bit of the plant – leaves, vines and roots – or it will sprout again. And they warn against burning because the urushiol (the stuff that causes a rash) can be spread in the smoke and cause lung irritation.

Spraying a mixture of 3 parts vinegar to one part dishwashing liquid will kill broadleaf plants... but it also kills grass so be careful where you spray it! Boiling water will kill weeds and seeds, but again will kill grass and virtually all other plants, so don't splash it onto anything you want to keep. A teaspoon of rubbing alcohol in one litre of water is an effective weed killer spray, but that, too, will not discriminate between weeds and "good" plants.

As for fertilizers, there are many good organic products on the market but none is better than ripe cow, horse or chicken manure. And that's about as natural as you can get.

In a recent column I discussed controlling pesky wasps. I received the following e-mail from reader Pat Pope who said: "In response to the wasp situation, I found a neat little trick that I'll share with everyone. On my front porch the wasps were buzzing around too much for me so I put clear ammonia inside small candle holders and placed them around the porch, out of sight of children and pets. The wasps have taken the hint and aren't bothering me anymore." Thanks Pat!