Friday 1 June 2018

Blame the operator not the weedkiller

Bee bum plant for bumblebees
But it is damned as a weed!
In my recent post about the excellent new book from the Bumblebee Trust they repeated the mantra about not using insecticides and herbicides in your garden if you want to encourage bumblebees.

I have no problem with the damning of insecticides in this context. After all insecticides are designed to kill insects and their indiscriminate and ignorant use can be a disaster for bees. In my own gardening I only rarely use insecticides. Only twice in the last 12 months and that was on house plants!

It's the lumping together of herbicide and insecticide that provokes my ire
Although I cannot promise no weedkiller exists that poisons bees, herbicide toxicity to animals is extremely rare and all readily available weedkillers are extremely safe. (Orders of magnitude safer than the garden machinery you regularly use)

This is not the public image of these useful gardening aids. Indeed the word ‘weedkiller’ is almost synonymous with ‘poison’. Only exceeded by ‘ratkiller’. The latter is particularly ironic as the principal ingredient of most common rat and mouse killers is the warfarin of medical use.

Verbena seeds itself all over and to some gardeners is a weed
The ignorant are frequently surprised that my glyphosate managed gardens are so rich in wildlife. The even more ignorant expect my gardens to be sterile.
I claim without blushing that my gardens are ecological richer than most.

It’s what you do with things that causes the problems
Undoubtably weedkiller in the wrong hands can do considerable harm. How much ecologically richer are our roadside verges and hedgerows since they are no longer sprayed.
In contrast sensitive use of weedkillers can be used to create beautiful landscapes of flowers as I do.

Spray out the nettles and wildflowers can grow
As a small example a landowner I used to work for who was renowned for his beautiful acres of wild flower meadows would in his own words ‘spray out the nasties’ using MCPA or 24D to spot treat and kill such as nettles, thistles and hogweed. In their place the wildflowers grow

Fools jump in
Almost any gardening or agricultural practice can be maliciously and harmfully used. How innocuous are agricultural drains but they can be used to destroy wetlands. 

The chain saw is a useful tool but look what it has done.

There is good and bad in ploughing, digging and most soil cultivations.

Mow the buttercups later
Even the mower is regularly destructively used. Yesterday (May 10) we drove over the wolds to Filey and marvelled at the beautiful nectar rich dandelions at the roadside. On the way back we passed council workers mowing them down.

Public image of herbicides
In the public mind weedkillers are toxic - literally so. I deny this. The world has gone mad when it seeks to outlaw ‘roundup’ the safest pesticide ever invented.

Simple things reinforce public misinformation. For example that wretched lovely toxic weed ragwort. Farmers fear it because when dead it is highly palatable yet deadly. When for this reason the uninformed read that animals need to be kept out of sprayed fields they deduce that the same MCPA, 24D and similar, will poison pets on their lawns.
Cathi is concerned that in her own verge such ragwort will spread to her fields
As an aside I might mention that I recently posted about spraying out nettles in Cathi’s field. When the nettles went yellow and died her soay sheep devoured them with great gusto. I understand nettles are very nutritious.

The sad thing about roundup is that it is damned for what it is meant to do - kill weeds. It does what ‘it says on the tin’ and does it superbly. With this comes all of the advantages of minimum cultivation, maintenance of soil fertility, organic matter and worms. Worldwide million of tons of carbon stay in the ground as a result of the enlightened soil management it enables.

And yes some of those weeds are wildflowers. Surely the way forward is to benefit from the high yields facilitated by good weed control and set agricultural land aside to grow nectar rich pollinators and in so many other ways encourage nature

Bindweed makes a distinct white honey
Flight of fancy
Sweet and toxic
Writing these words set be thinking as to how many real agricultural and garden weeds actually produce copious nectar and/or pollen. If anything is to justify weeds displacing crops, genuine wild flowers and pollen rich garden plants it would be useful to know.

Of course if something is desirable it is not a weed by definition! Perhaps you should consider growing these sugary morsels?
  1. Dandelions. If these were difficult to grow everyone would want them! Although most dandelions set seed vegetatively without fertilisation they do produce generous nectar and are much visited by bees. They are very easy to grow.
  2. Himalayan balsam. Banned in the countryside it produces so much honey that it is for obvious reasons affectionately known by countrymen as the bee bum plant. (Its head is down slurping the flowers). Extraordinarily beautiful it will take over your garden.
  3. Brambles. I grow a wonderful seedless blackberry. One plant satisfies all our culinary needs. Why not go the whole hog and do nothing and in five years your garden will be five foot high brambles - in my view Britain’s worst weed but good for the bees.
  4. Ragwort. Bees love this beautiful aggressive weed that might grace your garden. Pity the honey might be poisonous
  5. Epilobium. This seed born perennial weed is the bane of my life. Fail to control it and it will give the brambles a fair run to take over your garden. Nectar and pollen rich it makes a nutritious honey
Epilobiums are the bane of my life (but not for bumblebees)
Let creeping thistle creep five metres a year into your garden and the bees will love you. Not so your neighbours inundated by seed
Your epilobiums won't make you popular either
I see it now, if you want to encourage bees don’t use weedkiller and grow weeds!

Talk about flight of fancy. Last weekend Alwys Fowler, tongue in cheek, suggested that gardeners eat Japanese knotweed to death and also observed it makes excellent honey. She added the mandatory rider of course you would not eat it if it had been sprayed. Nor would I. (but it would do me no harm)

I have written before about the blurring of wild flowers and weeds

At Jervaulx Abbey they imaginatively grow real weeds on the masonry (but spray out the nettles)


  1. I know dandelions are pollen rich as my gloves turn yellow if I deadhead them but I’m afraid that they have no place in our garden and on our plot. They look lovely as yellow ribbons along the motorway. A case of right plant, right place/

    1. Absolutely Sue
      When a colleague at Askham Bryan years ago started to allow dandelions in a previous lawn down in the woodland garden and moved the bee hives down to enjoy them it caused a furore

  2. The village next to us has a wonderful green where orchids grow. When they were in flowerthe BBC broadcast from there with a wildflower charity asking councils to leave road verges un mowed where it was safe to do so. The very next day they were mowing all the roadside verges in the area!
    I recently made the point to someone commenting on Face Book linking insecticides with herbicides and their effect on wildlife, that herbicides do not kill insects. She didn’t really believe me because they both kill things!

    1. It's tragic that local authorities and other bureaucracies do not have any flexibility in their standard procedures. No room for initiative.
      As to your silly lady....


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