I Am A Bad Person

For a couple of hours this morning, I was spot spraying my back garden with 2,4-D. 2,4-D is a potent herbicide that is sold under the brand name Weed–B-Gone.  I used about four tablespoons of the stuff, which kills everything that isn’t grass, mixed with water.

herbicide stuff


And as I sprayed, I felt guilt. I think of my garden as a sort of benevolent kingdom where critters are welcome, a tiny refuge where birds and insects will find water to drink, berries and foliage (and other critters) to eat, and a healthy environment at least relatively free of toxins. Spraying 2,4-D violates that vision of my garden.

What’s more, 2-4 D, can be toxic to mammals, birds, and fish. But from what I’ve read there is unlikely to be much toxicity from very limited use (spot-spraying twice a year). We don’t have pets, don’t roll around in the grass, and don’t live near a body of water or natural area. And of course I am following directions to minimize my own contact.


And here’s the thing. The lawn behind the house is a mess. And I don’t mean a few dandelions here and there. In fact, there are some weeds I like to have mixed in with or even taking over from the grass: violets, white clover, and barren strawberry, for example. There are weeds I don’t like, but can live with. Plantain, chickweed, and dandelions come to mind. I just pull some out when I have the time.

But there is one weed whose aggressiveness precludes me from having a live and let live approach. I’m talking about creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea).  You may tolerate creeping charlie, but it wants nothing less than total domination. It spreads rapidly by seed and stolons, smothering the competition, invading lawns and flower beds alike.

Creeping charlie is almost impossible to pull (I have spent much time trying), as the stolons put down roots every couple of inches.

I do plan on replacing some lawn with pavers.  However, I have been forbidden to replace any more lawn with flowering beds or borders, as there needs to be room in the back garden for people (this last pointed out to me by members of my family at a louder volume than was strictly necessary).

Planting alternatives to grasses isn’t much of a solution, as these alternatives would likely have the same struggle with creeping charlie et. al.

So I have resolved to spot spray twice a year, in spring and fall. This will not eliminate weeds, but I hope it will push them back a bit. And when I am done with spraying, I will spread some compost and organic fertilizer to give the grasses a helping hand. To date I have treated my turf grasses with total indifference (I’m just not into lawns), but I think that must change a bit.

I tell myself that what I’m doing isn’t so bad. But it doesn’t sit right.

On the other hand, perhaps my vision of the garden as a miniature refuge is quixotic. Can we have an island of ecological purity the size of an urban lot? Perhaps not, but I hate to give up trying.

Do you think I’m making a mistake, or fretting over nothing? Do you ever use herbicides in your garden?

40 Comments on “I Am A Bad Person

  1. I too have a mass amount of creeping charlie that is very difficult to get rid of. I have yet to treat it…I usually place a mat down and just pull and move. Not really working though. I think we all have guilt when it comes to the garden. We have all done something or not done something that may or may not be beneficial for the eco-system. The good news is you know so much more than most and that makes all the difference.

  2. Fortunately, our lawn is zoysia, which is thick enough to prevent most weeds from germinating. However, poison oak at one time was a serious problem in parts of my woodland and front gardens. I felt no guilt over spraying it with Round-Up. I was careful to follow directions and not let the spray get onto other plants. I know that birds like poison oak, but there is enough of it for the birds in places where humans won’t inadvertently get into it.

  3. I use an organic herbicide to kill the weeds that pop up between my patio pavers. But when my husband does the shopping, he buys a non-organic type that kills faster. It makes me mad but it gets the job done since the weeds can heave out the pavers. I think there’s a huge difference between the idiot who blindly buys whatever chemical he grabs first and the educated buyer who uses a product appropriately. It’s important to know what chemicals the product uses and to find out how long they stay active in the soil.

  4. I spray poison ivy. It requires a special formula because most weedkillers don’t work that well against it. We used to live in a place that had a lot of it and my sister’s boyfriend actually pulled the stuff out with plastic bags over his arms, bless his heart.

    I’m very sparing with herbicides because they are toxic to pets and other living things. Also they sometimes soak in and weaken tree roots. Even salt (which kills most weeds) can be hard on trees. Boiling water is probably safe to use on weeds if you don’t scald yourself.

  5. Sometimes you have to spray. I spent 4 years spraying and pulling poison ivy in Mississippi with no feelings of guilt. I don’t use chemicals on my vegetables, though. But, in my opinion, the best way to control unwanted weeds and grass where they aren’t wanted is to spray. You can spend so much time hand pulling grass out of the sidewalk when there are sprays that will last a whole year. I am an organic gardener, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

  6. I don’t use any pesticides in the garden these days except Sluggo. The slugs in Oregon are legend, and will mow down certain preferred plants in the spring. But some years ago, we did use Roundup to kill off Himalayan Blackberry. It is the only way.

  7. It is tough, I feel your pain. I use an organic herbicide once in a blue moon. For the most part, I just pull out weeds. I definitely have more weeds than I should. I don’t know.. its pretty sad 😦

  8. Hi Jason,

    Your post captures the dilemma/conundrum many plant enthusiasts wrestle with. Having cats and vegetables I long ago decided to be “Pesticide Free,” and the larger concerns about widespread use of Weed-be-gone and Roundup seem absolutely justified to me (despite industry claims). Now with a new grandchild, I will even be careful with the plant-based or “natural” herbicides (pyrethins etc.) and will never use synthetic herbicides.

    Is your problem limited to lawn or is it in flower beds too? You’ve probably already read about or tried Borax (Boron), which may have some downsides too, but it appears from this Univ. of Minnesota extension article that it may work in lawns, be far less damaging to mammals, birds, fish and beneficial insects and also make you feel better about yourself.


    The fact that you struggle with this clearly means your are not a bad person.

  9. You are not a bad person, however many others take similar action and this is what changes the environment. You ask whether you can ‘change the world’ in your lot; well I think that’s the ONLY plceyou can change, so I hope you find other solutions to your problem soon.

  10. I have used Roundup on a brick seating area ,it does kill the weeds but as mine are mostly annual weeds it kills those then I have another crop and so on…I have heard that boiling water poured directly into the heart of the plant will kill it ,but I have never tried it yet.

  11. No you are NOT bad. I believe many of those gardeners who garden without herbicide and excessively cultivate their soil destroying organic matter and for example burni the organic matter of their perennial weeds and fill the green bin every week with their waste organic material which then often goes to landfill do more harm to the environment than people who spray. On my own blog I constantly argue how using glyphosate is kind to the soil, garden plants and the environment.
    I spray my lawn once a year with MCPA but in the right place ecological lawns can be amazing.

  12. Ah, the days of using Roundup to kill weeds around walks and planters – I remember them well. A few years back we chose to stop using chemicals that in our view are harmful to humans let alone wildlife. But, we also have several acres and let the grass be green and don’t worry about it because we can’t eat it. I understand there is a definite difference living in an area where your neighbors are closer and the quality of your lawn is noticed – been there, done that, and threw away the t-shirt. 🙂

  13. I admire your honesty about this dilemma. I don’t use chemicals in the garden and I have learnt to admire some quite hideous lawn weeds (yes I know that sounds ridiculous, but I researched them and understood them a little better, which helped).

    I think that if spraying your garden makes you feel guilty, it is probably time to stop. Gardening should be fun and relaxing; not guilt-inducing.

  14. I gave up caring about my lawn a couple of years ago. It’s just clover and (more annoyingly) crabgrass. My neighbors have actually commented on how nice my lawn is and I realized that if it’s green, no one but me was actually inspecting if it was grass or weeds.

    I have used pesticides on my viburnum and felt so bad about it that I am not sure I’d do it again. It’s a tough decision!

  15. Boiling water works on weeds, and so does 20% vinegar, but carrying boiling water out to douse a few weeds isn’t all that easy; I haven’t really tried spot-killing yet with the vinegar. What little lawn I have I don’t care about, so I guess it’s hard for me to relate to your problem.The person who planted my “native” garden wanted to use Roundup to remove the grass but I wouldn’t allow it. For sure now that I have improved the soil for the native plants, the grass is coming back, so I am stuck pulling it and the weeds out for now. But aside from whatever damage herbicides do to insects and birds, which I care a lot about, I’m not even too crazy about what exposure does to humans. There are enough poisons out there as it is. …Having said all this I might feel a lot different if I had such a beautiful garden as yours and invested all the time to take care of it. But my tendency is rather to let nature take its course. And the weeds teach me a lot about survival strategies!

  16. Vinegar for spot killing works on really hot summer days but not so much this time of the year. I also sometimes have used weed killers and feel the same guilt.

    Have you considered having a creeping charlie lawn? Maybe you could harvest and sell the stuff at farmers markets.

    This from the interweb:

    Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves have a mild bitter flavour and can be tossed into salads to add a slight aromatic tang. They can also be cooked like spinach, added to soups, stews, or omelet. Tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves. It is often used mixed with verbena leaves or lovage. This wild edible has been added to beer in much the same way as hops in order to clear it and also to improve its flavour and keeping qualities.

  17. I’ve made a point of not using chemicals in my garden but we have one third of an acre and our drive always has weeds growing through the cracks…I’ve spent years pulling the things up and finally sprayed the path this year, it did make my life easier but like you I did feel guilty…my one is harmless to insects, birds and animals which helped a bit.xxxx

  18. I no longer use herbicides or any chemicals in my garden and so my back grass is slowly becoming clover…but I don’t mind as it keeps the rabbits out of the veg garden. I would never judge you for your decision. Only you know what you feel you must do. And you know what you have tried prior to picking up the chemicals.

    What is of concern are those who only pick up the chemicals. If you are feeling guilty it may be time to try to go without using them.

  19. No, no, no I dont use anything that says you should not use around water, pets or children. I have had a big argument with my husband over the years. And this is what I say to him when he tries to tell me how safe it is….if it’s safe enough to sprinkle on the earth, then I hope you dont mind if I sprinkle it on your cereal.

  20. The “trick” to having a weed free lawn is to grow a thick lawn where the grass plants are so close together that weeds don’t have a chance to get a foot hold. This can be accomplished by top dressing with compost or well rotted cow maure, or some of the new organic lawn fertilizers. You also need to make sure that the lawn gets at least an inch of water per weeks. A lush green lawn doesn’t happen overnight-it could take several growing seasons-but it beats spraying chemicals all over your yard. I’ve done this to several lawns, so I know it works.

      • Overseeding each time you topdress makes the lawn thicker each time and believe it or not the weeds finally decide that it just takes too much effort to grow in your lawn and they move on. I used to pull and / or dig some of the larger weeds but the smaller ones just eventually got choked out. I’m talking about smaller suburban lawns of maybe 1/4 acre-not hay fields. Topdressing also tends to fill in the low spots on a lawn too, so you end up with a very flat, smooth lawn.

    • So what at what rate would you spread the compost? I just bought 200 lb. My back lawn is very irregularly shaped, so it’s difficult to calculate square feet.

  21. Hi, Jason. I understand your frustration, and I agree with Bart that the fact you are wrestling with the idea at all means you are a conscientious person and a careful steward of the environment. Creeping charlie is a relative of the mint family, which explains its tenacity. It spreads by both runners and seeds, so if any should come back after the 2,4-D (heaven forbid), mow the heck out of it before it flowers. Perhaps after the herbicide it will be controllable by organic methods.

    If it should appear in predominantly paved areas (cracks in pathways, the driveway) and you happen to have access to one of those little kitchen torches, the kind chefs use for caramelizing creme brulee, you might try a very careful pass or two over the weeds with it. I wouldn’t advise such a treatment in the lawn, for obvious reasons, but in paved areas it might help control the amount of seed-setting that gets done. Just make sure to keep some water or baking soda on hand!

    As for the lawn: consider mixing in with the turf some seeds of resilient prairie species and/or cover crops that can be mown? Native American Seed (https://www.seedsource.com/) is a brilliant resource for this kind of problem.

  22. I don’t really understand why people are so quick to say organics are so good for the garden, plenty of organic chemicals such as pyrethins, nicotine, arsenic, salt…. are just as toxic or persistent as synthetic chemicals. I try to avoid as many as I can and just stick with compost, cheap no frills lawn fertilizer (the lawn doesn’t rate compost!), and some roundup for the sidewalk and driveway weeds. Most of my bug problems work themselves out…. creeping Charlie is another story though. I’d have to get rid of my own first before giving any advice out.

  23. After years of not treating the front lawn, I finally caved and did a weed n feed this past spring and am about to do a fall one as well. I wish I had the time/money/energy to have an organic lawn, but it just ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. I tried spot treating but there were too many spots. Creeping Charley in the lawn doesn’t bother me, but it has gotten into my vegetable garden where I definitely do not want to spray. Maybe I can mulch it to death?

  24. Creeping Charlie is a problem at the UW-Arboretum, where I’ve been volunteering lately. It’s kind of fun to try to pull it up because it’s not difficult–but it’s endless! Yes, I would feel guilty, too, but I know it’s tough. We don’t have Creeping Charlie at our house. I wonder if it’s because we treat the lawn with Corn gluten meal? It acts as an organic pre-emergent herbicide–suppressing everything but grass.

  25. Jason, you’re all right! I use herbicide in my garden every spring and fall, killing fungus, moss, insects that live near roses. We have to do this.

  26. I only use it for spot treatment of weeds in the gravel drive and then at a time when no insects are flying about. I don’t care about or for an English lawn and quite enjoy my flowering meadow in spring through which I then mow little paths. Quite often it’s so dry in summer that the grass turns rather brown. If I had a small garden, I probably wouldn’t bother about a lawn at all. Creeping charlie is no problem but Potentilla reptens is quite a curse here.

  27. I really nail poison ivy with the Round-Up formulated especially for it. I contracted my first (and thus far, only) case ever of the rash when I was in my mid-forties, and OMG, it was a nightmare! So if I see it in my yard now, I am quite unabashedly liberal in my use of the herbicide there!

  28. Jason, 2-4D does not work very well on creeping Charlie. Since your are going ahead and poisoning the earth, I would suggest a product with Tricolpyr as its active ingredient, such as Ortho weed B-Gon chickweed, clover and oxalis killer which works much better on creeping Charlie. I also avoid weed killer in my yard as much as I can, much to my neighbors dismay.

  29. Some things have to be done, Jason. I spray grass killer around the edges of my garden or I would have Bermuda grass instead of tomatoes. I also till (Gasp!) my garden but I do it twice a year instead of every week like some folks. Don’t beat yourself up over this. You do far more good by planting nature friendly, native plants in your yard.

  30. I talked to a gardener this summer who had gone years without using chemicals of any kind; this year, however, her potatoes were under attack from an insect infestation and she said enough was enough. She felt guilty but she saw it as a necessity.

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