Mutant Weeds, Tools & Vinegar
“Je vois que tu as des vaches maintenant”
(I see you’ve gotten some cows)
I was chatting to my farmer neighbor down the road and commenting on the two new additions to his farm. He’s a true local, born and bred, and we’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the past few years thanks to our daily walks with Polly. We call him “the Don” simply because it always seems like someone is at his house, paying respects. Turns out he’s just a popular guy (so far as we know…), and being a life-long farmer he’s always got something interesting going on with the garden.
“Eh oui, ils sont de mon copain. Je les ai empruntés pour désherber”
(they’re my friends’ cows. I borrowed them for weeding)
“Ah oui?????” that was a new one for me….
Admittedly using cows for weeding is not something I’ve ever considered in my gardening life, but it seems to be quite a common country hack around here. Plus they have a triple-benefit. They’ll eat anything green, weeds and grass, so they mow while they go. And then of course, everything that comes out the other end adds a little fertilizer along the way. The Don insists it’s the only way to go.
Our other neighbors have their own, unique approaches. The young family man just opposite the farmer uses goats, but since they’re a smidgen less discerning (goats will literally eat anything) his garden leans towards the super clean, “razed” look. On the other end of the spectrum the hippy guy further down the way prefers everything “au natural” both garden and otherwise, which means that most of the time you can’t see his house from the weeds (and most of the time, that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
And here I am just pulling the darn things out by hand….perhaps I’ve got the approach all wrong?
Weeds On My Mind
Weeds, you think about them a lot this time of year.
It’s late spring which means everything is in full growth mode. Buds have spring out, flowers are a-bloom, fruit is ripening & the lawn is a beautiful, intense green that needs mowing almost every week. Things are lush, and all the plants are competing for best-in-show.
Which includes the weeds…
Now, I’ve spent many hours of my life weeding, especially in my younger years (dear old mom made sure of that), so I have a fair experience in the matter. And I can confidently say that I have NEVER seen anything like the monster-mutant-ninja weeds that you get here in SW France.
They are beyond any earthly flora I’ve experienced in my traveling life, enormous and utterly invasive deviants that sprout like alien lifeforms out of thin air. Resistant to all eradication and stubbornly persist ant they’d take over the house if you let them. And anything not weeds is at constant risk of extinction. One day you have a nice, neat little flowerbed, and the next it’s covered in eight-foot-high mutants.
Where did my flowers go???????
So we all weed A LOT, and display our catch much like fishermen at sea. Check out the size of this monster!! But we also try to and find a balance between insanity and garden, which I think is a compromise everyone has to come to here in our area France. We keep our flower & veggie beds small, and pretty much leave the rest of the garden to itself (apart from mowing). It’s really the only way to stay sane.
Or maybe we just need to borrow a few cows?
All Tools Must Be Hardened Steel
We’ve also learned that “regular” garden tools don’t cut it here.
You see our soil, much like the weeds that thrive in it, is of a particularly extreme sort. It’s clay-based which means it transforms from a thick, treacle-sticky mud (when it rains) to rock-hard brick (when it dries) with only a few days of somewhat normality in-between. That means any kind of “easy” weeding can only happen precisely one day after it rains, and if you happen to miss this magical window you’re reduced to hacking with sheer brute force through something akin to concrete. It’s tough on the old back, and (so I’ve discovered) on tools too.
Which we learned the hard way…
Early on in our France experience I naively bought several garden tools from the local shop, thinking they would probably work out just fine. Ah yes, the beauty of inexperience. Or as Monty Python would say ” I fart in your general direction”.
The tools weren’t exactly cheap and yet they lasted exactly 10 minutes in our brick-soil before bending beyond all recognition. Useless, rubbish, sub-par-alloy metal. This is when I realized that the one and only 20+ year old trowel that we have in the shed, the only tool that has withstood the mutant southern French soils is made of a forged high-carbon steel. Of course it is!!
Clearly what I need is better materials, which as a materials scientist I really should have known ahead of time. Think stainless steel, boron-hardened steel….yesssss, that’s the ticket.
And so the search for the perfect set of Garden Tools has been launched.
Thanks to my ever-helpful Facebook gardening forums I now have a several new options on my wishlist, including this Edwards Tools Bend-Proof Stainless Steel Trowel this DeWit X-Treme Hand Trowel. and this 5-star rated Japanese Weeding Sickle (Note/ all these links are Amazon links #commissionlink). I’m also very taken by the entire line of tools at Dutch company Sneeboer & Zn. They’re pricey, but they’re serious, quality stuff.
Just goes to show that weeding is like any other rat-hole…there’s always more “toys” to buy.
Vinegar Is Love (& Destruction)
The other thing we’ve learned to love in a new way here in countryside is vinegar.
Now we’re not newbies to the miracles of vinegar. During our RV years we removed most of the hard-core chemicals from our life, both for cleaning and personal hygiene. So we were already pretty familiar with vinegar both as a cleaner and disinfectant (for floors, surfaces etc.) as well as a conditioner (for hair). But what we’d never heard of before we settled into la belle vie Française, was using vinegar to weed.
“It’ll smell a little like a chippy for a while” explained one of the English members on my gardening forum “but it works like a charm”
A “chippy” for those of my blog readers who may not be in-the-vernacular-know is a good old-fashioned English Fish & Chip shop. Deliciously yummy if you find the right one, and sheer perfection when your “chippy tea” is drizzled with salt & malt vinegar (trust me on this one). But I digress….
The point is that vinegar is really the best way to handle a larger area of weeds, in an mostly-organic way. That and basically just cooking the weeds either with boiling water or a propane torch (which does kill the tops, but sadly not the roots). This is especially important here in France where glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) has been banned for personal use, and the chemical-free movement is strong (there are 5 French cities, including Paris that have banned synthetic pesticides within their boundaries altogether). Not only is going organic the right choice, but also the necessary one.
So yes, vinegar is our new weed-killer. We use a magic mix of ~1 gallon of high-strength vinegar, ~1/2 cup of table-salt & a few drops of dish-washing fluid (as a surfactant, to help the product stick), applied directly to the weeds on a hot, sunny, dry day (this is key). The acetic acid strips out the foliage’s waxy cuticle, while the salt essentially dries it out.
And yes, it works like a charm.
Mere hours after you apply this combo, as long as you do it in direct sun, your weeds will already be weeping their last goodbyes. It’s not permanent and it’s best used in areas you don’t want to plant anything else. Plus it won’t last nearly as long as your old chemicals did (especially if you have super-human mutant weeds like we do), but it will keep them at bay, at least for a while. We use the product in our driveway, on-top of hand weeding and for the past few seasons it’s worked pretty well.
We love our vinegar 🙂
And We’ve Gone “No Dig” In Our Potager
The other big thing we’ve gotten into here in France is the whole “no dig” movement.
Dating back to early 20th century (Masanobu Fukuoka did pioneering research work on natural farming in 1938) it’s gained renewed interest over the last 30 years. Perhaps one of the best-known modern-day promoters of this method is Charles Dowding who has been cultivating no-dig since the 80’s and has created a ton of info about it, both on his website, through books and on his popular YouTube channel. We’ve been soaking up the latter like mini-sea-sponges and have already implemented his methods in our potager (veggie garden).
Honestly it is pretty darn revolutionary.
No dig, no bother….just cardboard, compost, a bit of time and go. Couldn’t be easier. Plus our veggies love it too, to the point that they’ve been noticed by others. I was complimented on my salads by a local French guy the other day, which I consider a rather defining moment in my life as a veggie gardener. Either he was chatting me up, country-style (oh, your salads are so beautiful, so leafy, so large…), or we’re on the right track in the green department. I’m going for the latter.
So there we go….a blog about weeds, which wasn’t at all the topic I expected to write about when I sat down today. One moment you’re relaxing with a glass of Calvados looking out at the Pyrénées, and the next you’re laser-focused on that mutant thing that’s just sprung out in the flower-bed. Such is life.
So my dear readers tell me, are weeds on your mind? Or do you have a magic cure? And for those fulltimers amongst you, do you miss those wistful weeding days? DO comment and share below!