When One Size Doesn't Fit All
pathway through garden

Published on

October 7 2019

Mike Huntington Lantra Instructor and Assessor says we should not always think 'weeds equals herbicides' and that weed control methods should be seen as ‘tools’ to help Land Managers achieve planned objectives.

In this article you will learn about all of the different methods that can be used to manage weeds.

Amenity Weed Control - Integrated Weed Management

Weed control, has been a need/requirement/task which has been around forever. This is not a new subject, if you go back 100 years to the turn of the century, manual labour was ‘cheap’, so getting someone to do weeding manually was not really a problem. For example, a gardener on a large estate would earn from £8 to £15 a year. Even allowing for inflation, a person working for 20p a week, and a long week at that, was cheap labour.

Go back in time and the general approach to weed control was mechanical but usually manual. Even in my time when I was a kid growing up in Shropshire, the local council employed ‘length men’. Each one looked after their own length or patch of roads and lanes, and our man was Ernie Hill. In the summer, for a few weeks, Ernie was picked up each day and joined a tarmacking gang. Throughout the rest of the year, rain or fine you would see him working away, clearing the culverts and keeping the road edges and banking’s neat and tidy. A spade, a hoe, a slasher and a brush were his main tools. Ernie and his mates did not use any herbicides.

Labour costs increased, herbicides came along, and you could suggest that the rest is history. We should not however always think weeds equals herbicides, there are other control measures.

"We should not however always think weeds equals herbicides, there are other control measures"

In the UK. the Food and Environment Protection Act (FEPA) was put in place in 1985 when the UK became the first country to have a complete system of control of the manufacture, sale, supply and use of Pesticides.

N.B. Herbicides are a sub-group of the overall subject of Pesticides. The system might not be perfect, but we have been and hopefully will continue to remain leaders in this subject.

Living in the UK, we are very lucky to have a climate and conditions which generally favour the growth of plants. Some might complain when it rains but, our climate is very benign, we do not experience desert conditions and hence the resulting starvation.

dandelion coming through

In the UK should you leave a piece of land untouched, within a relative short time it will become covered with all sorts of plants. I could say ‘weedy’ but, as we all know there is no such thing as a weed, only a plant out of place. One person’s weed can be another person’s desired specimen.

The very fact that we have such a ‘changeable’ climate means that anyone in the role of a land manager needs to be aware of these changeable conditions and needs to take ‘them’ into consideration. A land manager is the role, whether you are responsible for in-town streets and pathways, the parks and gardens, or sports pitches and facilities. That person must take into account the above factors.

Let’s take a very simple task, mowing grass. The year and climate will determine how many times in any year the site will need to be mowed. A late cold spring will require later and less frequencies. A ‘wet’ summer will have a different requirement to a ‘hot’ summer.

A manager cannot sit comfortably in his/her office in December and map out the mowing and ‘weed control’ requirement for the coming year and then get it printed and passed out. Worse still, if that manager is crass enough to think he/she can expect firms to price and quote against the expectations then that manager is being, to say the least, foolish.

Planning needs to take place but there needs to be a built-in flexibility to allow for the variable factors. On any site the same factors will affect the ‘weed control’ requirements.

The different methods of ‘weed control’ should be looked on as ‘tools’ to help achieve the planned objectives. No system on its own has ‘magic’ properties, they are only tools and need to be used and treated as such.

"The different methods of ‘weed control’ should be looked on as ‘tools’ to help achieve the planned objectives"

All systems rely on carefully trained operators and managers who need to know how the particular system is intended to work and have the resources to make the chosen system run efficiently and safely.

Those who manage ‘weed control’ need to be aware that they are in the role of a land manager. The land manager should be a dynamic role and needs a dynamic positive approach to the various methods available.

Approved products

At the present time (October 2019) the products are controlled under the Plant Protection Products Regulations. Any product to be used will have a MAPP number of approval and the user needs to ensure that the Fields of Use match the intended use. The user also needs to make sure that all label instructions and constraints are met.

All operators and those who manage them need to be trained and certificated. The requirement is a Certificate of Competence which in some ways is similar to holding a relevant driving licence for a vehicle. It doesn’t matter how far you need to drive a vehicle. If it is 10 miles or 10,000 a year, you need to have a relevant licence. The same goes for Plant Protection Products. If you only have small plot to treat or 1,000 hectares to spray, each person involved with the application needs to be certificated.

Mechanical weed control - Sweeping, hoeing, etc

For hard surfaces, pavements and streets, sweeping has been the basis of weed control for many years in many towns and cities. It is a very reliable, successful method, which is dependent on frequency of treatments and the accuracy and care of the operators.

The problem for this method is often the number of parked vehicles which makes getting at the kerbs and gutters impossible. The simplest form is the manual version. A spade, a hoe and a decent brush is the cheapest equipment you can buy and with sensible care it will last a long time. The mechanical versions can vary in cost from a few thousand pounds to in excess of £100,000 for the large units.

In the past when ‘residual’ herbicides were the ‘norm’, so was the traditional lorry-based road sweeper. Fitted with a tank and nozzles so when the street was swept it was sprayed at the same time. This often would be carried out without anyone being aware the process was going on. The long-term residuals became problematical and it was attempted to change to glyphosate, but this gave problems to the system.

Design and build of the structures have also caused problems. Building standards have slipped in many cases. Just placing kerb stone edges on soil is not really ‘careful building’. This leaves access to the soil, which allows seeds to establish and roots to thrive and develop. For this system to be successful, design and build needs to be carefully considered at the planning and construction stages.

weed coming through pavement

Hot water and steam cleaners

This system can work well for a paved or blocked area where there is access for plants to get to established in soil. There are various systems, the temperature involved means the plants are effectively ‘cooked’ and in the case of a seedling killed.

Issues arise with deep rooted perennials which will be checked and not killed. In many cases there will be a need for follow-up passes. There is a system which develops foam as well as heat, the principle being that the foam will create a hot barrier and trap the heat and give a more reliable control.

These systems can be very successful but are not a ‘one shot’ approach. They need to be planned and timed accordingly, and operators need to be very well trained to make any of the systems work effectively and safely. The units vary in price from a few thousand to in excess of £40,000.

Electrical discharge units

There are small hand-held units that are intended for domestic use, e.g. zapping the weeds in the drive or path. Commercially there are larger units which fit into the back of a pick-up or similar. They work at high voltage and need to be used by trained operators with the correct equipment. Obvious constraints include not using when wet and being careful near metal objects e.g. railings.

Alternative products

Vinegar (acetic acid), salt and soaps will all have a herbicidal effect. Should they be used commercially they need to go through an approval system to ensure that they are safe from all points of view. It is not just a case of trying things, what is used must be approved which is the cornerstone of our legislation.

All of the above methods are just that, control methods. They all have a place and have advantages and disadvantages. Used correctly they work within their individual constraints. As with any system, they rely on careful competent operators to ensure suitable performance. Anybody could go out and buy a spade and hand-brush for little cost, the work output will be very low, but they will work.

All the methods have cost implications, from both the initial purchase and the running costs. Matching the particular systems output to the required task is very important, as often one system will not meet all of the requirements. Therefore, a great deal of thought needs to be applied to any system choice.

When working in public places, it is a very good idea to make sure that there is also a structured communication system in place. Letting people know why you are carrying out a particular regime/system will help people understand your intentions.

A member of one South West Council said that when they put explanation signs around their wild-flower meadows, complaints they had received stopped more or less overnight. They now have people who rather than complain about the rough mowing, approve of the system and have become unofficial helpers/ wardens keeping an eye on the particular site.

Whatever the need, the starting point should be to plan and organise the intended work. Be flexible and be prepared to take into account the differences weather can make. We all know that farmers have to take notice of changes in the weather and other natural factors, any land manager needs to do the same.

Article by Lantra Instructor and Assessor Mike Huntington

wild meadow flowers