Extension Viewpoints: Organic versus conventional: how to choose


By Ethan Proud

PREVIEW Columnist

With weed season upon us, it is time to start thinking about your weapon of choice, which brings up the question: What method is best for me? Truly this comes down to your preference as there is an herbicide and an alternative for every weed species out there. Some will vary in efficacy, but in many cases some determination and a good back is all you need for small properties with annual or biennial weeds.

Every control method has drawbacks and trade-offs and the noble goal of limiting herbicide use has its own. Tilling the land can bring weed seeds to the surface as well as increase carbon emissions depending on the equipment you use and the frequency needed. Disturbing the soil will often bring weed seeds to the surface, leaving you with only undesirable species, some native and some not. 

The native species play a role in the environment, colonizing the soil to eventually give way to grasses, beneficial forbs and trees. Nonnative species can leave a permanent scar on your landscape and will spread by 20 percent per year if left unmanaged. Using biological controls requires patience and a tolerance for a small population of weeds; biological control is best paired with chemical or mechanical control to stop the spread.

Before we get to brass tacks, homemade herbicides are illegal. Any product being used to kill a pest (weeds included) is classified as a pesticide and requires a label. Mixing vinegar and Epsom salt is not recommended by any agency nor is it labeled. Labels will detail adverse effects on the environment as well as the user. A homemade herbicide is still toxic (it is killing a plant, is it not?) and you need to protect yourself and the environment — without a label, how can you do that? Another misconception is that organic means chemical free. When you get down to it, water is a chemical. Chemicals can be dangerous and scary, but branding them as organic does not change their toxicity, only how they are derived.

Back to the meat and potatoes. How to choose organic or conventional weed control? In all reality, you should be using an integrated management approach which will include mechanical and cultural controls with chemical or biological controls added in. Choosing chemical or biological control is up to you, the landowner. However, you decide to do it is right, as long as you are following recommendations based on science. 

Perennials with a creeping root system will be best controlled with chemicals, but they can be suppressed using biological controls or persistent mowing or hand-pulling. Hand-pulling once will yield vigorous regrowth and a problem that was worse than before. The key to controlling perennials mechanically is to do it often. I have seen pristine properties firsthand that are only managed with sweat and determination. The amount of time you can dedicate to this crusade will largely determine if mechanical control is right for you. Annuals can be controlled with mowing and hand-pulling prior to seed set. Once an annual has gone to seed, it is game over for that season. The standing plants can be bagged and disposed of, but mowing or weed-whacking will disperse the seeds even further. Replanting native species will compete for nutrients with weeds and can prevent another infestation. All bare ground should be reseeded, replanted, mulched or covered to prevent a new invader.

By utilizing an integrated management plan, you can reduce your dependency on herbicides, more effectively control weeds and do right by the environment. Each weed has a different life cycle and the best control method for it will vary. 

Kochia, for example, is an aggressive annual species that has a propensity for herbicide resistance. It has a short seed viability and a few years of mowing prior to seed set and replanting will offer great results. The control of perennials like leafy spurge or Canada thistle whose root systems can be deeper than 15 feet and spread laterally 30 feet is best left to selective herbicides which will not damage surrounding native vegetation. The goal when using herbicides is to always be selective to promote native species and to use only what is needed. 

The largest deciding factor for which control methods are right for your land will ultimately be decided by the time and money you can invest. Something is better than nothing.

 Archuleta County Weed and Pest is your local resource for managing noxious weed populations and controlling other pests.

Upcoming events

April 24, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. along the Riverwalk: Earth Day event. Come out to celebrate Earth Day. Booths will showcase Earth-friendly organizations and people. 

April 30 and May 1: Free babysitting class and first aid/CPR being offered. Limited seating so register now. Call (970) 264-5931 or go to the Archuleta County 4-H Facebook page to learn more and sign up: https://www.facebook.com/ArchuletaCounty4H.

May 4, 4-6 p.m., downtown TBK parking lot: Paper-shredding event. All proceeds go toward the Archuleta County 4-H Program. There is a three-box limit. There is a $5/box suggested donation.

Grow and Give Program 

The Grow and Give Program, https://growgive.extension.colostate.edu/, lets you learn to grow food and share the harvest locally. When you join, you have access to many resources on how to grow. Help our local food resources.

Seed potatoes

You can still place potato orders. We will take your orders by phone, email or online order system; please order by May 1. Phone: (970) 264-5931, ext 0; email: tschaaf@archuletacounty.org; online order: https://archuleta.extension.colostate.edu/seed-potatoes/.

Visit online

Visit us on the Web at https://archuleta.extension.colostate.edu/ or Like us on Facebook and get more information: https://www.facebook.com/CSUARCHCTY.

CPR and first aid classes

CPR and first aid certification classes are offered monthly by the CSU Extension office, generally on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. The cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. Call the Extension office at 246-5931 to register.