City desk

Should Dubliners Learn to Love Weeds on Their Streets?

Ian O’Lone nudges open the door of a big storage shed. Inside, there are small tractors and other machinery, including an old knapsack sprayer, sat on the floor on the left near the wall.

O’Lone got something of a wake-up call about the health risks of weedkiller several years ago, he says, pointing to the sprayer.

It was the 1990s. He was doing some landscaping for a client and had a sprayer strapped to his back, full of a blue herbicide, since banned in the European Union, called Paraquat. “It actually burst on me,” he says.

The toxic weedkiller seeped into his skin. “I got it all down my back. I was blue for about a week afterwards,” he says.

That was years back, but it is an awareness he has carried with him through jobs, including in his current one as foreman gardener for parks in the south-east of the city for Dublin City Council.

In the five years he has worked at Herbert Park, he has moved the team away from using herbicides to deal with weeds, and is these days trialing a salt-and-vinegar mixture, and a new lawnmower-like machine to tug up weeds – as the council has, elsewhere, across the city.

Some of what needs to happen is not just about finding news ways to get rid of weeds, though, O’Lone says.

People need to start thinking about whether we need manicured lawns or whether it might be better to understand that weeds are really just plants that some think are in the wrong place at the wrong time, he says.

And whether, actually, they are in a reasonable place at a reasonable time. “It’s all about changing the mindset,” says O’Lone.

Cutting Down

Between 2015 and 2017, the council cut how much weedkiller with glyphosate it used in each year from around 3,500 litres, to 1,348 litres and 20kg (it comes in different forms).

Parks services use it in parks, and the road maintenance service sprays it to tidy road edges and hard-to-reach spots.

The council is working to reduce its use further, but some residents want their estates or roads to be as weed-free as possible, and so the council uses herbicides at the bottoms of trees, poles, signs, or walls, said a spokesperson for the council.

Council workers are trialing alternatives to this “such as hot water, foam stream, flame weeding and concentrated vinegar”, they said.

When O’Lone started working at Herbert Park five years back, workers would use a sprayer mounted on a tractor, he says.

He points to a big yellow vat in the storeroom that they used to use, hooked up to a tractor with somebody trailing behind on foot to spray where needed. The equipment has lots of joints where tubes connect, too, which makes it notorious for leaking.

He read up a bit more and learnt that it was bad for the trees they were spraying around, too. “The trees are going to absorb it,” he says.

Workers in the park switched to spot treating, and brought in a new policy of letting weeds grow more around the bases of trees. The young trees are healthier and wildflowers are growing up too, he said.

Park staff now have a Mosquito, a machine that looks like a wonky lawnmower and can get the weeds out of cracks in hard surfaces, and along edges. “It does the work of ten people,” he says.

He scuffs his boot on the surface of one of the paths near a clump of oatgrass, which is crispy and dead – a casualty of his special anti-weed mix.

He read online about using salt and vinegar to tackle weeds, an old granny-gardening tip. So he bought a box of table salt and some vinegar and mixed it with some dish soap, which helps it to stick.

The salt dries the weed, while the astringent vinegar strips through the leaf’s membrane. It works best in dry weather, when there’s not too much sunlight, he says.

The Cost

There are pros and cons to the methods being trialed by council staff to deal in new ways with weeds. Some cost more upfront, others more on labour.

Staff have to apply alternative weedkillers such as salt and vinegar more times than herbicides, which can lead to extra costs for the council, said a spokesperson.

So the council, and residents, might face a choice when it comes to budgeting – using herbicides, cutting herbicide use and spending more to weed, or just learning to live with more weeds around.

“A tolerance of weeds may become more normal,” said the spokesperson.

There are signs that some, at least, are ready to look at weeds in new ways. At the National College of Art and Design, Sophie Hughes – an artist who grew up among a family of botanists – did her final-year show all about weeds.

She was interested in how the Sisyrinchium bermudiana, with narrow leaves and purple flowers, seemed to be a pest in one place and thriving in another.

It fills fields in Bermuda and is also found in parts of Northern Ireland, but more rarely. “It would be called blue-eyed grass and demonised a bit,” says Hughes.

People seemed interested in the show, and now she notices weeds more as she is wandering around the city. “I love seeing that now, I think it’s lovely.”

Closer to home, weeds on the city streets include plantain, with its serrated leaf and long stalk, with flowers like a miniature cattail.

“That grows almost anywhere and it is extremely good for skin,” says Kaethe Burt O’Dea, who has long campaigned against herbicide use in Stoneybatter.

There is also yarrow, with its sprays of white flowers, which seemed to do well in this summer’s drought even. “Most of these herbs are what people would consider weeds,” she says.

One of Burt O’Dea’s current projects, Nature Rx, is about trying to get people to spend an hour a day with nature in the city and document it. “It’s like a green prescription,” she says.

Some might head to parks. But she is more fascinated by what is clumped in her gutter, or sprouting through the pavement a few metres from the doorstep.

O’Lone says he thinks it wouldn’t be possible to completely ditch herbicides in the city. Some weeds spread and do great damage – Japanese knotweed, for example, or giant hogweed, which has toxic sap that makes skin so sensitive to sunlight that it blisters and burns.

“It’s something you really don’t want in public areas,” he says. But in those cases, gardeners can take a very targeted approach, and opt to inject herbicides into the stems.

Along Roadsides

Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says new ways to get rid of weeds are welcome. “But I think the council should provide more support to residents who wish to avoid the use of Roundup.”

Burt O’Dea says she think the council is set up more to deal with and react to complaints than to support people with ideas to work in their communities.

A council spokesperson said they support residents who want to weed their streets themselves by hand or with tools.

Tidy Towns awards are judged in part by looking at herbicide use, and what has been done to protect bees and other insects, they said. The council also arranges to collect bagged green or normal waste after these clean-ups.

The wider issue of whether it should be the council or local residents who weed their streets is a big question in a way, says Burt O’Dea. “It’s a really interesting question.”

She is firmly of the belief that residents should take stewardship of the streets around them. “We need to change our attitude to minding our own patch,” she said. “If you keep on top of it, it takes no time at all.”

Also, “it has a holistic effect and all that, so other things, friendships, how we care for other people”, she says. “You meet some people. You get to know them.”

But others are less sure. Volunteers from Tidy Drimnagh get together once a month for a clean-up that includes “a couple of people with hoes and shovels, getting weeds out of the ground”, says Eoin Neylon, its chair and a former head of Ógra Fianna Fáil.

“It gives an awful unkempt and unloved look to the street,” he says, of the weeds poking through pavements.

But while it’s a good community effort, people also do pay their property taxes for services, Neylon says.

The area has lots of elderly people too and it’s a bit much to ask them to do it, he says. “People live busy lives, […] working long hard hours.”

Back at the gate to Herbert Park, O’Lone pauses to look at some briars crowding behind some railings next to the path, unruly and tangled but healthy. “Look! Look here! See all the berries,” he says.

Some might suggest they should tidy up this thick undergrowth, but the blackberries feed field mice and other critters, he says, “and people with long arms who can reach them”.

With additional reporting by Cónal Thomas

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

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