Caleb: Salt of the Earth or 'Condescending Prick'?

There is a so-called “recipe” floating around the internet, especially on Facebook, that drives me crazy. It’s a version of homemade weed-killer called “Kill Them All” or some variation of that, and it calls for mixing vinegar and salt together to pour on weeds.
Weed killer indeed.
I’ve been sounding off about this recipe online for months, at first dismayed and then incredulous as the recipe kept popping up more and more. I belong to several so-called “permaculture” groups that meet online and in person to discuss the concept of permanent sustainable agriculture. Someone on one of these groups posted the recipe for this weed-killer. “This is such a bad recipe,” I wrote on the comments to the post. “I wish people would stop passing it around,”
“Why?” wrote the person who had posted the recipe.
“Because salt is a permanent decision,” I replied. “Gardeners above all others should know this. I don't understand people poisoning their own soil.”
“Well, you are trying to poison a plant,” responded someone else in the group. “I think it would just depend on the concentration of salt that ended up on the ground. It's better than what Monsanto gives us to spray.”
It not better, actually. It’s not better at all -- and if you know me, you know I oppose Monsanto tooth and nail. “It's hard for me to believe we have to have this discussion on (this permaculture site),” I responded. “Makes me depressed that even gardeners see nothing wrong with salting the earth.”
To my surprise, the person who posted the recipe then responded by calling me a “condescending prick.”
“Disagreeing with you isn't condescending,” I wrote. “I'm genuinely surprised because the whole idea of permaculture is to do no harm.”
To which the person responded that I was “arrogant and condescending.”
I’m happy to say that several people came to my defense, but I reprint the conversation here because it was eye-opening to me to see how much education there is left to do, even among proponents of “permaculture,” which I consider to be the highest form of gardening. (Being called names didn’t much bother me -- after all, I’m a journalist by trade, and I’d already been called much worse by far more important people on that very day.)
I fear that a lot of people are seeing this weed “solution” and putting it to use. Here’s why I think that’s a terrible decision:

1. Depending on how much salt you use, salt is a permanent decision. You salt the earth, it will at least be years before you can use it again. What if you move unexpectedly? (If you don’t think people move unexpectedly, you haven’t lived very long.) Are you going to walk the next family over to your garden and explain that you salted the earth for them? What if you decide you need to change things around in your garden? Or what if you read my upcoming book and learn that you can have the easy luxury of a self-seeding garden -- except that you have salted between all your garden beds?

2. Let’s say that you salt the earth and three or four years later, something is able to grow in that space again (Rejuvenation that soon is possible, depending on how much salt you used.) Where do you think all that salt went? Do you think it magically disappeared? I can tell you exactly where the salt went -- it headed into the aquifer underground. Or it was captured in runoff and went toward the nearest body of water. In the county where I live, we have a large fresh-water lake -- a true gem in the middle of the desert. Once upon a time, the south and west shores of the lake were home to groves of commercial fruit trees -- until the water in the lake got so salty that it could no longer be used to irrigate the fruit trees. Even alfalfa fields had to be abandoned because of the high salt content on land that was flooded by lake water in the spring. Salt, as I said, is a permanent decision. Once you put it into the ecosystem, it cannot be removed. It can be diluted, and even a decade ago, water managers used to say “the solution to pollution is dilution.” They don’t say that anymore, after it became obvious that dilution ceases to work once the pollution levels grow to a certain tipping point. After that tipping point, the only solutions left often cost hundreds of millions of dollars -- and now you know why sewage and run-off fees have jumped so much in the county where I live. Short-sighted solution, long-term natural consequences.

3. Salting the earth was a widespread ancient custom after war -- to add famine to injury, the conquering military would salt the land so that the defeated people couldn’t grow food to feed themselves. (The Romans used to salt the earth of their enemies, to name one example. There are also examples in the Bible.) Imagine who is laughing when people decide to salt their own earth. The idiocy is astonishing, if you think about it. It certainly proves true the old saying that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.

4. In our society that is flush with morbid obesity -- even, and most sadly, among children, why not just get off the couch and pull the weeds? You might need to examine your lifestyle if the only way you can fathom gardening is with a “spray” for every single problem you encounter. I like to call it “going to the gym” when I’m going out to pull weeds. Turn off your television and go get your hands dirty. Go show your kids the value of actual physical work -- if you can get your kids away from the video games long enough to see daylight.

5. Finally, here’s why it’s a stupid recipe: If you salt the earth, you don’t need any of the other ingredients in the recipe -- salt alone will kill the weeds. So if you insist on being stupid, at least be smart about it.


  1. Ha! You make me laugh! I especially loved #4. Keep up the good work!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Whenever I perceive a group with high esteem it invariably backfires. People are people, and the same traits surface everywhere, although permaculture folk and gardeners are mostly an awesome bunch . A few months ago, after finishing a permaculture course, right after permaculture ethics, I was not so mildly snubed by an inner clique of women in one of these groups. Of course it took a layer of pride of my skin. And, while this took my faith in humanity down another notch, it reminded me people are people, with all our human traits, no matter what the name of the game is.

  4. I have been fighting the salt battle as well. Keep up the good work!

  5. Well said Mr.Warnock! Keep up the good work, stay the course! One bone-headed "natural" gardener at a time!

  6. Great information Caleb. Does this apply to Epsom Salts as a plant food? I'm ignorant of salt chemistry.

  7. I saw this same recipe posted on Facebook by a friend of mine and I had a similar reaction to yours. They asked me why? Does salting soil really have to be explained to a gardener? They claimed a nursery used salt in their asparagus beds, so they saw nothing wrong with the recipe. Well, I don't know what the nursery is doing, but I am not salting soil anywhere!

  8. I think I'm more stunned by the increasing rudeness in our social media than I am about salt ignorance. Can no one be wrong anymore? Can no one disagree? When did we become so thoughtless of others' feelings, and spineless in our own, that we attack people we don't know simply for expressing an opinion? We need to figure out a way to clean up the internet along with our soil. I know there's more goodness in peoples' hearts than is manifesting online.

    Thanks for such an interesting article, Caleb. As always, there's much to learn from your experience.