The owner of a Garden City nursery was looking for a safe alternative to chemical weedkillers when she came across what appeared to be a miracle product.
Lindsay Schramm, who owns North End Organic Nursery, learned that a product known as horticultural vinegar — with four times the acetic acid of household vinegar — was effective in battling weeds.
Schramm, who farms, had already used horticultural vinegar to lower pH levels, raising the acidity of soil and well water with high alkaline levels.
“Somebody at some point stumbled across the fact that, hey, if you put it full strength on a weed, the weed dies,” Schramm said. “With all of the terrible things that are out there right now, people got excited about the possibility of using something that’s very simple, nontoxic product.
“It may not have been originally intended as an herbicide, but it just so happens to work great as an herbicide.”
Schramm said she sold bottles of horticultural vinegar for seven or eight years without any problems. But on Friday, officials from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture came to her store at 3777 W. Chinden Blvd and gave her a written order to quit selling it.
Kevin Kostka, an enforcement officer, told Schramm that the vinegar she was selling was not registered for use as an herbicide and could not legally be sold for that purpose.
Schramm took to Facebook to challenge the state. By Monday, though, Schramm had softened her stance. After meeting with Kostka, she began seeking an accommodation.
On Tuesday, she said, they agreed: Scramm will relabel the bottles, removing refererence to use of horticultural vinegar as an herbicide, and then the department will allow the store to resume selling the vinegar.
Schramm said she was initially unaware she was breaking the law.
“In all fairness, we were saying, ‘Yeah, it works as an herbicide and we consider it to be a very safe product,’” she told the Idaho Statesman. “However, in the state of Idaho, you can’t say something kills weeds unless it’s registered as a pesticide.”
Any product marketed in Idaho as a herbicide must go through regulatory review, said Chanel Tewalt, chief operating officer for the Department of Agriculture. It is vital that the vinegar is used safely and that customers understand the potential danger if it’s splashed on their skin or in their eyes, she said.
Applied to foliage, the acetic acid in horticultural vinegar (at a strength of 20 percent, compared with 5 percent for household vinegar, which can also be used to treat weeds) breaks up cell membranes and makes them leak water, causing the plant to dry out and die, according to a fact sheet issued by Washington State University Extension Service.
The acid hurts people, too. Acetic acid concentrations above 11 percent can cause skin burns upon contact, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Eye contact can cause severe burns and permanent corneal damage. People applying horticultural vinegar should wear protective clothing and eyewear.
Schramm’s vinegar came to the state’s attention after she created a time-lapse video of a weed being killed by horticultural vinegar and posted it to the store’s Facebook page this spring.
“I sprayed some of the vinegar on this horsetail weed that was sitting in our parking lot,” she said. “I said, ‘Hey, this is what happened when we sprayed horticultural vinegar on a weed. Watch how quickly it dies.’ It got a lot of attention, because it’s quite effective.”
Schramm removed the video after she was ordered to quit selling the vinegar. Another video, produced two years ago and posted to YouTube, shows Schramm spraying weeds outside her shop and coming back 90 minutes later, by which time the plants had dried up and turned brown.
A spot check by the Statesman of several other Boise gardening stores turned up none that carry horticultural vinegar. Home Depot and Walmart did not have it in local stores but both companies’ websites said they could ship it to customers.
“The products are pretty effective,” said Tim Miller, a Washington state seed scientist who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Idaho. “They do a good job of controlling seedling annuals, in particular, seedling broadleafs. The smaller the plant, the better the control.”
The vinegar has no residual effect on weeds that emerge later. “So you have to reapply and reapply, based upon when those seeds actually germinate,” Miller said.
North End Organic Nursery customer Brenda Barker said she relies on horticultural vinegar to control weeds around her place.
“It is a wonderful product that offers a safe alternative to the toxic products available anywhere,” said Barker, who lives in Boise. “It works quickly and safely, and I would use it again without hesitation.”
Schramm said she hopes to resume selling the relabeled vinegar soon.
“I’m happy that they were flexible enough to recognize that there were other uses for this other than as an herbicide and that we could start selling it again,” she said.
Tewalt said both sides sought “a reasonable solution.”
“We appreciate where owners are coming from, because it isn’t very common that people know the ins and outs of regulatory things that we review,” Tewalt said. “I know that can be very tough for folks, whether you’re a farmer in Eastern Idaho or you’re a nursery owner in Boise. There are things we deal with that not everyone thinks of daily.”