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Going after troublesome weeds with steam

Act Locally always is eager to learn about innovative ways to solve problems without the use of chemicals. So, last week I was delighted to attend a presentation on steam weeding hosted by Beyond Toxics in Phoenix.

Two Jackson County gardeners, Jeremy Gieselman and Jim Wilson, spoke about their new business. Chem-Free is a gardening service that utilizes Satusteam, “a patented method of producing a mixture of saturated steam and boiling water for weed control” invented by Australian entrepreneur, Jeremy Winer.

Since 2002, Winer’s company, Weedtechnics (weedtechnics.com), has been developing equipment to rid landscapes of unwanted vegetation in New South Wales. In recent years Weedtechnics has expanded into North America, with partners in Fresno, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Alberta, Canada.

Gieselman and Wilson sensed that the residents of Jackson and Josephine counties would welcome this new technology. They purchased a Satusteam model that fits on the back of their pickup truck. Chem-Free’s primary service is to spray steam from their vehicle onto weeds plaguing customers’ properties.

In brief, Satusteam’s delivery system heats regular tap water to boiling temperatures that essentially cook leaves and roots to death. Steam is directed onto weeds using a 300 foot-long hose and one of two different nozzle heads — a rectangular hood that is held over low-lying leaves, or, alternately, a “wand” that is inserted 4-6 inches into the ground to eliminate roots.

Removing weeds with Satusteam requires two passes, roughly 4-6 weeks apart. The first application kills off visible leaves while stimulating growth of latent seeds. In the second application, steam is applied to the leaves of the newly germinated plants, as well as the roots of older weeds that had previously been treated.

Technically, Satusteam can be applied any time of year; however, Wilson recommends acting while weeds are young, before they go to seed. Double applications will need to be repeated on an annual basis for several years, as new weed growth (theoretically) declines over time.

In the absence of toxic chemicals, Satusteam is clearly safer for the immediate eco-system. Furthermore, unlike the home-remedy of pouring boiling water directly on weeds, Satusteam only penetrates 1/4 inch into the ground. Microbes, worms, and other beneficial soil-dwellers remain unharmed. (That said, an occasional flying pollinator or crawling insect may get zapped during the spraying.)

Chem-Free’s system is designed to remove weeds from landscaping, driveways and paths, and along roadsides and fence lines. Gieselman is in discussion with several municipal parks departments, TID, Jackson County Roads, etc. The city of Eagle Point already has contracted Chem-Free to text the system — which should offer more data as to its actual success.

As with any technology, Satusteam does have its limitations. Currently, the system cannot target woody stems and branches. However, Wilson and Gieselman claim that if blackberries and shrubs are cut down to the ground, the team can insert the steam wand into existing roots and prevent regrowth.

My personal reservation is that the equipment creates a substantial carbon footprint — something that hopefully will be improved as newer technologies come on board to modify the existing system.

Weedtechnics manufactures a number of other designs beside the unit Chem-Free owns ... each meant to address particular problem areas. By April, Chem-Free will have a portable-style unit available for the public to rent through Bullet Rentals in Medford (3366 Crater Lake Ave., 541-779-2855).

Readers are cautioned that Satusteam technology really works best if run by people who understand all the intricacies of the system. They are therefore advised to hire the Chem-Free team, either to directly treat unwanted vegetation, or, alternately, to serve in an advisory capacity. For Readers who might want to consider purchasing their own Satusteam system, Wilson and Gieselman can assess their individual properties for specific weed problems, then help purchasers choose the right equipment for their job. Once new equipment arrives, the team has been approved by Winer to instruct new owners on how to use it.

That said, I should qualify that, though Winer’s technology has been up and running for more than a decade, neither Act Locally nor Beyond Toxics is in a position to vouch for it. We have only attended a brief demonstration — not witnessed long-term results.

As passionate as the Chem-Free team is about Winer’s system, no doubt there will be bugs to work out during the business’ initial months. As much as we remain hopeful that Satusteam’s technology will pan out as promised, early adopters who engage Chem-Free should keep this in mind.

Until May 1, Chem-Free is offering their services at a reduced hourly rate ($85/hour), in order to attract new customers. Gieselman can be contacted at Jeremy@chem-free.com, (541-630-5095) (chem-free.com/).

Nina Egert photoJim Wilson of Chem-Free applies steam to kill weeds.