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Originally published Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Trail Mix | Ron Judd

Landscaping with the ultimate guy toy — a flamethrower

From my cold, dead hands. That's how they'll take my new flamethrower away from me. Sorry to go all Charlton Heston on you. But it's how I...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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From my cold, dead hands.

That's how they'll take my new flamethrower away from me. Sorry to go all Charlton Heston on you. But it's how I feel.

Once you have your own home/garden flamethrower, you begin making your own rules. Such is the power of the flame, which makes you not only master of your home universe, but Lord of all Weeds.

A short explanation is in order. A few years ago, I penned a column about the unique, spring-ritualistic thrill of pressure washing a Northwest winter's worth of dirt, mildew and grime from various surfaces outside the house. After that, many people wrote to share their feelings of water-blasting joy. But a couple upped the ante.

"Sure," I recall one of them writing. "But you haven't really lived until you've used the ultimate guy tool — the propane blow torch."

The thought stuck in the back of my mind. And since then, I have seen these long-handled flame blasters hanging from the shelves at local home-improvement stores and wondered: How can I possibly find a use for one of those?

Last summer, the answer came: A landscaping project produced a set of wide, gravel parking strips in front of the house and a couple dozen yards of gravel path.

It occurred to me — as it has occurred to many others — that fire might be a fast, um, environmentally friendly (at least as opposed to spraying) way to rid the gravel of weeds that inevitably invade. I went to Home Depot (motto: "We're Here to Help — Help Direct You To Self-Checkout") and came home with my own flame blower.

It's a simple, $50 device. A 10-foot-long propane hose connects to a large propane bottle (small, disposable bottles don't work, and in any case, would be empty in about 4.5 seconds). A small valve lets the gas into a 3-foot metal wand with a handle and nozzle trigger.

It's the same thing you see road crews using to blaze paint markings off highways or parking lots — not nearly as fun as dandelion crematory uses.

Most people use a large propane bottle and affix it to a hand truck or, in some cases, a backpack device, to lug the thing around. I chose the former, took the assemblage out into the driveway, opened the valve, pushed the trigger and hesitantly flicked the supplied sparker near the soup-can-sized flame dispenser at the mouth.

Let me put it this way: There will be no doubt when your flame has been lit. Small spacecraft have left the atmosphere with less force than this baby lighting itself off with a lusty roar.

Ignoring the neighbors preemptively dialing 911, I rolled my propane tank toward the first clump of weeds — 6-inch high dandelions, in full bloom. I pointed the wand at them, holding it about 2 feet back. I hit the trigger.

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Whoosh! A column of flame shot a good 12 inches out of the barrel. The dandelion simmered, sizzled, blackened, popped, crackled, and then — poof! — incinerated, right before my eyes.

Now, I don't even have to explain to you weeders out there what a life-changing thrill this can be. Not only was the weed gone, literally in a flash, but it was never going to come back, in any way, shape or form. My heart leapt with sheer delight. I grinned maniacally and went after the next one. And the next. And the next.

What can I say? I love the smell of burnt dandelions in the morning.

The flamethrower gulps propane like a thirsty water buffalo. But it killed all the weeds. Killed the clover. Killed the horsetail! My driveway, after one pass, looked like the smoking, charred site of a napalm strike.

Magnificent.

There is, of course, a 12-foot-long sheet of obligatory safety warnings for the device, and they're all true. It should be kept locked away from children, for instance. You probably should wear an asbestos suit and a welding mask. It shouldn't be used anywhere near anything flammable, such as a house or car or even standing trees. Water and a burn center should be close at hand.

In a world where Bic lighters have safety releases, it's sort of amazing, actually, that this thing is even sold to the general public — especially one that has not yet grasped the concept of keep-right-except-to-pass. The flamethrower is such an imprecise device that it is highly likely that, at some point in the future, it will light my pants on fire. Get it?

So be it. These are the chances you have to take to live on the landscaping edge, my friends.

So, to everyone except for my life-insurance agent — whom I am informing here, for the record, that I made this entire tale up, and, in fact don't even know what a home/garden flamethrower looks like — I offer three words of spring-weeding advice.

Flame on, baby.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Ron Judd's "Trail Mix" column, which appears Thursdays in Northwest Weekend, focuses on the Northwest great outdoors -- with just the right amount of real life thrown in for good measure.
rjudd@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8280

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