Below is material excerpted from the Sustainable Weed Management chapter in my book Sustainable Market Farming, which was also published in Growing for Market as New Ways to Think About Weeds, back in 2011.
Do you need a justification for having some weeds visible among your crops? Do you crave a system to help you get a grip on your to-do list, so you’re not overwhelmed? Sustainable (or Ecological) Weed Management does all this! In the earlier days of organic farming, maximum use was made of frequent cultivation to kill weeds. Now we know that too-frequent cultivation can cause soil erosion, and that each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and speeds combustion of organic matter. The practice of sustainable weed management is about effectiveness – including removing weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seed pods explode – and ignoring weeds while they are doing little damage. Work smarter, not harder!
A Holistic Approach to Organic Weed Management
As always, strive to restore and maintain balance in the ecosystem. Develop strategies for preventing weeds and for controlling the ones that pop up anyway. An obvious way to prevent weeds is to avoid adding new kinds to any part of your fields. Remove the hitch-hikers from your socks out on the driveway, not when you notice them as you squat to transplant onions! We use our driveway as a convenient place to “roadkill” particularly bad weeds by letting them die in the sun. Beware of Trojan plant swaps (nice plants in soil concealing nasty weed seeds)!
Weeds are not a monolithic enemy, but a diverse cast of characters. Applying biological principles is not an attitude of war, but more like ju-jitsu, using the weaknesses of the weeds to contribute to their downfall. This chapter aims to develop our understanding of weeds and the different types: annuals and perennials; stationary perennials and invasive perennials; cool weather and warm weather types; quick-maturing and slow-maturing types; and what Chuck Mohler (Manage Weeds on Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies) refers to as “Big Bang” types versus “Dribblers”.
One factor to consider is how vulnerable the crop is to damage from that weed at that time. Weeds that germinate at the same time as a vegetable crop usually do not really affect the crop’s growth until they become large enough to compete for moisture and nutrients. If allowed to grow unchecked, however, these early weeds have the greatest potential for reducing crop yields. We need to cultivate or otherwise control weeds before this 2-3 week grace period is over.
The critical period for weed control for the crop is the interval from the end of the initial grace period until the end of the minimum weed-free period, which is approximately the first third to one half of the crop’s life. In other words, the most important time to weed a crop is from 2 weeks after sowing until the crop is half-way to being finished. For vigorous crops like tomato, squash and transplanted brassicas this is four to six weeks; less vigorous crops like onion or carrot need weed-free conditions for eight weeks or more. During that time it is essential to control weeds to prevent loss of yield.
Weeds that emerge later have less effect, and ones that emerge quite late in the crop cycle no longer affect the yield of that crop, although their seeds give a reason for removing them to improve future crops.
Know Your Weeds
Learn to identify the major weeds on your farm, and any minor ones that suggest trouble later. Observe and research. Start a Weed Log with a page for each weed. Add information about your quarry’s likes and dislikes, habits and possible weak spots. Find out how long the seeds can remain viable under various conditions, and whether there are any dormancy requirements. Note when it emerges, how soon it forms viable seed (if an annual), when the roots are easiest and hardest to remove from the soil (if a perennial), what time of year it predominates, which plots and which crops have the worst trouble with this weed. Monitor regularly throughout the year, each year. Look back over your records and see if anything you did or didn’t do seems to have made the problem worse or better.
Next think about any vulnerable points in the weed’s growth habit, life cycle, or responses to crops or weather that could provide opportunities for prevention or control. List some promising management options. Try them, record your results, decide what to continue or what to try next.
Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, the corn productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients. Sun-loving weeds like purslane are more likely to thrive among crops (like carrots and onions) which never cast much shade at any point of their growth. They won’t be a problem for crops that rapidly form canopies that shade the ground.
A few weeds, such as giant ragweed, emerge only during a 3-week interval, while others, such as pigweed and velvetleaf, can germinate during a two-month period, if temperatures are warm enough. Galinsoga seeds are short-lived and germinate only near the soil surface, but velvetleaf seeds can lie dormant for years deep in the subsoil, and germinate whenever they get brought close to the surface. Clearly, different strategies work best with different weeds.
Red Root Pigweed is a “Big Bang” weed – the plant grows for a long time, and then all its seeds ripen at once, as the plant starts dying. Most seeds come from a few large plants – pigweed-monsters that mature late in summer can shed 400,000 seeds! Pulling the largest 10% of the weeds can reduce seed production by 90% or better. We used to ignore pigweed growing in our sweetcorn, once it escaped two cultivations, believing anything that big must already have done damage. Now we pull while harvesting. Some pigweeds are as tall as the corn, but most don’t have mature seed heads. Since starting this a few years ago, we have noticed a considerable drop-off in the number of pigweeds we have to deal with. This is different from the “Seed Dribblers” like galinsoga, which mature seed while still quite small plants, shed some, make some more, and can carry on for a long seed-shedding season.
Another useful piece of information is that a constant percentage of the seeds left from one year’s shedding dies each year. For lambsquarters in cultivated soil it’s 31% per year (only 8% in uncultivated soil). The number of seeds declines rapidly at first, but a few seeds persist for a long time. The percentage varies widely among species.
While seeds survive better deeper in the soil, they don’t germinate better down there. Larger seeds can germinate at deeper levels than small seeds. If you are trying to bury seeds deep, use inversion tillage; don’t rely on rototilling, as seeds somehow manage to stay near the surface with rotary tilling. Chuck Mohler has verified this with colored beads.
Most of the weeds in cultivated soils are annuals, but some of the worst ones are perennials, either stationary (tap-rooted) perennials like docks and dandelions, or wandering/invasive perennials with tubers, rhizomes or bulbs (Bermuda grass, quackgrass). Stationary perennials in their first year act like biennials – leaves, roots, but no flowers or seeds. In annually tilled areas, they get killed in year one and don’t often establish. Wandering perennials are a more difficult problem, and understanding apical dominance is important in tackling them – see Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes in the book’s chapter.
The chapter also includes information on Prevention of Weed Germination, Reduction of Weed Seeding, Reduction of Viability of Seeds, Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes, and Two Examples (galinsoga and nut sedge).
Knowing and understanding the particular weeds that are giving you the worst problems enables you to design an approach that includes removing weeds at the most important point in their life-cycle, before they do their worst damage. While focusing on that you can relax and ignore weeds that are not doing much harm.
I have written here on my website about weeds previously. See my blog posts
- Challenges in Vegetable Production November 2022 (mostly about pests, and also provides links to weed resources)
- Book Review: Manage Weeds on Your Farm June 2022
- More on Insectary Flowers, Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds February 2022 (Mostly promotes Manage Weeds on Your Farm)
- Dealing with Weeds June 2021 (Types of weeds, Biointensive IPM, includes links to flame weeding and mulching with biodegradable plastic, cover crops)
- Flame Weeding February 2021
- Book Review: Weeds by Richard Mabey August 2016
- Sustainable pest, disease and weed management Jan 2016 (List of Steps to take)
Resources on Sustainable Weed Management
- Manage Weeds on Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies, Charles Mohler, John Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso, published by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). Includes profiles of many, many weeds. $24 or free (large) download
- eOrganic Weed Management Topics
- eOrganic, Manage the Weed Seedbank – Minimize Deposits and Maximize Withdrawals
- ATTRA Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms
- The University of Maine Quackgrass Management on Organic Farms
- Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), Weed Management on Organic Farms
- University of Illinois, Managing Weed Seedbanks in Organic Farming Systems,
- Oregon State: Biological Control of Weeds
- MDPI: Bioherbicides: An Eco-Friendly Tool for Sustainable Weed Management
- SARE, Vinegar as an Organic Herbicide in Garlic Production, Fred Forsburg, 2004 project