We seemed to always take pictures of our vegetable gardens in the spring when they looked clean and weed free. I find very few pictures of established gardens in late July or August. This took me all of one second to figure out why. One word tells it all and conjures up the images that we lacked to capture digitally. Weeds.
Weeds, is a four letter word on our farm and probably every other farm organic or otherwise. We have spent more time then I care to admit testing weed suppressants, retardants, defoliants and pre-emergents. Being organic you really are limited with what you can use but I think we are gaining the upper hand. We have hands, hoes, heat, spreads and sprays that we use in our arsenal along with some mechanical means.
The first couple years of growing, the weeds took over like they owned the place. That first Spring we started with a very small garden but larger than any prior. We weeded ever day, seven days a week. Something always needed weeding and we would attend to it. We never thought that missing a couple of days would doom us but it did. In June of that first spring I was selected to give a presentation, as part of a seminar, at the Kennedy School of Government. My thought was three days in Boston and away from weeding can't be too bad. Besides the stress of the actual presentation everything was fine when I got back to the farm. We had weeds but it looked manageable.
That Saturday it rained and kept raining until the following Friday. Did you know that weeds grow in the rain? Yep, no sun in sight but these things grew and the water helped other weed seeds germinate. We soon learned that weeding is one of those chores done rain or shine.
Our main garden was under siege, we spent the better part of five days getting the weed pressure down only to put the corn in danger. At times, we felt like cartoon characters bouncing from one place to another. It was truly a losing battle in all senses of the words. Yields were down; we lost complete crops like carrots and melons. Overall we got a quarter of what we had expected that season. But true to our mission, that winter we hit the books and tried to come up with a plan to thwart the beast that stole our nutrients and minerals and made our vegetables puny.
Winter of 2004 we learned of and leaned towards black landscape fabric. We could put soaker hoses down, lay the black fabric over it and place plants in it. Thus eliminating light to all weed seeds. Or so we thought. At first weed pressure was minimal. We literly had over 95% of our soils covered with landscape fabric. We soon found that the wholes we punched in the fabric to plant the seedling was sprouting weeds. Weed encrouchment from the sides started too. I quickly learned the following: once these things catch fire they burn and burn fast! Two, the fabric will get sucked up and into the mower if you get to close while cutting the grass (see. Keep your grass short). By the end of summer we lost out again to the weeds. It took six people ten hours to clear all the weeds out such that we could pull the fabric up.
We bought a mechanical tiller, one of those small personal tillers. That lasted one year, it was pretty effective but we've never been able to get it to start again. I spent time changing plugs, oil etc., but it refuses to work. It was good between the strawberries and corn rows as long as you didn't hit the corn stalk and could get it started and keep it running.
We had the worst time using straw and newspapers. Not only did it not work for us it actually added to our weed pressure. We wasted water wetting the paper and straw only to have it dry out and blow away. Then we learned about corn gluten as a pre-emergent. A pre-emergent is a type of process that stops seeds from sprouting. It stops the emergence of the seed, any seed good or bad.
In the spring we tilled our production bed and plant seedlings. The little plants will be in rows and can withstand the broadcasting of corn gluten. As long as a plant has an established root system, corn gluten is not going to affect it negatively. Because the corn has a NPK rating of 9-0-0 whatever is around the gluten will get a jolt of nitrogen. We've been using it with limited success for the past two seasons.
Flame weeding is an easy way of getting rid of weeds but it is not systemic in its application. The leaves will curl and some plants will die but most plants remain viable due to their root system. Plants that have rhizomes are one type that comes to mind. It is best to flame weed after a rain to reduce the spread of an errant flame or burning leaf. It is always a good idea to have some water handy just in case a silo catches fire or something (see, Are We done Planting).
We have also found a concentrated vinegar and lemon juice mix that works as a topical defoliant. It doesn't kill the whole plant but it does retard its growth and on a subsequent pass it can kill the plant. Once again rhizomes will defoliate but you will not get to the tap root.
This year coming up we will focus on cover cropping as weed suppression between rows of vegetables and fruits. This seems to work pretty well from what we've read and seen. Our arsenal is vast and our knowledge improved but no matter the outcome Weeds is a four letter word.
Buy Local - From a local farmer not a chain that just uses the word.
p.s. we appologize to all our and every english teacher reading this!