CROPS AMONG THE WEEDS

As I sit here at my drafting table, the local code enforcement officer is looking askance at my “lawn” which is not mowed at the regulation height of 6 inches or less.  Instead, I have 2 research plots in front of my office, both planted with Peruvian land race potatoes.  One plot is mulched with stable bedding, the other plot covered with weeds up to 4 feet high.  The mulched potatoes are riddled with flea beetles; there are so many holes that the leaves look like window screening.  3 feet away, potatoes growing in weeds have only a few scattered holes in their leaves.  These results are typical of crops grown au naturel = in the wild.

When I was young, “good” farmers were judged by the straightness of their furrows and the cleanliness of their fields.  Bare earth and weed-free crops were the standard of good agricultural practice at that time.  Contrarian that I am, my fields were always less than pristine.  Many decades later, my crops are still a herbicide salesman’s nightmare.  The reason is that I have long since stopped trying to eradicate weeds.  Now, I manage them.  I encourage them.  I even plant weeds because I never seem to have enough wild plants in my fields.

Am I daft?  Certainly.  I am also wealthy because I don’t have big pesticide bills to pay.  My crops may not make record yields, but I am not aiming for a blue ribbon at the County Fair.  I measure success on the bottom line.  Who wants to spend $2,000 to plant a half acre of peppers?  I gladly trade low production costs over huge input bills.  I make more money by saving money.  As an added benefit, my customers can pick vegetables without worrying about being poisoned by agricultural chemicals.  I don’t need “organic” certification.  My customers pay me not to spray.  That’s good business any way you figure it.

Down the road I have a wilderness of citrus interspersed with live oaks, Spanish moss, and pangola grass.  It’s an old orchard that is long overdue for rotation, but it still makes me money because I spend almost nothing to maintain the trees.  Every now and then I spread some racetrack manure.  The irrigation system turns itself on and off.  The weeds grow 6 feet high.  Once a year, right before harvest, I mow between the trees — just enough so folks can pick the fruit.  Result:  No bugs on my trees.  Across the hedgerow of old-fashioned hibiscus, my neighbor clean cultivates his orchard and sprays with robotic frequency.  Every spider mite in the district comes to eat his leaves.  Chemical companies use his orchard to test new pesticides.  The mites don’t seem to mind; they eat insecticide like salad dressing.

Up the road are stake-less tomatoes (with thick, upright stems) transplanted into Berseem = Egyptian clover (Trifolium alexandrinum).  I used to walk the fields pulling any weed not blotted out by the clover.  Now, I don’t bother.  I let the weeds grow wild.  Occasionally, I thin the weeds if they grow too thick.  My fields look messy but I rarely see a hornworm.

Across the lane is my pride and joy: A jungle of weeds and melons.  The weeds grow over my head and the melons grow over the weeds.  The trick is to mulch the young melons (or mow the weeds) just until the vines start to run.  After the melons are well established, the crop fends for itself.  Vine crops thrive in the light shade cast by nearby weeds; the best fruits come from the weediest parts of the field.  Insect pests don’t like the broadleaf jungle so I never have to spray vine crops grown in weeds.

Intelligent Weed Management

Tired of getting sick every time you spray a field?  Use the following rules-of-thumb to create a healthy cropping system tailored to your local soil and climate:

>>>  Weeds are a type of living mulch:  Plants grown to reduce soil erosion, enhance soil fertility, attract beneficial insects, and help retain soil moisture.  Before planting into weeds or any other living mulch, remember that two crops are growing on the same land at the same time — the mulch crop and a cash crop.  Success requires careful management or both crops may fail.

>>>  All living mulches compete with their companion crops.  The extent of competition and consequential yield loss vary with management and crop type.  For example, under drought conditions shallow rooted crops generally show more yield loss than deep rooted crops.  Low or slow growing crops many be overwhelmed by more aggressive companion crops.  As a general rule, living mulches are not recommended where drought is expected because yield losses are too high.  However, many crops benefit from living mulches during dry conditions — the companion plants shade the soil, retard evaporation, and increase humidity.

>>>  Weeds make good living mulches for transplanted vegetable crops provided:  (1)  Crops are irrigated,  (2)  Crops are fertilized, and  (3)  Crops are protected for the first 4 to 6 weeks from competition by the weeds.

>>>  1 to 2 inches of water are needed weekly to grow both weeds and vegetables without undue competition for moisture.  If water is limiting, it is best to drip irrigate the cash crop rather than water the entire field.

>>>  Weeds grow quickly so there is often intense competition for light when cash crops are young.  Mow or roll a narrow strip where transplants will be set, or apply a circle of mulch around transplants to give crops a head start.  Once crops are well established they will usually hold their own.  If necessary, prune or thin weeds to increase light penetration for cash crops.

>>>  Roller-crimpers are better than mowers for weed management.  Mowing stimulates plant regrowth; crimping does not.

>>>  Aggressive, fast-growing crops like tomatoes, peppers, okra, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, gourds and pumpkins all do exceptionally well when transplanted into weeds.  Cucumbers are slower growing and require extra mulch to protect them from early season competition with weedy nurse crops.

>>>  As a general rule, broadleaf weeds make better nurse crops than wild grasses which are more competitive and difficult to manage.  Where weedy grasses are a problem, burn the fields or treat with organic herbicide before transplanting cash crops.

>>>  It is good practice to leave strips of meadow, weeds, wildflowers, cover crops, or other living vegetation between or around fields of cash crops.  These buffer strips act as refuges for beneficial insects needed to control crop pests.  The best refuge plants have small flowers so that good bugs can easily obtain pollen and nectar.  Examples include buckwheat, turnip, rape, clover, and any member of the botanical family Apiaceae = Umbelliferae = carrot family = Anise, Dill, Angelica, Chervil, Celery, Caraway, Coriander, Cumin, Carrot, Fennel, Lovage, Parsnip, and Parsley.

>>>  As a general rule, it is unwise to harvest fields all at once.  Divide fields into strips or parcels then harvest each sequentially.  Leaving un-harvested areas allows predatory insects to migrate from disturbed spaces.  The idea is to preserve a balance between predator and prey to prevent sudden population crashes.  Translation:  You want a resident population of good bugs waiting to eat any bad bugs that fly into your fields.

>>>  If weedy fields are unavailable for planting, seed conventional cover crops.  The best living mulches are low-growing, nitrogen fixing legumes like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum), and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).  Remember to inoculate legume seeds with compatible nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria.

>>>  Where land is weak or vegetation sparse, plant weeds to restore soil health.  Spread weedy hay over sick fields.  Seed wildflowers adapted to your local climate.  Broadcast grain elevator screenings liberally; screenings are dirt cheap (often free) and contain many weed seeds.  If necessary, seed a nurse crop of common rye (Secale cereale) or millet (Panicum miliaceum) to help establish a vigorous weed population.

>>>  Where agriculture is problematic (bare soils, unfavorable climate, no water or fertilizer) it is best to seed mixed cover crops to mimic the diversity of naturally weedy fields.  Choose 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season broadleaf plants + 2 cool season legumes + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season broadleaf plants + 2 warm season legumes.  Include 2 root crops (forage radish, turnip, or stock beet) to help break up compacted soil layers.  Total:  14 different cover crop species.  Plant at least 20 pounds of mixed cover crop seed per acre = 23 kilograms per hectare.

>>>  Weeds are nature’s band-aid; they are specifically evolved to rapidly cover disturbed soils.  Tillage encourages weed germination and stimulates weed growth.  Consequently, to manage weed populations avoid tillage whenever practical.

>>>  It is best not to disturb healthy populations of weeds or cover crops once they are well established.  Broadcast, transplant, or drill cash crops into surface vegetation.  Use equipment specifically designed for no-till planting on trashy, high-residue fields.  For surface (broadcast) planting, increase seeding rates to maximum levels or use clay pelletized seed.  (Pelleted seeds greatly increase plant survival).

>>>  Weeds are most efficiently controlled by using the natural competitive abilities of crop plants.  For example, top seed forage radish (Raphaus sativus variety longipinnatus) over oats when they start to head out.  The radish understory crop grows slowly until grain harvest.  After oats are combined, radish growth explodes quickly covering the field and blotting out nearly all competing plants.  Weeds never have a chance to get established.  Top seeding into standing vegetation is a great way to grow small-seeded crops without using herbicides.

>>>  Grind weed seeds into flour and use like cotton seed meal as a cheap, slow-release organic fertilizer.  1 ton of weed seed meal supplies approximately 54 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorous, and 18 pounds of potassium (2.7% nitrogen, 0.9% phosphorous, and 0.9% potassium by weight).  Note:  There is no standard analysis for weed seed meal.  NPK values vary depending on the mixture of species in local samples.

>>>  Every farm has different soil and micro-climate.  Agronomic practices that work in one field may fail in another.  For best results, every farmer should maintain one or more research plots so that new methods can be tested and adapted to local conditions.

>>>  Effective weed management requires careful observation and close attention to detail.  Every farmer must become a weed biologist.  Timing of field operations is critically important.  Planting 2 weeks earlier or later can result in stunning success or dismal failure.  Continuous experimentation  is needed to develop weed control programs for each individual crop, field, and farm.

Organic No-Till Weed Control

Conventional no-till agriculture relies on synthetic herbicides to control weeds.  Following no-till method uses an all-natural herbicide substitute made from acetic acid (vinegar) and citric acid (lemon juice).  Combination makes a non-selective vegicide that works like Roundup (glyphosate) to kill both grasses and broadleaf weeds.

Organic Herbicide Formula By Weight For Farming

10%          Glacial Acetic Acid (liquid)               100 grams

5%            Citric Acid (powder)                         50 grams

83%          Water                                                 830 grams

2%            Wetting Agent (surfactant)            20 grams

100%       TOTAL PARTS BY WEIGHT        1,000 grams

This is a non-selective herbicide = kills everything.  Wetting agent is essential for herbicide to stick to leaves.  For best results, apply herbicide on a warm, sunny day when weed leaves are dry.  Herbicide works best on annual broadleaf weeds and grasses 6 inches or less in height.  This is a burn down herbicide; only surface vegetation is killed.  Herbicide will not kill perennial weeds with deep taproots or grasses with growing points below soil surface.  Herbicide is not translocated to roots or other plant parts.  Weeds die from water loss through their leaves.  Caution:  Glacial acetic acid (industrial strength vinegar) is strongly corrosive.  Protect skin and eyes from acid.  Wear gloves and goggles when mixing and spraying herbicide.  Rinse with pure water if necessary.

Organic Herbicide Formula By Volume For Gardening

This formula uses common vinegar (5% acetic acid) and bottled lemon juice (3% to 8% citric acid) that can be purchased from neighborhood grocery stores.

1,250 milliliters          Common White Vinegar          5 Cups

250 milliliters            Bottled Lemon Juice                 1 Cup

30 milliliters              Dish Washing Detergent          2 Tablespoons

1,530 milliliters        TOTAL VOLUME                     6 1/8 Cups

Above concentration will kill annual broadleaf weeds and grasses 6 inches or less in height.  For best results apply herbicide on a warm, sunny day when weed leaves are dry.

Organic No-Till Procedure

This technique works best with small grains, turnips, and other crops that can be broadcast rather than drilled.

(1)  Select ground with good weed or crop cover.  Weeds or nurse crop will be used as mulch to protect germinating cash crop.  (2)  Broadcast seed into standing weeds or cover crop.  (3)  Kill weeds or nurse crop with organic herbicide.  (4)  Mow weeds or nurse crop when dead.  (5)  If desired, top seed established crop plants with Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Crimson Clover (Trifolium pratense),  or other low growing legume.

Mulch-In-Place

>>>  It is impractical to mulch large fields by hand because the volumes required are too large.  The solution is to grow a mulch crop then kill it by mowing, crimping, or spraying with herbicide.  Seeds or transplants are then set through the surface mulch.

>>>  8,000 to 10,000 pounds of straw mulch per acre are needed to achieve 90% weed control.  A crop of rye grain (Secale cereale) 5 to 6 feet high normally yields 4 to 5 tons of biomass per acre.  Most mulch-in-place systems use grass crops because cereal straw decomposes slowly.  Broadleaf cover crops rot faster leaving holes in the mulch through which weeds grow.

>>>  Mowed fields are best transplanted by hand because no-till planters often get clogged by loose plant materials.  Sickle-bar mowers are better than rotary or flail mowers because they do not chop or scatter the mulch.  Good weed control requires a dense layer of long straw which blocks sunlight and acts as a physical barrier to weed emergence.

>>>  Rolling down a cover crop is faster than mowing.  Roller-crimpers are cheaper than mowers and cost less to operate.

>>>  Roller-crimped fields are ideal for no-till seeders and transplanters.  Always work “with the grain” = in the same direction as the cover crop or weeds are rolled.  Never work against or across the grain or surface mulch will clog planting machinery.

>>>  Mulch crops are best killed when in full flower or early seed set.  Earlier harvest reduces mulch yields and increases chances of regrowth.  (You do not want the cover crop competing with the cash crop).  Late harvest risks reseeding by the mulch crop.  (Seed carryover between seasons turns a good mulch crop into a bad weed problem).  For example:  The best time to kill cereal rye is when the seeds are in their milk or soft dough stage.  Harvest at this time guarantees maximum straw yield and zero regrowth.

>>>  It is good practice to top seed a low growing legume like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) immediately after seeding or transplanting cash crops.  Clover plants fill any holes in the mulch and increase biodiversity in the field.

>>>  To make your own roller-crimper, start with a steel cylinder 12 to 24 inches diameter, like a lawn roller.  The cylinder can be any convenient length; 8 to 10 feet long is the smallest roller recommended for efficient commercial farming.  Weld dull blades of 1/4 inch steel to the roller.  Each blade should be 4 to 5 inches high.  Space blades 7 to 8 inches apart.  Angle blades across the cylinder in a wide V-shape like a chevron; this prevents roller from bouncing around and greatly improves crimping effectiveness.  Mount roller on frame attaching to a 3-point hydraulic hitch on tractor front.  When finished, roller and frame should weigh 3,000 pounds; this weight is necessary to thoroughly crimp mulch plants so they do not regrow.  If desired, roller can be designed to hold water ballast so that weight can be increased for tough-stalked mulch crops like forage maize.  Detailed plans for roller-crimpers are available from the Rodale Institute = http://www.rodaleinstitute.org

Medieval No-Till

Plowing in the Middle Ages was hard, slow work.  Heavy wood plows were ponderous, inefficient, and difficult to turn.  A man with a team of 2 oxen took 3 whole days to plow and harrow a small 1-acre field just 22 yards wide x 220 yards long.  The alternative was even worse:  Digging by hand was back-breaking labor requiring at least 30 days to till 1 acre with spade or fork.  It did not take long for farmers to figure out easier ways to grow crops.  The Dutch were the first to apply the new agricultural technology which married free-range pig ranching with a clover-wheat-turnips rotation:

In spring, fence off plot of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) and turn in swine.  (Pigs like Dutch clover because it is sweet.  Do not put rings in hogs’ snouts or they will not be able to root).  Pigs “plow” soil like a rototiller, uprooting all vegetation.  Broadcast spring wheat onto pig-tilled earth then drive sheep back and forth across land.  Sheep stomp wheat seeds into ground.  When wheat starts heading out (or at least 2 weeks before harvest) broadcast turnip seed over standing grain.  After wheat is cut, fast-growing turnip leaves carpet field overwhelming competing plants.  About 2 weeks before turnip harvest broadcast clover seed over standing foliage.  When roots are lifted, young clover plants blanket field, blotting out most weeds.  Clover cover crop protects and fertilizes soil until following spring when rotation cycle is repeated.

On a typical farm in northern France or upstate New York, no-till clover-wheat-turnips reliably yields 40 bushels of wheat per acre (2,400 pounds per acre = 2,694 kilograms per hectare) without hybrid varieties, irrigation, tractors, diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers, synthetic herbicides, insecticides or fungicides.  (Note:  This rotation works equally well with Oats = Avena sativa, Barley = Hordeum vulgare, Rye = Secale cereale, or Millet = Panicum miliaceum).

Sow-And-Go

No-Till agronomy is not a new idea; no-till was practiced in the Middle Ages (and probably earlier).  Then, no-till was used mostly by small farmers who did not own draft animals — or — as an emergency measure practiced only when primary crops failed or when an army swept through the district (stealing all of the food and farm animals).  Medieval records indicate that no-till was a desperation technology often used by peasants to prevent starvation:

Foul weather prevailed through spring.  Fields could not be plowed so farmers sowed in the rain, scything weeds to hide the seed from birds and mice.  By Divine Grace a crop was made, only two thirds of normal harvest but sufficient to forestall general famine among the tenants.  Tithes were not collected this autumn and the Church distributed alms and acorns to the poor.  Annals of the Abbey of Saint Marien [Lake Constance, Germany] Anno Domini 1340

How To Do It:  Find the weediest field possible.  Broadleaf weeds are best and thistles best of all.  (Thistles indicate fertile soil).  Broadcast seed directly into standing weeds.  (Pelleted seed greatly increases seedling survival, especially for large-seeded crops like peas and beans).  Mow down weeds with a scythe (or use a lot of people with sickles or machetes).  Cut weeds act as mulch for germinating crop.  Pray for rain.  Come back at harvest time and hope for the best.  Yields are low but surprisingly economic (because there are no costs other than seeding and harvest).

Medieval No-Till Yields of Dry Peas:  Poor Crop:  4 to 5 bushels = 250 to 300 pounds per acre.  Average Crop:  6 to 8 bushels = 400 to 500 pounds per acre.  Good Crop:  10 to 13 bushels = 600 to 800 pounds per acre.

Medieval No-Till Yields of Spring Wheat:  Poor Crop:  4 to 6 bushels = 275 to 400 pounds per acre.  Average Crop:  7 to 10 bushels = 440 to 650 pounds per acre.  Good Crop:  11 to 17 bushels = 660 to 1,040 pounds per acre.

Sow-and-Go planting is ancient technology adapted for modern machinery.  In India it is called Zero Budget Natural Farming.  Australians use the term No-Kill Cropping.  Some call it Do Nothing Farming, Zero Petroleum Agriculture, or Minimum Effort Agronomy.  Less charitable souls use the term Subsistence Agriculture.  Regardless of label, the principle remains identical:  Sow seed (without tillage or any other investment) then forget about the crop until harvest time.  Small fields are hand planted, large areas seeded with no-till drills.  The trick is to sow when plants normally drop their seeds, usually during the dry or cold season when weeds are dead or dormant.  Native vegetation is left standing; this is necessary to prevent erosion, feed soil organisms, aid water infiltration, slow wind speed, provide shade, increase humidity, improve biodiversity, and trap snow.

Sow-and-Go agronomy is particularly suited where climate or soils are problematic, especially drought-prone, semi-arid regions like Australia and the western prairies of North America.  Old farms, hay fields, pastures, range lands, or any relatively flat area of grass or weeds is suitable for Sow-and-Go planting.  For best results, no-till planters should have razor sharp coulters to slice through surface vegetation, chisel tines or cultivator shoes to open a narrow slot for seeding, and double press wheels to ensure good seed to soil contact.  Minimal soil disturbance is essential for success.  Pelleted seeds are recommended for broadcast planting or land restoration.

In years with good rainfall, Sow-and-Go crops typically yield 60% to 70% of conventionally grown plants.  Translation:  Expect 40% yield losses compared to full-tillage or herbicide treated crops.  Higher yields are sometimes possible on particularly deep or fertile soils.  Drilled crops generally yield more than broadcast seeded crops, especially when seeds are large, weather is dry, or when planting naked seeds.

Sow-and-Go cereal culture is the wave of the future.  Farmers should set aside a few acres to test this new biological technology which can be used to grow any kind of small grain including pseudo-cereals like amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus), buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa).  If weedy fields are not available, seed mixed cover crops of annuals or perennials then plant into this artificial prairie.  Soil fertility and structure improve rapidly under continuous vegetation, especially if legumes and root crops are included in the mix.  Each year planting becomes easier and yield potential increases.  Results are often surprising and cannot be easily predicted because of complex interactions between many species in a new, “designer ecology”.  Careful observation, precise timing, and constant adjustment are needed to “tweak” the system to favor particular crops.  Real ecological management is required — the very opposite of robotic, spray-by-calendar conventional agriculture.  Sow-and-Go farmers are never bored; they are always making new discoveries in their fields.

Related Publications

Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Organic Herbicides; Pelleted Seed Primer; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Forage Radish Primer; and Rototiller Primer.

For More Information

Readers who have any questions or require additional information about growing crops in weeds should contact the Author directly:

Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or —  send an e-mail to Eric Koperek = worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

About The Author

Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida over winter.  (Growing 2 generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).

THE EDGE EFFECT

What Is It?     All chemical reactions take place on surfaces.  The more surface area, the more reactions take place.  The biological corollary to this natural law is called the edge effect:  Life increases proportionately to the boundary area between different environments.  More edges = more interaction between environments = more food and habitat = more varied species and larger populations.

For example, where cold ocean currents meet warm currents there is an explosion of life along the boundary layers between uniquely different ecologies.  Plankton and bait fish thrive.  Abundant food supplies support large populations of predatory fish which, in turn, attract apex predators like man.  Fishing boats congregate in the whorls formed by mixing currents.  More edges = more life.

Life Breeds Life:     Every time a new species is added to an environment it provides food and habitat for numerous other species.  As species diversity increases the local ecology becomes more complex, more stable, and more capable of supporting additional life.  In short, life breeds life.

Practical Farm Ecology:     Farming is a type of ecological management; each field, pasture, and hedgerow is a different environment with its own varied species and micro-climate.  Smart farmers manipulate agricultural ecologies to achieve specific ends such as pest suppression, erosion prevention, soil development, water conservation, pollution control, and climate moderation.

How To Do It:     The basic principle is simple — create as many edges as possible across the land.  Establish or encourage as many species as practical.  Follow the examples below and watch life flourish on your farm.

Pests Be Gone:     Many modern farmers plant fence row to fence row then tear out the fence rows to make even larger fields.  Wrong.  Huge fields = fewer edges = more pests.  A better strategy is to divide large fields into smaller units — or — plant dissimilar crops in long, narrow strips within each field.  Alternate tall crops with short crops, narrow-leaved crops with broadleaf crops, nitrogen-fixing crops with non-legumes.  Every field should have at least 2 unrelated species.  For example, plant narrow 4-row strips of corn and soybeans rather than vast monocultures.  Result:  Pest populations drop 50% and corn yields rise 15% (because leaves get more sunlight).

Medieval Ecology:     Back when knights went clanking around in armor, farmers grew crops in long narrow fields (because it was difficult to turn heavy wood plows).  A typical 1-acre field measured 22 yards wide and 220 yards long.  Adjacent fields were planted with different crops, forage plants, or fallow.  This strip cropping system created many edges = large populations of beneficial insects.  Medieval records rarely mention plant pests because the good bugs ate the bad bugs.  No synthetic chemicals necessary.

Head Rows:     Tractors and horse teams need lots of space to turn around; turning areas at field ends are called head rows.  On most farms head rows are left in sod or, even worse, bare earth.  Head rows are one of many unique farm environments and should be managed accordingly.  There are far better and more profitable alternatives to common grass or naked ground:

(1)  Expand head rows to enclose each field.  This enables farm equipment to circle around crop margins, increasing mechanical efficiency and creating more edges.  Result:  Instead of having two isolated head rows, you now have two fields, one larger field inside a smaller border field.

(2)  Plant the surrounding buffer field with quick-growing cash crops like buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), bee plants like lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), or seed with mixed forages and clovers, wild flowers, or specialty seed crops like anise (Pimpinella anisum), dill (Anethum graveolens), caraway (Carum carvi), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).  The best buffer crops have small flowers to provide pollen and nectar for beneficial insects.  (Big flowers won’t work because the good bugs have small mouth parts).

(3)  If money is tight, plant weeds around field borders.  Grain elevator screenings are free or cheap and contain many weed seeds.  Mixed weeds provide good food and habitat for predatory and parasitic insects.  For example, the braconid wasp Macrocentrus ancylivorus is a major predator of Oriental Fruit Moths (Grapholita molesta) and Peach Twig Borers (Anarsia lineatella).  Planting weeds and wildflowers around peach orchards not only provides pollen and nectar but also necessary alternate hosts such as Ragweed Borer (Epiblema strenuana) and Sunflower Moth (Homoeosoma electellum).  Result:  When the bad bugs arrive, the good bugs are already waiting to eat them.

Hedge Rows:     Windbreaks, greenbelts, shelter belts, and hedgerows all mean the same thing:  Long, thin lines of vegetation planted to slow wind speed, raise humidity, trap snow, reduce soil erosion, and increase soil water absorption.  Good windbreaks greatly multiply biological diversity and provide food and habitat for many species of beneficial birds and insects.  For best results, plant hedgerows along field contours or perpendicular (at right angle) to prevailing winds or water flow.  Greenbelts do not have to be wide in order to be effective; hedges 4 to 8 feet broad or strips of tall-growing perennial grass 1 to 3 feet wide are sufficient for most purposes and will save valuable land for cash crops.  Space windbreaks no closer than 50 feet and no farther than 50 yards apart.  Closer spacing reduces farming efficiency while wider spacing will not control wind speed effectively.  Make shelter belts long to prevent wind from sweeping around the ends.  Minimum length is 10 times the tallest mature tree height in the greenbelt.  Ideal hedgerows contain a variety of plants selected for their economic or environmental value.  Try to plant 40 or more different species per acre or linear mile of windbreak.

Ecology Math:     Creating edge effects requires uncommon thinking, a different way of looking at land.  Most farmers are used to broad square fields.  Edge effect agriculture requires linear thinking:  Thin strips and long, narrow rectangular spaces.  For example, consider a 49-acre farm woodlot, 7 x 7 acres square or approximately 1,456 feet per side x 4 sides = 5,824 linear feet of forest edge.  Take the same woodlot and stretch it into a narrow rectangle 1 acre wide and 49 acres long = (208 feet wide x 2 short sides) + (10,192 feet long x 2 long sides) = 416 + 20,384 = 20,800 linear feet of forest edge.  The border of the narrow woodlot (3.93 miles) is more than 3 1/2 times longer than the border (1.1030 miles) of the square woodlot.  More edges = more life.  Wrap the narrow woodlot around the northwest corner of your farm (or divide the trees into long strips planted at right angle to prevailing winds).  More trees = higher humidity = less water stress = higher crop yields.

Mixed Company:     Each crop has its own architecture, its own micro-climate, and its own assortment of insects and critters that live on its leaves, stems, flowers, and roots.  In short, every species creates its own micro-ecology.  Combine numerous species together and each individual plant becomes an edge where many life forms interact for the benefit of all.  Mixed species have more resistance to pests and more resilience to bad weather.

Ecology By Design:     Mixing crop species is not a new idea; farmers sowed rye and wheat together in the Middle Ages.  The mixed grain crop was called maslin and provided farmers with insurance against catastrophic loss.  If disease or bad weather killed the wheat, stronger rye would survive to make a crop.   Back in colonial times, Thomas Jefferson seeded mixed cover crops of buckwheat, vetch, and turnips to restore fertility to “tired fields”.  Today, mixed cover crops are an essential part of modern agronomy.

Strength In Numbers:     Ideal cover crop mixes contain cool and warm weather species, nitrogen fixing legumes, hardy grasses, broad leaf plants, and root crops.  The idea is to mimic nature by creating an artificial jungle, a jumble of varieties adapted to a wide range of pests, diseases, and growing conditions.  Plant mixtures grow with more vigor and yield than individual species grown in monoculture.  This is an edge effect called synergy, a natural phenomenon where the total is more than the sum of each individual part.

Cover Crop Cocktail:     To make your own cover crop mix, combine 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season legumes + 2 cool season broad leaf plants + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season legumes + 2 warm season broad leaf plants + 2 root crops (tillage radish, turnip, or forage beet).  Drill or broadcast at least 20 pounds seed per acre.

Life Underfoot:     Most farmers think in 2 dimensions (length and width).  Rarely considered is the third dimension, depth.  The soil depths abound with life, and this ecology responds explosively to edge effect management.  Roots need oxygen in order to absorb water and nutrients.  (This is why plants wilt in flooded fields).  Most agricultural soils are oxygen deficient.  Gooey clays, plow pans = compacted layers, and tight subsoils starve soil organisms of essential air.  Impermeable soils also restrict moisture; needed water runs off the land instead of soaking into the earth.  Moisture and oxygen stress greatly reduce crop yields.

Vertical Tillage:     The conventional solution to compacted soils is deep tillage = subsoiling.  Unfortunately, this procedure requires expensive plows and enormous amounts of horse power = BIG tractors or bulldozers.  The effects are also temporary and must be repeated every few years.  A better solution is vertical tillage = verti-tillage = slicing thin crevices into the soil with minimum disturbance to surface vegetation.  Each slit is 3/4 inch wide, 12 to 16 inches deep, and 2 feet apart.  Verti-till fields along the contour for the first 4 or 5 years until soils develop their full potential.  Thereafter, till every few years as needed.  Each slit is like a high-capacity artery supplying water and air directly to the subsoil.  Plant roots flourish along crevice edges.  More roots = higher yields.

Vertical Mulching:     In areas with poor soils, torrential rains, steep slopes or frequent droughts, use vertical mulching to bring problem fields into high production.  Vertical mulching = drilling deep holes or digging deep trenches along the contour or perpendicular (at right angle) to water flow across the land.  Fill the holes or trenches with manure, compost, stable bedding, wood chips, tree bark, coarse peat moss, straw, leaf mold, spoiled hay or similar organic matter.  The holes and trenches conduct air and water deep into the soil so plant roots thrive.  100% to 800% yield increases are frequent, especially in arid lands or difficult soils like heavy clays or stony ground.

Soil Engineering:     For best results use mechanical trenchers and rotary post hole diggers to prepare land for vertical mulching.  Excavations should be as deep as practical, 3 to 8 feet is ideal.  Best holes are 8 to 16 inches in diameter; trenches should be 4 to 12 inches wide.  Space holes and trenches as convenient (as close as 40 inches = 3.3 feet, or as wide as 13.3 to 26.6 feet = 4 to 8 rows 40-inches apart.  Even trenches spaced 50 feet = 15 rows 40-inches apart can dramatically improve yields).  Exact spacing is not essential as more holes and trenches can be dug next season or periodically as time and resources permit.  (Vertical mulching is a LONG TERM soil management technology).

For transplanted crops like tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and melons, space trenches or holes accordingly then fill with compost, potting soil or similar media (1 sand : 1 topsoil : 1 peat is a good mix).  Plant roots quickly grow deep into the subsoil and resulting crops are nearly drought-proof.

If organic matter is scarce or expensive, fill holes or trenches with river sand, river pebbles, or river cobblestones.  (This technique works especially well when trenches are placed directly under permanent tractor paths to prevent soil compaction).  Tree prunings, grain straw, spoiled hay, and green chop or silage make adequate substitutes for compost when treating large fields.  (Any medium will work as long as it has many large holes that allow unrestricted entry of air and water.  In extremis, leave holes and trenches empty; they will eventually fill themselves with eroded soil and plant litter).  Each hole or trench is a high-volume conduit channeling air and water deep into the soil.  Every excavation is another edge between different ecologies and life will proliferate along these boundaries.  More air = more roots = more absorption = higher yields.

Tillage Crops:     In the 1500’s farmers without draft animals used deep rooted crops to “plow” their fields.  They did not have much choice because the alternative was digging fields by hand — a lengthy and laborious task which severely limited the amount of land that could grow food.  It was much easier to sow stock beet = mangle-wurzel (Beta vulgaris) or forage radish (Raphaus sativus variety longipinnatus) and let the plants break up the earth.  Modern farmers call these specialized plants tillage crops or bio-drills because of their ability to penetrate subsoils to depths of 6 feet = 2 meters or more.

The advantage of tillage crops is that they leave tens of thousands of holes (vertical edges) across a field and each hole is a pipeline carrying water and air direct to waiting roots.  Soil life proliferates around these breathing tubes resulting in better plant growth.  For example, average yields increase 15% when upland rice follows a forage radish tillage crop.  As an added benefit, soil erosion is nearly zero because rainwater soaks into the sponge-like earth rather than running off the land.

Agroforestry:     Sunlight is very intense — it contains much more energy than any one crop can absorb.  Thus, it is possible to stack multiple crops on top of each other so that more energy is collected and higher yields obtained.  For example:  Pole Apples grow mostly straight up with very little horizontal spread.  Rows of pole apples planted in a hay field yield 2 crops (fruit and forage) with very little competition between plants.  Edge effects increase dramatically because vertical space is used more efficiently; taller growing fruit trees and ground hugging forage plants are different micro-ecologies.  There are many possible combinations of tree crops and field crops:  Mulberry trees in pasture and English walnut trees in wheat fields are just two examples.  Walk about your farm and look for ways to use vertical spaces = create more edges to increase biodiversity and farm profits.

Water Is Life:     Most crops are water stressed at some point in their growth, usually at critical times like germination, flowering, or fruit development.  The solution to inadequate soil moisture is water management, either active (irrigation) or passive (water conservation).  To ensure ample water supply, every farm should have a watershed management plan; the goal is to trap every drop of water that falls on the land.

The best way to develop a watershed management plan is to don your poncho and walk about the farm while it is raining.  The harder it rains the more you will learn.  Watch where the water comes from and where it goes.  Any place water flows across the land is an EDGE that requires management.

For example, water running down a gully to a stream is wasted moisture = reduced plant growth = lost profits.  Solution:  Top seed low growing clovers to halt water before it runs off your corn field; then build weirs to stop any water that reaches the gully.  (Each row of corn in clover is an edge between different species; every gully and weir is an edge defining separate micro-environments).  Plant useful trees and shrubs behind each weir to take advantage of trapped rainfall.  Stand at the bottom of the gully and watch the results.  If any water escapes then more aggressive management = more edges are needed.

Remember:  The goal of every watershed management plan is zero runoff.  More edges = more trapped water = more life.

Hungry Mouths:     Agriculture is a dirty business that generates substantial pollution.  Smart farmers use edge effects to clean up the mess.  The principle is simple:  For every pollutant there are a host of organisms waiting to eat it.  The trick is to bring food and hungry mouths together; this is best accomplished by creating ecological edges where life thrives.  More edges = more life = more pollutants eaten.

For example, stockyard effluent needs cleaning:  Run dirty water through a sedimentation pond (8 feet deep), aeration lagoon (3 feet deep), filtration marsh (6 inches deep), then into a fish pond or irrigation reservoir.  Result:  Potable water without a costly waste water treatment plant.  4 separate environments each with many edges and different ecologies filled with hungry life forms.  What does not get eaten is absorbed.  Plants, fish and plankton flourish.  Germs and parasites die.

Problem:  The stream running through your property is polluted by an upstream hog farm.  Solution:  Build artificial rapids.  Erect a series of weirs the entire length of the stream.  Each weir is an edge supporting a unique ecology of organisms that thrive in high-oxygen water.  Excess nutrients and harmful microbes are consumed.  1 mile of rapids has the cleansing power of a modern sewage treatment plant.

Mother Nature is quite capable of clearing up the worst pollution; all she needs are places to work.  Provide edges and biology will supply the magic.  More edges = more cleaning power.

Heat On Demand:     Problem:  The fruit industry is 300 miles south of your farm, but you want to grow grapes and peaches.  Solution:  Use edge effects to create favorable micro-climates for trees and vines.  Walk about your farm and wherever there is sufficient catchment area build a pond.  Each pond does not have to be large, but the cumulative effects will be significant.  Water holds lots of heat and each pond acts like a radiator to warm its local environment.  Plant fruit crops on the southeast side of ponds and lakes where temperatures are most favorable.  Every pond is an edge, a boundary between separate ecologies each with its own micro-climate.  Mulch trees and vines with heat-retaining rocks = more edges.  Combining water and rocks can raise canopy temperatures by 5 degrees or more.  A few degrees are all that is needed to protect blossoms from frost.

Linear Agriculture:     Edge effect farming is all about surfaces = boundaries between different ecologies.  Creating more edges fosters more life which in turn enables the environment to support more life.  As life abounds the local ecology grows stronger and more stable.  Crops become more resistant to insects and more resilient to adverse weather.  Result:  Farmers make more money.

Would You Like To Know More?     Please contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information about edge effect agriculture.

Eric Koperek = worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

About The Author:     Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during the summer and Florida during the winter.  (Growing two generations each year greatly speeds development of new crop varieties).

COPPICING PRIMER

What Is It?     Dating before Roman times, coppicing is an ancient forest management technique used to produce small diameter firewood, poles, and wattle.  Trees (usually 7 years or older) are cut down and the stump or root sprouts allowed to grow.  The sprouts are then harvested every 5 to 7 years when they reach 2 to 3 inches = 5 to 8 centimeters in diameter.

Coppice wood makes ideal fuel for brewers’ kettles, bakers’ ovens, and distillers’ retorts.  The small diameter sticks burn very hot and clean.  Coppice wood is also the perfect size for traditional charcoal making.  Before the discovery and use of coal, coppice wood was the primary fuel for European homes and industries.

Wood Yields:     Coppicing is biologically efficient because harvest cycles are short; coppiced trees produce vast amounts of fuelwood from small woodlots.  In comparison, conventionally managed forests (where trees are harvested at maturity) produce only a tiny fraction (1/20th to 1/13th = 5% to 8%) of the firewood produced by coppicing.

How To Do It:     Forests or woodlots managed by coppicing are typically divided into 7 sections called coups = coupes.  Each coup is harvested sequentially so the entire forest is renewed on a 7 year cycle.  Coppicing encourages biological diversity because each block of forest is a different age and so provides a wide range of food and habitat for wildlife.  Individual trees managed by coppicing can live 1,000 years or more because they are continually renewed by cyclical cutting and regrowth.

In coppiced forests, it is customary to leave 6 to 7 trees per acre (14 to 17 trees per hectare) grow to maturity so they can be harvested for beams, posts, and lumber.  These trees selected for timber are called standards.  In well managed forests, 1 or 2 dead trees called ghosts are also left standing per acre (2 to 5 trees per hectare) to provide food and habitat for woodpeckers and other insect predators.  The mixture of young, old, and dead trees provides biological diversity which helps maintain a stable, productive ecosystem.

Ideal Species:     Any broadleaved tree can be managed by coppicing, but the best species to use are those that grow quickly and sprout vigorously.  Hazel Nut = Corylus species, Alder = Alnus species, Chestnut = Castanea species, Willow = Salix species, Maple = Acer species, Popular = Populus species, Beech = Fagus species, Birch = Betula species, Ash = Fraxinus species, Crabapple = Pyrus species, Hornbeam = Carpinus species, and Eucalyptus = Eucalyptus species are the most common coppice trees, but many other species are equally well suited.  Even relatively slow growing trees like Oak = Quercus species can be coppiced on long rotations for production of large diameter poles and posts.  For best results plant a wide variety of trees to increase biological diversity and ecological stability.

Green Forestry:  Scientific and commercial interest in coppicing has increased recently because coppice wood is an environmentally friendly, renewable fuel source that can be quickly produced with the minimum amount of unskilled labor and simple, inexpensive tools.  Many artisan = handcrafted breads, spirits, and wild crafted essential oils are distilled using inexpensive firewood produced by coppicing.

Would You Like To Know More?     Please contact the author directly if you have any questions or need additional information about farm woodlot management.

Eric Koperek = worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

About The Author:  Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during the summer and Florida during the winter.  (Growing 2 generations each year greatly speeds development of new plant varieties).