WORM FARMING

“The best farmers are gardeners.”

What Is It?     Worm farming is an ancient gardening technology dating back to the Middle Ages.  The earliest written records appear 8 centuries ago.  Back then wealthy farmers fertilized their fields with animal manure.  Poor folks used mulches and earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) to keep their gardens productive.  Today we call this Continuous Mulching = Year-Round Mulching = Sheet Composting.

What Do I Need?     Only simple hand tools are required:  Lawn rake, mulch fork, garden cart, 8-quart pail, flash light or lantern, and a scythe or machete to cut grass and weeds.  For large gardens or truck farms a lawnmower or forage chopper are helpful.

How To Do It:     Keep soil covered with at least 8 inches of mulch year-round = 365 days annually.  Do not leave soil bare, not even for a single day.  Pull aside mulch just enough to sow seeds or set transplants.  When plants are established pull mulch close around their stems.  Apply mulch periodically to maintain 8 to 12-inch depth.  (Mulch settles to half its original depth in a few weeks).

“Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops.”

Pile It On!     Weeds, tree leaves, spoiled hay, straw, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, garden wastes, stable bedding, wood chips, saw dust, bark or other natural plant materials all make good mulch.  Fresh vegetation is ideal as green leaves rot quickly and contain the most nutrients.  If possible, use a variety of mulches to provide plants and earthworms with a balanced diet.

Fertilizer Not Required!     Soil amendments are rarely needed if garden is covered with a mixture of plant materials.  (Each type of mulch contains an assortment of nutrients).  Sprinkle lime, wood ash, rock dust, or other plant food over mulch as desired.  Water fertilizer into mulch or wait for rain.  Cover manure with mulch to eliminate odor and keep flies away.

“Weeds are the shepherds of the garden.”

Weed Management:     If any weeds poke through the mulch, thin them until they stand 3 to 4 feet apart.  Widely spaced weeds help crops grow better.  Weeds provide food, shelter and alternate hosts for beneficial insects.  The good bugs eat the bad bugs.  Weedy gardens rarely have pest problems.  (If you do not have any weeds plant flowers among your vegetables).

“Sow worms and seeds for bumper crops.”

Seeding Earthworms:     The night before planting take your pail and lantern to a nearby pasture, meadow or corn field.  Place 1 gallon of leaf mold, compost or damp peat moss in the bucket to keep earthworms moist.  Common earthworms come out of their burrows to feed at night so they are easy to catch.  When you have gathered sufficient worms (4 per square foot of garden), cover pail with a wet towel then place in deep shade until ready to sow.  Drop 2 to 4 earthworms in each planting hole or linear foot of furrow.  Cover gently with damp soil.

Population Ecology:     Earthworms do not travel fast; a colony spreads only 3 feet yearly.  Seeding your garden with earthworms jump-starts the colonization process.  Earthworms reproduce slowly; the average worm takes 2 to 3 years to reach sexual maturity.  Thus, the more worms you start with, the faster the population reaches critical mass = enough worms to substantially increase crop yields.  In most soils the tipping point is somewhere between 1 and 2 tons = 1 to 2 million earthworms per acre = 23 to 46 worms per cubic foot of topsoil.  (Under ideal conditions worm populations can soar to 8 tons per acre).

Critical mass is reached when crops no longer need external fertilizers (organic or synthetic).  At this point, populations of soil micro-organisms explode and nutrient cycling is so rapid that crops show no yield response to plant food.  This process requires time, typically 12 to 15 years = 4 to 5 generations of earthworms before fields can sustain commercial yields without added nutrients.

All this requires massive amounts of mulch applied 8 to 12 inches thick (which effectively limits this technology to small areas).  Earthworms eat organic matter.  More mulch = more worms = more plant growth = higher yields.  Earthworms need protein in their diets.  For example, populations double when worms eat clover rather than hay.  If practical, include nitrogen fixing legumes (clover, peas, beans and lentils) in garden mulches, or supplement with animal manure, weed seed meal, or fresh, green leaves.

“Good farmers grow fungi.  The fungi grow the crops.”

Soil Science:     Healthy farm or garden soils contain at least 8,000 pounds of “critters” per acre, about the weight of 8 dairy cows.  All these hungry mouths eat organic matter.  Covering the ground with mulch provides abundant food for the underground “herd”, especially earthworms and fungi.

Earthworms are a keystone species.  You can measure soil health simply by counting worms.  Many worms = strong soil.  Few worms = sick soil.  No worms = dead dirt.  Well managed organic soils contain 1 million worms per acre or approximately 23 earthworms per cubic foot of topsoil.  Earthworms aerate the ground and produce enough castings (manure) to grow commercial crops of anything you want to plant.

Beneficial fungi comprise about 70% of all soil life.  Microscopic, thread-like hyphae connect all plants into a field-wide web, an underground “Internet” of roots and fungi that share water and nutrients.  Plowing or cultivation destroys the fungal network, slowing plant growth and reducing yields.  Mulching protects helpful fungi by keeping soil cool and moist.  Constant moisture and moderate temperatures favor optimal fungal growth.

“Would you go to war with half an army?  Most conventional farmers waste half their soil.”

The top 2 inches of soil contain the most oxygen and organic matter.  This is the powerhouse of the soil ecology.  Over half of all soil critters live in this thin, upper layer.  Anything that disturbs this “topsoil” greatly reduces plant growth and yields.  For example:  Cultivation rips up the earth = the soil becomes too hot and too dry = plant roots cannot live in this hostile environment = the farmer wastes his best dirt.

“Cultivation is the same as scraping off the top 2 inches of soil.  Dumb idea.”

A continuous mulch is like an insulating blanket that moderates the underground environment.  Earth does not freeze in winter or bake in summer.  Pores stay open so air and water penetrate deep into the subsoil.  Wind and water erosion are eliminated.  Weed competition is controlled.  The entire soil profile is accessible to plant roots.  All these factors promote life and speed nutrient cycling.  Soil critters thrive and plants grow better.

Ramp It Up!     Worm farming is best suited to small areas (because mulch is gathered by hand).  For large areas grow mulch crops like Forage Maize (Zea mays) or Sorghum Grass (Sorghum sudanense) then harvest with a forage chopper.  Cart mulch to where it is needed then spread by hand or use a mechanical mulch spreader.  Purchase earthworms or earthworm egg capsules from a commercial worm farm.  Seed not less than 6 worms every 30 feet = about 300 worms per acre.  At this distance it will take 10 years to colonize 1 acre (209 x 209 feet, approximately).  To colonize an acre in 1 year, drop 6 worms every 3 feet (about 30,000 worms per acre).  Cover worms with damp soil and mulch to protect them from predators.

“Who needs Monsanto?  Grow mulch crops and never buy herbicides again.”

Mulch-In-Place:     Mulching large fields by hand is not practical; the cost of labor and materials is too high.  The solution is to grow a mulch crop right where it is needed.  This is called Mulch-In-Place.  Sow Winter Rye = Grain Rye = Cereal Rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels = 168 pounds per acre.  Kill mulch crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower when plants grow 6 feet tall or when seeds reach the “soft dough” stage.  Immediately (the same day) seed or transplant through the mulch using no till equipment.  Mix earthworm egg capsules (175,000 per acre = 4 per square foot) with cornmeal or similar carrier then side-band down the row or deposit directly in furrows.

If desired, you can seed 8 to 12 pounds per acre of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) along with your cash crop.  Clover fills any holes in the mulch and provides high-protein earthworm food.

6-foot rye yields 5 tons = 10,000 pounds of long-straw mulch per acre, sufficient to provide 90% to 95% weed control for 6 to 8 weeks.  This gives your crop enough time to close rows.  Once the crop canopy closes, weeds are shaded and no cultivation or spraying is necessary.

Agronomy Note:     Mulch-In-Place works with most any cover crop that grows at least 6 feet high and yields 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of biomass (leaves and stems) per acre.  The best mulch crops are grasses like Forage Maize (Zea mays) and Sudan Grass (Sorghum sudanense) because they take longer to rot than broad leaved plants.

“The best soil test is a spade full of dirt.  If the soil teems with life you will get a good crop.”

Sometimes old ways are the best.  800 years ago, worm farming was a great idea.  Today, this technology is an integral part of the New Green Revolution.  Try this on your own land:  Compare side-by-side plots, mulched versus clean cultivated gardens.  You will be amazed at the difference.  Year-round mulching really is the easiest way to farm or garden small areas.

Related Publications:     Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; and The Edge Effect.

Would You Like To Know More?    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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TRASH FARMING

“You got it plum backwards:  You’re supposed to KILL the weeds and GROW the crops”.  Contrarian that I am, I plant weeds and let the crops fend for themselves.

My neighbors call it weed farming or trash farming.  (Less charitable folks say I’m lazy or just plain mental).  I call what I do common sense agronomy.  Planting in weeds saves lots of money.  You should try it.

Most farmers think weeds are enemies that should be exterminated by any means possible.  I take a more balanced view:  Weeds are valuable agricultural resources if properly managed = you have to get off your tractor long enough to think of weeds as an ally.  My spray-by-the-calendar neighbors don’t agree with me but my weedy fields are highly profitable. Their farms are up for auction.

A weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted.  The key to intelligent agriculture is to grow weeds where they are needed.  Here are some ways that weeds can help fill your bank account:

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD ORGANIC FERTILIZER.     I ran a lawnmower across a typical meadow (8 grasses + 23 broad leaf weeds = 31 species) and sent the clippings off for analysis:  1.00% Nitrogen : 0.27% Phosphorous : 1.10% Potassium by weight = 20 pounds Nitrogen + 5.4 pounds Phosphorous + 22 pounds Potassium per ton.

Compare this with cow manure from my neighbor’s dairy:  0.5% Nitrogen : 0.15% Phosphorous : 0.40% Potassium by weight = 10 pounds Nitrogen + 3 pounds Phosphorous + 8 pounds Potassium per ton.

Fresh green weeds contain approximately double the nutrients of dairy cow manure.  A dense field of weeds 3 feet high yields about 2.5 tons of green manure (stems and leaves) ~ 50 pounds Nitrogen + 13.5 pounds Phosphorous + 55 pounds Potassium per acre.  Green weeds rot fast so most of these nutrients are quickly available to crop plants.

How to Green Manure a Field:     First, cut weeds with a flail, rotary, or sickle bar mower, or use a forage chopper.  Next, use a rear-mounted rototiller, moldboard or disk plow to till the chopped foliage into the soil.  RULE:  Always mow before plowing!  Chopped plants rot faster so crop roots absorb nutrients sooner.  Last, seed or plant field immediately = the same day.  Never leave the soil bare, not even for a single day.  Naked soil is wasted dirt.  Keep the ground covered with growing plants at all times.

Chop-And-Drop:     How do you “green manure” a no-till field?  Answer:  Mow the cover crop as close to the soil surface as possible and leave the chopped vegetation where it falls.  Use a rotary mower, flail mower, forage chopper, or common lawnmower if you want the cover crop to decompose quickly (to feed a following crop or clear a field for planting).  Use a sickle bar mower or roller-crimper for Mulch-In-Place planting.  Timing is important:  To kill a cover crop mow when plants start flowering or begin setting seeds.  Late planted annual cover crops can be left standing until killed by frost; standing vegetation traps snow over winter.  Fall oats are a good crop for this purpose.  Winter killed oats protect soil but do not obstruct spring planting with conventional equipment.

To green manure a field without machinery, use animals to stomp the cover crop.  Erect temporary fencing and “Mob Graze” the field.  Animals should be “well crowded” together.  Ideal stocking density = 680 to 1,210 Animal Units per acre.  (1 Animal Unit = 1,000 pounds live weight).  For example:  680 beef cattle per acre = 1 cow for every 8 x 8 feet = 64 square feet per animal.  1,210 beef cattle per acre = 1 cow for every 6 x 6 feet = 36 square feet per animal.  Keep animals confined until they eat the top 1/3 of the foliage then move herd to fresh pasture.  Plant stomped cover crop the same day with no=till equipment.  Alternatively, broadcast grain into standing cover crop then immediately mob graze field.  This is an old Roman agronomic practice called stomp seeding.

–>     WEEDS ARE HIGH QUALITY MULCH.     Fight fire with fire.  Use weeds to smother weeds.  An 8-inch blanket of cut weed mulch provides 95% or better weed control for 6 to 8 weeks during the growing season.  That is all the time you need to get your crop up and growing.  Once your plants are well established any weeds that poke above the crop canopy won’t matter.  The crop itself suppresses most weeds.  Peek under the leaves and you will see little weeds lurking in the shade.  These tiny plants lost the competition for sunlight.  As long as your crop continues to grow, your fields will remain mostly weed free.

Mulch-In-Place:     Find the weediest field possible.  Dense, luxuriant, rank growth 6 feet high is best = about 4 tons of biomass (stems and leaves) per acre.  Cut weeds with a sickle bar mower or flatten with a roller-crimper.  Seed or transplant directly through the mulch with no-till equipment, or sow by hand.  If desired, you can immediately top seed field with a low growing nitrogen fixing legume like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum), or Sub Clover (Trifolium subterraneum).  The tiny clover seeds fill any holes in the mulch and provide useful biodiversity.  (If you don’t have a weedy field, sow Winter Rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels per acre then mow or roll when 6 feet high or when seeds reach the soft dough stage.  Cereal rye grows fast like a weed and yields 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of long straw mulch per acre.  Alternatively, seed a high biomass crop like Sudan Grass = Sorghum sudanense or Forage Maize = Zea mays).

Lawnmower Farming:     You can run a 25 acre ~ 10 hectare commercial vegetable farm with nothing other than a common lawnmower.  (For larger areas use a riding lawnmower = lawn tractor).  Find the weediest field possible.  Mow a strip where you want to plant your crop.  Roll irrigation tape down the row.  (The idea is to water the crop rather than the entire field).  Set your transplants then mulch heavily with cut weeds.  Apply a circle or collar of green mulch 1 foot = 12 inches thick around each plant.  This is a form of sheet composting = the weeds rot and release nutrients to feed your crop.  (It’s ok to use synthetic fertilizers but these are expensive.  A 40 pound bag of 10-10-10 = 10% Nitrogen + 10% Phosphorous + 10% Potassium costs $17.12 at my local farm store.  Why spend 43 cents per pound for chemical fertilizer when weeds cost nothing)?

Weed mulches protect and feed earthworms = Lumbricus terrestris.  Earthworm casts = manure fertilize the soil.  Weed fields fallowed = untilled for 7 years typically have 1 ton = 1 million earthworms per acre ~ 23 earthworms per cubic foot of topsoil.  1 million earthworms per acre produce 2,000 pounds = 1 ton of worm casts each DAY during the growing season.  That is an enormous amount of free organic fertilizer ~ 150 to 180 TONS per acre of worm manure in a typical 5 to 6 month growing season ~ 6 to 8 pounds of worm casts per square foot (distributed from the surface through the entire soil column about 6 feet deep).

Earthworms also biologically till the soil so air and water penetrate deep into the subsoil.  Plant roots follow worm borrows 5 to 6 feet underground where the soil stays moist = crops are nearly drought proof.  (My weed fields average 902 MILES of vertical earthworm burrows per acre).  A hundred-year rainstorm (2-inches per hour) falling on a fallow weed field has almost no runoff = zero soil erosion.  Rain sinks into the land like water through a colander.  Underground water keeps my crops growing while my neighbors’ fields wilt.

Earthworm populations are directly proportional to the amount of available food = organic matter.  Apply more mulch and more worms will come.  Space rows widely so you have sufficient weeds to cut for mulch.  (On very large farms use a forage chopper to deposit chopped weeds into convenient windrows.  Set transplants down the windrows).  RULE:  Cut weeds only to clear rows for planting or to harvest for mulch.  Leave remaining weeds standing to maintain wide environmental diversity.

If you don’t have any weedy fields, plant mixed species cover crops.  The goal is to imitate the broad ecological diversity of a naturally weedy field.  Include 50% legume seed in the mix because earthworms need protein in their diet.  Earthworm populations double on fields of clover versus fields of grass.  More legumes = more earthworms = more free fertilizer = more money in your bank account.

If you can’t afford cover crop seed go to the nearest grain elevator and ask for elevator screenings.  These are usually free or cheap and contain many weed seeds.  Haul as many tons as practical; you will need every pound of weed seed obtainable.  Sow weeds generously = with wild abandon.  Your neighbors will think you daft, but it really does pay to plant weeds (especially on poor, eroded, or barren fields).  Run the remaining elevator screenings through a roller mill to make weed seed meal.  Weed meal is high quality organic fertilizer; use it just like cottonseed meal or other expensive soil amendment.  Apply weed seed meal liberally because it won’t burn plant roots.

Once weed fields are planted they require little or no attention = the crops grow themselves.  Mulch protects young transplants for the first 3 to 6 weeks until they put down roots.  Once crops are well established they will outgrow or overwhelm most weeds.  This is especially true for vigorous plants like tomatoes, peppers, and vine crops:  Pumpkins, squash, gourds, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and melons.  Vine crops tolerate light shade and easily climb over weeds 5 to 6 feet tall.  I always get my best melons from the weediest fields.  On rare occasions weeds may grow too densely around a pepper or tomato plant.  Thin offending weeds with pruning shears.

Weed Seed Meal:     Seeds of most plants make good fertilizer.  The trick is to mill = grind seeds into a coarse meal or flour so they do not sprout.  If weed seeds are not available, substitute any type of waste or spoiled grain, for example, wet or dry brewer’s grains.  There is no standard analysis for weed seed meal; nutrient content varies depending on species and proportion which change by locality and season.  It is good practice to test weed seed samples yearly so fertilizer application rates can be adjusted as needed.  Below are some average nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) values for rough calculations.  Note:  lb = pound.  1 pound = 0.454 kilogram.  1 American ton = 2,000 pounds = 908 kilograms = 0.908 metric ton.  1 metric ton = 1 megagram = 1,000 kilograms = 1,000,000 grams = 2,200 pounds = 1.1 American tons.

Wheat, Broken (Kansas 2011):     2.00% N : 0.85% P : 0.50% K = 40 lb N + 17 lb P + 10 lb K per ton

Weed Seed Meal (Saskatchewan 2015):     3.02% N : 0.56% P : 0.77% K = 60 lb N + 11 lb P + 15 lb K per ton

Weed Seed Meal (Hungary 2013):  2.7% N : 0.90% P : 0.90% K = 54 lb N + 18 lb P + 18 lb K per ton

Rice, White Broken (California 2016):  1.00% N : 0.21% P : 0.27% K = 20 lb N + 4 lb P + 0 lb K per ton

Rice Hulls = Husks (Philippines 2014):  1.9% N : 0.48% P : 0.81% K = 38 lb N + 9 lb P + 18 lb K per ton

Rice, Brown (California 2016):  1% N : 0.48% P : 0.32% K = 20 lb N + 9 lb P + 6 lb K per ton

Rice Bran (India 2015):  4.00% N : 3.00% P : 1.00% K = 80 lb N + 60 lb P + 20 lb K per ton

Oats, Broken (New York 2010):  2.00% N : 0.80% P : 0.60% K = 40 lb N + 16 lb P + 12 lb K per ton

Flaxseed = Linseed Meal (Manitoba 2008):  5.66% N : 0.87% P : 1.24% K = 113 lb N + 17 lb P + 24 lb K per ton

Dent Corn, Spoiled (Maryland 2014):     1.65% N : 0.65% P : 0.40% K = 33 lb N + 13 lb P + 8 lb K per ton

Cowpeas, Broken (California 2014):  3.10% N : 1.00% P : 1.20% K = 62 lb N + 20 lb P + 24 lb K per ton

Cotton Seed, Whole (USDA 2015):  3.14% N : 1.25% P : 1.15% K = 63 lb N + 25 lb P + 23 lb K per ton

Cotton Seed, Pressed (USDA 2015):  4.51% N : 0.64% P : 1.25% K = 90 lb N + 12 lb P + 2b lb K per ton

Cotton Seed Meal (Egypt 2012):  6.6% N : 1.67% P : 1.55% K = 132 lb N + 33 lb P +31 lb K per ton

Castor Beans, Pressed (Egypt 2012):  5.5% N : 2.25% P : 1.125% K = 110 lb N + 45 lb P + 22 lb K per ton

Brewer’s Grain, Wet (Pennsylvania 2012):  0.90% N : 0.50% P : 0.05% K = 18 lb N + 10 lb P + 1 lb K per ton

Brewer’s Grain Dry (Pennsylvania 2012):  4.53% N : 0.47% P 0.24% K = 90 lb N + 9 lb P + 4 lb K per ton

Beans, Soup Broken (New York 1988):  4.0% N : 1.20% P : 1.30% K = 80 lb N + 24 lb P +26 lb K per ton

Barley, Spoiled (Manitoba 2011):  1.75% N : 0.75% P : 0.50% K = 35 lb N + 15 lb P + 10 lb K per ton

For slow release fertilizer mill weed seeds into coarse flakes or meal.  Grind weed seeds into powder for fast acting fertilizer.

Calculate application rates according to soil test recommendation for desired crop.  Minimum application rate is 1 ton = 2,000 pounds per acre ~ 5 pounds or 1 gallon per 100 square feet ~ 2 Tablespoons or 2/3 ounce per square foot.  Apply 1 pound of weed seed meal for every 25 feet of row or trench.  Mix 1/2 to 1 cup in each bushel (8 gallons) of potting soil.  To fertilize trees and bushes, apply 1 pound or 1 1/4 quarts of weed seed meal for every inch of trunk or stem diameter.  Spread meal from trunk or stem to drip line = farthest extent of branches.

Average density of weed seed meal = 0.3125 to 0.40 scale ounce per Tablespoon ~ 5 to 6.5 scale ounces per cup ~ 20 to 25.6 scale ounces per quart ~ 80 to 102.4 scale ounces per gallon ~ 5 pounds to 6 pounds 6.4 ounces per gallon ~ 40 to 51 pounds per bushel (8 gallons).  1 ton = 2,000 pounds weed seed meal = 40 to 50 bushels.

For example:  200 bushel per acre corn crop requires 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  200 pounds N divided by 54 pounds of nitrogen per ton of weed seed meal = 3.70 ~ 4 tons of weed seed meal needed per acre of corn.  Weed seed meal can be tilled into the earth by conventional plowing, broadcast on soil surface, side banded down rows, or drilled into furrows or trenches.

For feeding earthworms broadcast weed seed meal (1 ton per acre or 2 Tablespoons per square foot) on soil surface.  Reapply throughout the growing season when meal is no longer visible.

–>     WEEDS PROVIDE FREE BIOLOGICAL INSECT CONTROL.     I used to work for a cannery company.  I have dreadful memories of being bombed by crop dusters.  I would run for my truck, slam the door and stomp on the gas pedal.  The toxic mist really was that lethal.  Any human caught in the open would spend weeks in hospital and years twitching oddly.  Of course, the cabbage loopers took only 2 or 3 seasons to develop immunity to the toxin.  Then it was replaced with something even more poisonous.  Never again!  I refuse to become yet another ghastly statistic.  Just as stubbornly, I won’t buy something I don’t need.  Farming is all about cheap.  Margins are slim (especially for commodity crops) so a jug of synthetic chemical per acre can make all the difference between hanging-on-by-our-fingernails profit and loss of the family homestead.  Consequently, I cross all agricultural chemicals off my shopping list.  I’m not a “tree hugger” just ruthlessly frugal.  My family has farmed the same land for over 800 years.  I’m not going to be the one who fails.

Pests Be Gone!      Weeds are the poor man’s wildflowers.  Sow weeds just as you would wildflowers to provide food, shelter, and alternate hosts for beneficial predatory and parasitic insects.  For best results, reserve at least 5% of cropland for weeds.  Seed every 20th row with weeds.  Plant a strip of weeds around each field, vineyard, and orchard.  The trick to biological insect control is to grow weeds in close proximity to crops needing protection.  Serious insect problems usually mean a farm does not have enough wild plants.  Spatial orientation is important:  Weeds on one side of a farm will not protect tomatoes on the opposite side.  Plant tomatoes and weeds together = few hornworms.

Strip Cropping:     Plant crops in long narrow strips 4 to 16 rows wide (depending on the size of planting and harvesting equipment).  Long fields increase mechanical efficiency = fewer turns.  Try to keep strips as narrow as mechanically practical.  Narrow strips maximize biological edge effects and increase light penetration into crop canopy.  More edges = less pests.  More sunlight = more photosynthesis = higher yields.  Run strips across fields and farms following land contours.  Plant adjacent strips with unrelated crops to increase biological diversity = more food and shelter for beneficial insects.  If weed seed is unavailable or wildflowers too costly, plant mixed species cover crops to simulate weed populations.  Thomas Jefferson used buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), turnips (Brassica rapa subspecies rapa), and winter vetch (Vicia villosa) = small flowered plants ideal for predators and parasites with tiny mouth parts.  A diligent program of crop rotation, strip planting, and weed farming usually keeps pest populations from rising to harmful levels.

–>     WEEDS ARE POTENT INSECTICIDES.     Over millions of years weeds have evolved elaborate chemical defenses against bugs.  Most weeds have only 1 or 2 minor pests; many wild plants are immune to just about everything.  When bugs get out of hand most infestations can be controlled by spraying with weed tea = a simple infusion of fresh weeds in hot water.  Find any weeds not bothered by the pest needing control.  Collect a large quantity of plants equal to the volume of water needed for spraying.  Chop weeds with a shredder, hydro-mill, or household blender.  Alternatively, crush weeds in a roller mill or laundry wringer.  Soak milled weeds in boiling water until mixture cools to air temperature.  Strain before use then add a commercial surfactant so insecticide spreads over and sticks to crop leaves.

If necessary, dilute weed tea concentrate with clear water to make up spray tank volume.  One application is usually enough to control most pests.  If infestation continues spray again or increase insecticide concentration by brewing equal weights of weeds and water (1 pound of weeds for each pint of water).  The forests around me abound with wild plants, especially ferns.  Nothing eats a fern.  Fern tea will kill or deter any bug known to modern agriculture.  Many common farm and garden weeds are equally distasteful or toxic.

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD NURSE CROPS.     Weeds moderate farm microclimates by reducing wind speed, increasing humidity, shading soil, drawing water from subsoil depths and sharing moisture with shallow-rooted plants.  In times of drought, crops grown in weeds often out yield plants in cultivated weed-free fields.  Even dead weeds are useful; they protect topsoil from wind and water erosion, and their decomposing tissues feed soil organisms.

Sow-And-Go:     Drill or broadcast small grains into standing vegetation.  For best results sow tall varieties as these compete better against weeds.  The best time to plant is in the dry or cold season when most weeds and grasses are dead, dormant, or growing slowly.  Pelleted seed greatly increases germination and seedling survival.  If desired, you can sow Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) along with the grain.  With plentiful water, expect yields 60% to 70% of conventionally planted cereals.  If rains are poor expect little or no harvest.

Sow-and-Go agronomy works best with winter cereals.  Here in Butler County, Pennsylvania (40.8606 degrees North Latitude, 79.8947 degrees West Longitude)  sow-and-go winter wheat yields 24 to 28 bushels = 1,440 to 1,680 pounds per acre.  (Conventionally planted wheat yields 40 bushels = 2,400 pounds per acre).  My fields look awful but they produce enough grain to feed my family and the entire parish.  More importantly, out-of-pocket costs are minimal so profits are high.  Sow-and-Go cereals reduce economic risk.  Consequently, growing grain in weeds usually makes more money than planting cereal crops in cultivated or herbicide-sprayed fields.

–>     WEEDS ARE GOOD BEE FORAGE.     A jar labeled “wildflower honey” means “made from weeds”.  Very few apiaries plant flowers for their bees.  Most commercial honey in the United States comes from hives that are trucked across the country to pollinate almonds, blueberries, and oranges.  These bees are fed sugar syrup to keep them alive so if you want “real” honey buy from small, local apiaries or keep your own bees.

Honeybees feed on small flowers because they have short tongues.  Most weeds are ideal bee forage because they produce many small flowers throughout the growing season.

For a hungry bee the average plow-and-spray farm is a “green desert”.  Vast monoculture fields of corn and wheat do not provide nectar = starving hives.  To maintain healthy bee colonies plant weeds and wildflowers throughout the farm or sow small-flowered crops like Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Caraway (Carum carvi), Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).   Seed every available space as honey production is directly dependent on flower numbers.  More blossoms = more pollen and nectar = more bees = more honey.  Alternatively, plant mixed species cover crops to replace the bountiful blossoms of naturally weedy fields.  For example, seed orchards with buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), and turnips (Brassica rapa subspecies rapa) to feed bees and other beneficial insects.

Think before mowing!     Do not clip entire hay fields at once.  Leave 5% to 10% of each field un-harvested so bees have something to eat.  Whenever practical, divide fields into blocks or strips then harvest sequentially so beneficial insects can move to undisturbed areas.  Similarly, mow orchards only before harvest; let weeds, wildflowers, and cover crops grow without disturbance.  More flowers = fewer insect pests.

Plant thoughtfully.     Bees will fly 5 miles to gather nectar but long trips are inefficient = less honey.  Would you like to walk 5 miles to get your dinner?  Think like a bee and sow flowers as close to hives and crops as practical.  Integrate crops and weeds whenever possible.  For example, alternate strips of tomatoes and weeds.  Result:  Save $400 per acre for insecticides.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.     Biology can replace synthetic chemicals but there is an economic trade-off:  At least 5% of a farm must be covered in weeds.  This is the same as losing 5% of your corn crop and that costs money.  If this is not acceptable then plant wildflowers or any other small-flowered crop that you can harvest and sell the seed.  You can have bees and a profitable farm at the same time.

“Weed Farming” is an essential part of the New Green Revolution where biology replaces what is normally done by diesel tractors and synthetic chemicals.  This is leading edge agronomy = what our Great-Great-Grandfathers used to do.  Every farmer should reserve a few acres to experiment with this rediscovered technology.  Growing crops in weeds is profitable — provided farmers exercise careful stewardship.  For best results manage weeds just like a living mulch or mixed species cover crop.  Always remember that there are 2 crops growing on the same land at the same time — the weed crop and the cash crop.  Each requires equal care or both crops may fail.

RELATED PUBLICATIONS:     Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Organic Herbicides; Pelleted Seed Primer; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Forage Radish Primer; and Rototiller Primer.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?     Contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information on growing crops and weeds together.

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 each year speeds development of new crop varieties).

 

 

 

 

ORGANIC HERBICIDES

What works, what doesn’t, and what to do if you can’t spray.

The guy who invents a safe alternative to Roundup will earn millions!  Right now, there is a distressing lack of alternatives to glyphosate = Roundup.  Below is a short summation of available organic vegicides and alternative weed controls.  Choose the best formula or method for your farm.  Experiment until you obtain the degree of weed control desired.

HERBICIDE SCIENCE:     All organic herbicides work by desiccation = leaves dry out = plant death is caused by water loss.  Thus, organic herbicides perform reasonably well on ANNUAL broadleaf weeds and grasses, especially young plants less than 30 days old or 6 inches high.  Desiccant kill rates on young annuals or perennials normally range from  80% to 100%.  Mature perennial weeds (with long tap roots) and perennial grasses (with growing points below soil surface) are rarely killed by desiccant herbicides because these are contact chemicals only — the herbicide is NOT translocated to roots or other underground parts of the plant.  Spraying a desiccant herbicide will knock back perennial weeds (by burning down exposed foliage) but will not kill established plants.  Repeated applications are necessary to control perennial weeds; this is rarely economic so herbicide use must be integrated with other cultural practices to obtain desired level of weed control.  This often means rethinking how to grow and harvest crops.

COMMON LYE:     The cheapest burn-down herbicide is old fashioned lye; either sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH) works equally well.  Powdered sodium lye (for example, Red Devil Lye) is a special order industrial chemical that requires a signed application statement (because sodium lye is used to make illegal drugs).  You can make your own potassium lye at home simply by leaching wood ashes with water.  If a fresh egg floats in the solution, the lye is strong enough to kill plants (or make soap).

Potassium Lye Formula by Weight:     Prepare a 45% to 50% concentration by weight of water = 0.45 to 0.50 expressed as a decimal.  Note:  1 U.S. gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds = 3.78 kilograms.  0.45 x 8.34 pounds per gallon of water = 3.753 = 3 3/4 pounds of wood ashes per gallon.  Sift wood ash through window screening before weighing.  Mix ash and water the night before use then strain most carefully before application.

Potassium Lye Formula by Volume:     Combine 2 parts finely sifted wood ashes with 3 parts water by volume.  Mix ashes and water then let stand overnight before use.  Decant and filter wood ash lye through paper coffee filters to avoid clogging lines and spray nozzles with grit.

All herbicides are more effective if a spreading-sticking agent is mixed with the solution.  To increase weed kill rates, combine lye with 2% commercial surfactant (surface active agent) by weight or volume.  The admix helps lye solution cover and grip foliage.  If commercial surfactant is not available, substitute an equal portion of common liquid dishwashing detergent.  Addition of 2% “Polysorbate-20” (a powerful emulsifier)  makes herbicide mixtures even more deadly by stripping away protective wax coatings on plant cell walls.

>>>  Concentrated lye solution can have a pH near 14 = it’s extremely caustic = highly basic = will change soil pH if used continuously or in high volumes.  Lye herbicide is NOT recommended for use around acid-loving plants like potatoes, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, azaleas, laurels, rhododendrons, pine trees or other conifers (plants with needle or scale-like leaves that bear seeds in cones).  Check soil pH regularly; it may not be necessary to apply agricultural lime to fields where lye herbicide is used frequently.

>>>  Where agricultural lime is too costly, spraying sodium or potassium lye solution is a cheap way to adjust soil pH.  For example:  To bring highly acid soils into production, spray lye then plant beans.

>>>  Substitute wood ashes where agricultural limestone is unavailable or expensive.  Swap 2 parts wood ashes by weight or volume for every part of powdered limestone.  Sift wood ash through window screening before use.  Crush charcoal screenings to pass 1/4 inch hardware cloth sieve then compost with an equal or greater volume of fresh manure before applying to garden or field.

MALEIC HYDRAZIDE is a chemical growth regulator commonly used to keep potatoes from sprouting in storage, and tobacco plants from suckering.  Maleic hydrazide is NOT an herbicide in the conventional sense of the word (although it does kill plants if used in high concentration).  Use maleic hydrazide to SLOW weed growth; sprayed weeds are stunted rather than killed.  Weeds are knocked back just enough to give crop plants a competitive advantage.  Translation:  If weeds are dwarfed then there is no need to kill them.

Never use the word “herbicide” when talking or writing to the Government about maleic hydrazide.  The official viewpoint is that maleic hydrazide is a plant growth regulator, NOT an herbicide.  Use the word “herbicide” and you may end up having to submit a ton of regulatory paperwork!

Maleic Hydrazide Formula by Volume:     Commercial maleic hydrazide is sold as a 30.3% concentrated solution by volume containing 2.25 pounds of chemical in 1 gallon of water (26.97841% concentration by weight).  Apply 1 to 1.33 gallons of chemical solution in 30 gallons of water per acre to control sprouting in potatoes.  This manufacturer recommended concentration gives you a place to start.  [2.25 pounds chemical per gallon of commercial concentrate / 220.2 pounds of water (30 gallons) in spray tank] x 100 = 0.89928% concentration by weight.  Adjust vegicide concentration until desired level of weed control is obtained.

Maleic Hydrazide Formula by Weight:     To stunt both annual and perennial broadleaf weeds and grasses, apply 0.6% pure maleic hydrazide by weight = six tenths of one percent = 0.6 / 100 = 0.006 expressed as a decimal.  For example:  0.006 x 1,000 grams per liter of water = 6 grams of maleic hydrazide per liter or approximately 0.21 scale ounce per quart of water (6 grams / 28.35 grams per ounce = 0.2116402 scale ounce = 0.21 scale ounce or about 1/5th scale ounce of maleic hydrazide per quart of water).  This concentration will control (don’t say kill)  even multiflora rose and other invasive shrubs and trees.  Maleic hydrazide is fast becoming a favorite weed control chemical because it is safe to handle, cheap, and effective.

AMMONIUM NONANOATE is a synthetic chemical, a detergent-like surfactant that kills weeds by dissolving the wax coating on cell walls.  Damaged cells leak water = weeds die of dehydration.  Think of ammonium nonanoate as a strong soap solution; wear rubber gloves and protective goggles to keep chemical off skin and away from eyes.  Spray herbicide at night to avoid harming most beneficial insects.

Soaps, detergents, and other surface active agents = surfactants kill insects by clogging their breathing tubes.  Soap-sprayed insects die of suffocation.  Thus, it is best to spray ammonium nonanoate and other herbicidal soaps at night to avoid killing as many beneficial insects as possible.

Ammonium Nonanoate Formula by Weight:     Ammonium nonanoate is sold as a 40% concentrated solution by weight.  Mix not more than 6% by weight of commercial concentrated solution in 1 gallon of water = 2.4% by weight of ammonium nonanoate in 1 gallon of water.  1 U.S. gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds = 3.78 kilograms.  6% = 6 / 100 = 0.06 expressed as a decimal.  0.06 herbicide concentrate x 8.34 pounds per gallon of water = 0.5004 pounds of herbicide concentrate x 16 ounces per pound = 8.0064 = 8 scale ounces of commercial concentrate in 1 gallon of water.  (This is approximately equal to 8 fluid ounces or 1/2 cup of ammonium nonanoate concentrate in 1 gallon of water).

Note:  This chemical is not currently approved for use on organic farms in the United States.  Ammonium nonanoate is a type of industrial strength soap.

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE (SLS) is a synthetic detergent commonly found in shampoo, toothpaste, and household cleaning products.  Sodium lauryl sulfate is a contact herbicide that works by stripping the wax coating from cell walls = leaves lose water then plants die of dehydration.  As with any strong soap, wear rubber gloves (to prevent skin from drying out) and safety goggles (to keep detergent out of eyes).

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Formula by Weight:     Mix 5% to 20% dry chemical by weight in pure water.  1 U.S. gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds = 3.78 kilograms.  5% = 5 / 100 = 0.05 expressed as a decimal.  0.05 chemical concentration x 8.34 pounds per gallon of water = 0.417 pounds of SLS x 16 ounces per pound = 6.672 = 6 2/3 scale ounces of sodium lauryl sulfate per gallon of water (minimum concentration).  20% = 20 / 100 = 0.20 expressed as a decimal.  0.20 chemical concentration x 8.34 pounds per gallon of water = 1.668 pounds of SLS x 16 ounces per pound = 26.688 scale ounces = 1 pound 10 2/3 scale ounces of sodium lauryl sulfate per gallon of water (maximum concentration).

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Formula by Volume:     For commercial concentrated solutions, mix 20% concentrate by volume with water.  1 U.S. gallon = 128 fluid ounces = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 16 cups = 256 Tablespoons = 768 teaspoons.  20% = 20 / 100 = 0.20 expressed as a decimal.  0.20 SLS concentrate x 768 teaspoons = 153.6 teaspoons = 51.2 Tablespoons = 3.2 cups = 1 1/2 pints + 3 Tablespoons + 2/3 teaspoon = about 3 1/4 cups herbicide concentrate in 1 gallon of water.  Another way to figure this is:  128 fluid ounces per gallon x 0.20 herbicide concentration = 25.6 fluid ounces of herbicide concentrate needed  / 8 fluid ounces per cup = 3.2 cups = about 3 1/4 cups of SLS concentrate per gallon of water.

SLS Application Rate per Acre:     Apply 2.5 gallons to 7.5 gallons of diluted herbicide per thousand square feet of farm or garden = 109 gallons to 327 gallons per acre.  Note:  Herbicidal soaps are much more effective when powerful emulsifiers and surfactants are added to the mix.

>>>  There are many different kinds of herbicidal soap.  All work the same way and should be diluted to the same concentration:  5% to 20% dry chemical by water weight, or 20% liquid concentrate by volume.  Adjust concentration and application rate as needed to kill target species.  Weeds with hairy or waxy leaves are harder to kill than less protected plants.

D-LIMONENE:     Citrus rinds contain volatile essential oils (orange oil, lemon oil, grapefruit oil, et cetera).  The largest chemical component of all citrus oils is d-limonene, a fragrant chemical and powerful surface active agent = surfactant that quickly dissolves fats, oils, and waxes.  D-limonene is a common ingredient in most natural home cleaning products.  D-limonene is also used to wash greasy automobile parts and as a safe replacement for mineral spirits (petroleum turpentine).  Use d-limonene just like any other strong detergent (ammonium nonanoate or sodium lauryl sulfate, for example).  All herbicidal soaps work by dissolving the waxy coating on plant cell walls.  Damaged leaf cells leak water then plants die of dehydration.

Pure D-Limonene Formula:     Mix 55% d-limonene by weight in water.  Mix 50% orange oil (or other citrus oil), clove oil, cinnamon oil, or lemongrass oil by weight in water.  Essential oil concentration can be decreased to 30% by weight if Polysorbate-20 (emulsifier) and spreading / sticking agent (surfactant) are added to the herbicide solution.

D-Limonene Formula with Emulsifier & Surfactant:     Combine 30% limonene + 10% emulsifier (Polysorbate-20) + 10% commercial surfactant (wetting agent) + 50% pure water = 100% total by weight or volume.  Use baking soda to adjust solution pH to 5 or above.  Apply up to 100 gallons (approximately 400 liters) of diluted herbicide per acre (about 0.40 hectare).

D-limonene can also be used in small quantities as a surfactant (spreading / sticking agent) in other herbicide or insecticide formulations.  Add one-eighth percent to one-quarter percent = 0.125% to 0.25% = 0.00125 to 0.0025 expressed as a decimal = 1 to 2 pints per 100 gallons or approximately 2.5 milliliters per liter of water.

D-limonene makes an economic herbicide provided you live near an orange juice processing plant.  Prices rise as distance from citrus groves increases.

ACETIC ACID = VINEGAR:     For commercial farms concentrated vinegar = 10% to 20% acetic acid is required.  For household gardens, common white table vinegar (5% acetic acid) will suffice.  Strong acids (concentrated vinegar) and strong bases (sodium or potassium lye) both kill weeds by rupturing cell walls = leaves leak water till plants die of thirst.

Vinegar Herbicide Formula by Weight for Farming:     Combine 20% acetic acid (liquid) + 5% citric acid (powder) + 2% commercial surfactant (spreading / sticking agent) + 73% pure water = 100 total parts by weight.  Note:  To save freight costs, order glacial acetic acid = pure, undiluted acetic acid in 1 gallon glass bottles.  Mix 1 gallon of glacial acetic acid with 9 gallons of water to make 10 gallons of concentrated vinegar (10% acetic acid) solution.  Mix 1 gallon of glacial acetic acid with 4 gallons of water to make 5 gallons of concentrated vinegar (20% acetic acid) solution.

Vinegar Herbicide Formula by Volume for Gardening:     Combine 5 cups of common white vinegar (5% acetic acid) + 1 cup of bottled lemon juice (3% to 8% citric acid) + 4 Tablespoons of dish washing detergent (to help herbicide stick to leaves) = 6 1/4 total cups by volume.

For best results, spray on a warm, sunny day when weed leaves are dry.  Apply herbicide solution generously so that leaves are thoroughly wet.

Caution!  Concentrated vinegar is a hazardous chemical, a strong acid that will burn skin and eyes.  Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles.  Do not breathe concentrated vinegar vapors.  Work outdoors with the wind at your back = blowing away from you.  Wash skin or eyes with pure, distilled water if necessary.

CHELATED IRON:     FeHEDTA (Iron-Hydroxy-Ethylene-Diamine-Triacetic-Acid) in high concentrations (26.5% by weight) will kill broadleaf weeds in turf grasses.  This herbicide works well but is most costly = far too expensive for agricultural use.

SUNFLOWER SEED HULLS:     Some plants produce natural herbicides.  Sunflower seed shells can be used as mulch to retard weed growth.  Apply 1 to 2 inches of sunflower seed hulls around ornamental or edible plants.  Note:  Herbicidal effect may inhibit growth of flowers and crops!  Perform small plot trials before spreading large amounts of sunflower hulls.

BLACK WALNUT HULLS & WOOD CHIPS:     Black walnuts produce natural herbicides that kill some plants but not others.  For example:  Tomatoes are severely stunted or killed by walnut herbicide.  Test ornamental or crop plants first before spreading mulch of black walnut hulls or black walnut wood chips.

SMOTHER CROPS:     Plants that grow faster than weeds and cast dense shade make ideal smother crops.  Multiple smother crops (planted in sequence) are often used to clear especially weedy fields or to eradicate hard-to-kill perennial weeds with deep tap roots.  For best results, do not plow fields after growing smother crops; tillage stimulates weed germination.  Broadcast small grains or turnips over standing vegetation then immediately mow or roll to cover and protect crop seed.   Alternatively, mow or roll smother crop then set seeds or transplants through surface mulch using no-till equipment.  If smother crop is tilled into the ground (as a green manure) immediately broadcast clover or other legume seed to blanket field as a living mulch.  Fields must be covered with useful plants at all times or weeds will regain foothold.  Popular smother crops include Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) and Sudangrass (Sorghum sudanense)  in temperate climates, and Sunn Hemp (Crotalaria juncea) in tropical and semi-tropical zones.

Buckwheat Smother Crop:     Fagopyrum esculentum grows 0.75 to 1.25 inches per day reaching a mature height of 50 inches (3 tons of dry matter per acre) in 6 to 8 weeks.  Blooming starts around 32 days and seeds mature in 10 to 12 weeks.  Mow, crimp, or rototill buckwheat when plants are in full bloom, about 60 days after planting.  Do not let plants mature and drop seeds or buckwheat will become a weed in the following crop.  Seed 32 to 40 pounds per acre for small seeded varieties; 50 to 72 pounds per acre for large seeded varieties.  Ideal plant population is 700,000 plants per acre = 16 seeds per square foot.  Test weights vary from 44 pounds (large seeds) to 52 pounds (small seeds) per bushel.  Approximate seed weight varies from 29 to 37 grams (1.02 to 1.30 scale ounces) per 1,000 seeds = 12,200 (large seeds) to 15,600 (small seeds) per pound.

Sudangrass Smother Crop:      Sorghum sudanense grows fast and produces natural herbicides.  Translation:  Weeds are overwhelmed.  Sudan grass grows 1/2 to 2 inches daily if soil is warm and moist.  For best results sow when soil temperatures reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit ~ 18 degrees Centigrade and irrigate with 1 to 2 inches of water weekly.  Broadcast 30 to 50 pounds, drill 35 pounds, or precision seed 13.5 pounds of pure, live seed per acre.  Average seed weight ~ 42,300 seeds per pound.  Plant seeds 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches deep in rows 7 to 14 inches apart.  Under ideal conditions Sudan grass can reach 8 to 9 feet mature height in 8 to 10 weeks.  If temperature and moisture are unfavorable, Sudan grass may take 80 to 100 days to mature.  If desired, Sudan grass may be mowed about 55 days after seeding when plants are 20 to 30 inches tall.  Leave 8 inches of stubble to help grass regrow quickly.  In temperate climates Sudan grass may be cut 2 or 3 times yearly.  6 to 8 cuttings are possible in tropical and sub-tropical areas if soil is fertile and water plentiful.  For each cutting expect 2 to 3 tons of green mulch per acre at 70% to 75% moisture content.  Expect 10 to 12 tons of green chop per acre each year under average conditions.  Under ideal conditions annual production may reach 16 to 24 tons (fresh weight) ~ 4,000 to 6,000 pounds dry weight per acre.

Sudan grass has an enormous fibrous root system that can penetrate 6 to 8 feet into the subsoil.  This huge mass of organic matter restores life and productivity to “tired soils” and “sick fields”.  Sudan grass is one of the best cover crops for weed control and soil improvement.

Sunn Hemp Smother Crop:     Crotalaria juncea is a fast growing nitrogen fixing legume.  In temperate regions with 90 or more days of warm weather, Sunn Hemp grows 1 to 1 1/4 inches per day, reaching 6 feet high and flowering approximately 60 to 70 days from seeding.  In tropical climates some varieties of Sunn Hemp grow over 20 feet tall.  Broadcast 20 to 50 pounds or drill 15 to 40 pounds of pure, live seed per acre in 6 to 36 inch rows.  For precision seeders, use a 60-cell small sugar beet plate and plant 9 pounds per acre in 15 inch rows, or 5 pounds per acre in 30 inch rows.  (Remember to inoculate seed with nitrogen fixing cowpea rhizobia).  Sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep.  Average seed weight = 18,000 to 35,000 seeds per kilogram ~ 15,000 to 33,000 seeds per pound.  Average test weight = 60 pounds per bushel.  Sunn Hemp is amazingly productive when planted in moist, fertile soils.  Expect 8 to 18 tons of green mulch (4 to 9 tons dry weight) per acre at 50% moisture content 10 to 12 weeks after seeding.  Under average conditions Sunn Hemp yields 6.25 to 7 tons of green chop in 60 days = weeds are buried under a great mass of stems and leaves.

There are many aggressive, rapid-growth plants suitable for smothering weeds.  Forage Radish (Raphaus sativus variety longipinnatus) and Forage Maize (Zea mays) are two additional examples.  Choose species and varieties best adapted to local soil and climate.

COMMON CEREAL RYE:     Grain rye (Secale cereale) produces natural herbicides.  The best way to employ this herbicidal effect is to grow a 5 to 6 foot high cover crop of rye and then cut it down with a sickle-bar mower (or use a roller-crimper) when the grass starts to flower or no later than the soft dough stage of seed development.  Leave cut rye straw where it falls.  Set pumpkins or other transplants through the rye mulch.  Alternatively, use a no-till seeder with a fluted coulter to plant through the mulch.  If desired, Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) can be broadcast over the field the same day crops are transplanted.  Clover seedlings fill any gaps in the mulch providing 90% or better weed control under average field conditions.

You can run a 25-acre vegetable farm with nothing more than a common lawn mower and a hand-cranked cyclone seeder.  Broadcast lawn clover everywhere then transplant into the living mulch.  I can’t think of an easier way to operate a truck farm or market garden.

DUTCH WHITE CLOVER:     Trifolium repens is NOT herbicidal but it does make a good living mulch that can provide effective weed control in transplanted crops and winter grains.  Dutch white clover only grows 6 to 8 inches tall so it makes an ideal living mulch for any crop that grows a foot or more high.  For best results, transplant crops directly into standing Dutch white clover.  If desired, clover can be mowed first to give transplants a little more time to get established.  Sow clover at the same time that you plant winter wheat, barley, oats, and rye.  If convenient, Dutch white clover can be broadcast over established crops when they are young (6 to 8 inches tall) or later in the season (a few weeks before harvest).  Note:  If Dutch clover seed is not available substitute Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum), Sub Clover (Trifolium subterraneum), or a low-growing variety of Medium Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).  A good stand of clover will blot out most competing plants providing 90% or better weed-free fields.

OVERLAPPING ROTATIONS:     Sometimes called “interseeding”, this technique uses the competitive ability of crop plants to suppress weeds.  The idea is to top seed the following crop several weeks before the previous crop is harvested.  This gives crop seeds time to germinate and become established.  When the overstory nurse crop is harvested, the understory crop already has at least 2 weeks head start over competing plants.  In nature, possession is 9 tenths of the law; the first population established will predominate.  By overlapping rotations, weeds never get a toehold.

Successful weed control requires careful timing, zero tillage, pelleted seed, and Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) living mulch.  Always overseed at least 2 weeks before harvest so seeds have time to germinate ahead of any weeds.  Never disturb the soil for any reason; any tillage will encourage weed growth.  Always use pelleted seed; coated seeds have better germination and seedling survival.  Always use Dutch white clover to check weed growth; clover replaces herbicides and mechanical cultivation.  One last important detail:  Return all crop residues to the field and scatter randomly to form a thin, open mulch; a light blanket of straw or leaves is necessary to protect seedlings and feed the soil.

Rice-Winter Grain & Clover Rotation:     This is the basis of Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Do Nothing Farming” system.  [See:  The One-Straw Revolution, Rodale Press, 1978].  (1)  In fall, sow pelleted winter barley or winter rye seed with Dutch white clover.  (2)  A few weeks before winter grain harvest, broadcast pelleted rice seed over standing winter cereal.  (3)  Immediately after harvesting winter grain, scatter straw randomly over field to protect germinating rice seedlings.  (4)  A few weeks before rice harvest, top seed pelleted clover and winter rye or winter barley over standing rice.  (5)  Immediately after rice harvest, scatter rice straw randomly across field to protect germinating winter grain seedlings.  (6)  Repeat rotation indefinitely; the system works with any kind of summer and winter grain.  Choose crops to fit growing season length.  Note:  Continuous cereal rotations with understory clover companion crops place severe competitive pressures on native weed species.  Provided ground is not tilled, fields remain 95% weed free without herbicides or any other weed control methods.

Hogs make great rototillers provided they do not have rings in their snouts.  Ringed hogs cannot root.

Clover-Wheat-Turnips Rotation:     15th century Dutch farmers combined free-range pig ranching with no-till agronomy to make a low-cost sustainable agriculture system called the Clover-Wheat-Turnips Rotation:  (1)  Enclose a field of Dutch white clover.  (2)  Turn pigs loose in fenced pasture.  Pigs will uproot clover eliminating need for plowing and harrowing.  (3)  Broadcast wheat seed onto pig tilled earth.  (4)  Drive sheep back and forth across field; sheep will stomp wheat seeds into ground.  (5)  When wheat starts to head out, overseed grain with turnips.  (6)  A few weeks before turnip harvest broadcast clover seed over field.  Clover protects and fertilizes soil until cycle repeats in spring.  This rotation reliably yields 40 bushels of wheat (2,400 pounds) per acre = 2,694 kilograms per hectare under European weather conditions without irrigation, diesel fuel, synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides.

Overlapping crop rotations are remarkably stable — farmers have been using legume-grain-root crop rotations for 700 years.  Many other rotations are possible, with or without livestock or machinery.  Choose cash crops most suited to your local soil and climate.  Use cover crops or forage crops to fill any gaps in the planting season.  Soil must be covered with growing plants at all times = 365 days yearly.  As long as continuous vegetation is maintained fields will remain 95% weed free and crop yields sustained indefinitely.

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 or crimping.  Seeds or transplants are then set through the surface mulch using no-till equipment specifically designed to work in high-residue “trashy” fields.  Alternatively, harvest the mulch crop with a silage chopper then apply with a mulch spreader; this technique is ideal for orchards, vineyards, nurseries, and berry plantations where labor costs are high.

The best mulch crops are quick growing grasses that yield high-tonnages per acre.  Grasses are preferred because straw decomposes slowly and forms a nearly impenetrable mat that blocks light and prevents weed emergence.  Fields need at least 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of straw mulch to obtain 90% weed control.  A 5 to 6 foot stand of grain rye (Secale cereale) produces 4 to 5 tons of long straw which forms a thick, weed-blocking blanket over the soil.  Forage maize (Zea mays) is even better:  It grows 12 to 15 feet high and produces 18 tons = 36,000 pounds of mulch in only 70 days from seeding to harvest.  100 to 120 day forage maize yields up to 30 tons = 60,000 pounds of mulch per acre.  30 tons of corn stalks per acre will obliterate any weed problem for 2 seasons or longer.  Top seed maize mulch with a low growing clover and fields will remain at least 95% weed free.

ZERO INPUT AGRICULTURE:     There are many terms for this technique (No-Kill Cropping, Natural Farming, Do Nothing Agriculture, Zero Budget Natural Agriculture, Minimum Effort Agronomy, Minimal Energy Agriculture, Zero Petroleum Agriculture, et alia).  The idea is to plant seeds into standing vegetation without tillage, herbicides, fertilizers, irrigation, or any other input.  Crops (usually small grains like wheat, oats, barley, and rye) can be sown directly into pastures, hay fields, range lands, or shortly before a crop is harvested (or immediately after a crop is harvested).  The keys to success are timing and seeding method.  The best time to plant is when grains would naturally reseed themselves (usually in the dry or dormant season).  The best way to plant is to disturb the soil as little as possible.  (The more soil is tilled = broken, the more weeds will germinate).  The best methods are to broadcast seed into standing vegetation (pelleted seeds greatly increase seedling survival) or to plant in shallow slits made by a no-till seeder.  Other than planting and harvest, no attention is paid to the crop.  In years with good rainfall, yields are typically 60% to 70% of conventionally grown crops.  In dry years crops are often not worth harvesting for grain (but do produce substantial quantities of forage or surface mulch to protect fields and increase soil organic matter).

Zero input agriculture is the best way to grow small grains where the climate is dry or soils are poor.  The method yields a surprisingly high return on investment because there is little financial risk (only the cost of seeding in a bad year, or the costs of seeding and harvest in a good year).  Because input costs are minimal, profit margins are high.  Thus, zero input agriculture can produce more income than conventional grain farming.

“No-Kill Cropping” is the wave of the future, a convergence of old-school mechanical agronomy with new-school biological agriculture.  The synthesis of these disciplines creates a new way of thinking about farming, an agro-ecological approach where problems are solved by nature rather than by petrochemicals.  Here, the idea is to grow crops and weeds together in mutual symbiosis, rather than spending vast sums to eradicate all competing plant life.

The first time I proposed planting weeds as cover crops, half my audience walked out of the conference room (I think they all worked for Monsanto).

WEEDS AS COVER CROPS:     Weeds make excellent ground covers well worth the cost of seed, fertilizer and irrigation.  Most fields already have sufficient weed populations.  Where land is barren or scraped down to subsoil, broadcast grain elevator screenings liberally.  Elevator screenings are cheap (often free) and contain many weed seeds.

As I write this paper (Monday 1 June 2015) it is almost time to transplant tomatoes in Butler County, Pennsylvania (40.8607 degrees North Latitude, 79.8947 degrees West Longitude).  My fields are a green sea of weeds.  Pigweed (Amaranthus blitum), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), and Common Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) are already 2 to 3 feet high, a respectable nurse crop measuring about 2.5 tons of dry matter per acre.

After lunch I will mow or roll strips through the weeds, overseed each planting strip with Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), set 8-inch tall determinate tomato transplants every 4 feet, then run drip irrigation hose down the rows.  Most of the field remains covered by weeds which I leave undisturbed.  I will walk the field once or twice before harvest to rescue the odd tomato plant that gets too crowded by weeds.  A pair of pruning shears quickly dispatches offending vegetation.  The crop gets no other attention until destructive harvest which yields 8 pounds of Number 1 marketable fruit per plant at $0.60 per pound wholesale price for “spray-less tomatoes” (21,000 pounds = 10.5 tons per acre = $12,600 gross income per acre).  That is good money for very little labor and minimal investment (no plowing, staking, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides).

Lawnmower Farming:     Find the weediest field possible = vigorous growth 5 to 6 feet tall.  Mow widely spaced strips through the weeds.  If possible, run irrigation tape down the rows.  Set transplants then mulch 12 inches deep with cut weeds — this is a form of cold composting known as sheet composting.  Green weeds contain twice the nutrients of fresh dairy cow manure.  Chopped vegetation rots quickly releasing nutrients to feed crops.  Leave remaining weeds standing to provide food and shelter for beneficial insects.  Lawnmower farming does not use land efficiently but it does grow crops cheaply = without tillage, herbicides, fertilizer, or pesticides.

Mow-And-Blow:     On large farms and plantations forage choppers replace common lawnmowers.  Modify delivery chute to deposit chopped vegetation into convenient windrows.  Set transplants and drip irrigation hose down the windrows.  Use mow-and-blow with any kind of vegetation:  Weeds, forage grasses, mulch crops, and mixed species cover crops all do well.  For best results choose plants that produce large yields of biomass = stems and leaves per acre.  If possible, irrigate and fertilize fields to increase mulch yields.

It pays to feed and water weeds.  Weeds use and recycle nutrients efficiently so a little fertilizer creates rampant growth = more biomass for mulch and soil improvement.  For best results apply dilute fertilizer in irrigation water.

>>>     The trick to using weeds as cover crops is to manage them just like any other conventional mulch crop or green manure.  Kill the weed crop by mowing, crimping, or spraying then seed or transplant through the mulch with no-till equipment.  Think of weeds as a mixed cover crop that costs nothing to seed!

>>>     Set aside an acre or two and experiment growing crops in weeds.  The first thing you will discover is that pests do not like weedy fields.  Crops grown in weeds rarely need sprayed.  Fertilizer costs can also be reduced or eliminated because weeds efficiently capture and recycle nutrients.  Water costs also decrease because weeds protect crops from drying winds.

>>>     The only disadvantage to farming weeds is that your neighbors will think you are crazy.  Count your profits and let the naysayers believe as they wish.

Martian Thinking:  “See what the Earthlings are doing, turn 180 degrees in the opposite direction, then work back to what makes sense”.

MARTIAN AGRICULTURE = WEEDS ARE PROFITABLE!     99% of farmers think that weeds are bad.  Eric thinks differently.  I encourage weeds to grow in my fields.  For example:  Why use herbicides in a small grain crop?  Herbicides cost money to apply (and even more money is lost because the crop cannot be sold as “natural” or “organic”).  Modern seed cleaners easily separate weed seeds from crop grains.  Weed seed meal makes ideal organic fertilizer.  (For highest profits sell weed seed meal in 40 pound bags to city gardeners).  Wild oats can be separated from weed seeds and processed into high nutritional value cereal (50% protein rolled oats).  Growing weeds in my grain means that I don’t have to apply insecticides (so I save even more money).  Weeds provide pollen and nectar for bees and other beneficial insects.  Weeds also support primary and alternate hosts for predatory and parasitical insects.  (You need to maintain small populations of “bad” bugs in order to sustain healthy populations of “good” bugs).  Having lots of weeds around helps balance farm ecology (which saves even more money on pest control in other cash crops).  And don’t forget that weeds have extensive root systems that break up plow pans  (compacted soil layers) and increase soil organic matter.  The way Eric looks at this is:  What I lose in grain yield (to weed competition) I gain in lower input costs and higher-margin specialty products.  Even in bad years, Eric always makes more money than his neighbors.  Why?  Because Eric is not looking to win a blue ribbon for maximum yield at the County Fair.  Eric measures success at the bottom line.  He who has more money in his bank account wins!

RELATED PUBLICATIONS:     Trash Farming, No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash, Planting Maize with Living Mulches, Living Mulches for Weed Control, and Crops Among the Weeds.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?     Contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information.

Please visit:     http://www.agriculturesolutions.wordpress.com  — or —  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.wordpress.com  — or —  send your questions to:  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 during winter.  (Growing 2 generations each year speeds development of new crop varieties).