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).

Advertisements

PELLETED SEED PRIMER

What Is It?     Pelleted seeds are enclosed in a layer of fine clay to protect them from insects and birds.  Beneficial micro-organisms, fertilizer, and seed protectants can also be included in the clay pellet as needed.  Pelleted seeds are ideal for no-till agriculture where crops are broadcast seeded into standing vegetation.  Pelleted seeds are also easier to drill or sow by hand because each pellet is large enough to space accurately.

How To Do It:     Use 1 part seeds + 7 parts finely powdered clay = 8 total parts by volume.  (12.5% seeds + 87.5% powdered clay = 100% by volume).  Any kind of sticky clay will work or use dry, powdered clay purchased in 50-pound bags from a pottery supplier.

If preparing clay from scratch, remove and save topsoil then dig clay from subsoil layers.  Wash or sift clay through window screening to remove impurities.  Dry clay then grind before use.  Ideal pelleting clay should be pure and dust-like, similar to wheat flour.

Place seeds in mixing barrel of 5 gallon = 20 liters or larger capacity.  Barrel should not have any paddles, beaters, blades, or other protrusions = inside surface must be smooth and free of all obstructions.  Rotate barrel by hand or machine (like a cement mixer).

Slowly, add fine water mist until seeds are barely damp.

Add dry clay alternately with water mist while revolving barrel continuously.

When pellets are twice the diameter of the seeds continue turning the barrel for 3 to 4 minutes only, just until pellets look glossy.

DO NOT OVER-ROTATE BARREL OR SEED PELLETS WILL STICK TOGETHER!

Gently pour seed pellets onto screens to dry in a well-ventilated place.

Store air dried seed pellets in waterproof containers in a dry place until needed.

Biological No-Till Small Grains:     Broadcast seed pellets by hand or use a rotary spreader.  Sow pellets directly into standing vegetation so that soil remains undisturbed.  (Broken soil stimulates weed germination).

Alternatively, drill pellets using a no-till seeder equipped with sharp coulters and chisel tines or cultivator blades to cut narrow slits in the soil.  (The goal is minimal disturbance of soil surface and plant cover).

Wait patiently until rains come and seeds germinate.

Do not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides on fields.  Do not weed by hand nor cultivate by machine.  Control weeds by sowing grain with Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) if necessary.  Irrigation is optional, but not essential.

2 to 4 weeks before harvest sow pelletized seed of second crop into standing vegetation of first crop.  This is necessary to control weeds.

When grain is threshed, return all straw and chaff to the field and spread randomly so following crop can grow up through the mulch.

Continue rotating grain crops taking special care to over-seed following crop 2 to 4 weeks before harvesting preceding crop.

This technique works best in climates warm enough to grow 2 grain crops yearly:  A winter grain crop and a summer grain crop.  In cooler climates substitute a short season crop like Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) or Turnips (Brassica rapa subspecies rapa)  for the summer grain crop. 

TO CONTROL WEEDS IT IS ESSENTIAL TO KEEP SOIL COVERED WITH GROWING PLANTS AT ALL TIMES = 365 DAYS YEARLY.  USE CLOVERS OR OTHER COVER CROPS TO FILL UP EVERY DAY OF THE GROWING SEASON.  SOIL SHOULD NEVER BE LEFT BARE, NOT EVEN FOR A SINGLE DAY.

Subsistence Grain Farming:     Drill or broadcast seed into standing hay, pasture, range, stubble, or weeds.  For best results sow when grain naturally drops its seeds (most commonly in the Fall = dry or dormant season).  Use pelleted seed if broadcast sowing on soil surface.  Use naked or pelleted seed if planting by drill.  Wait for rain and hope for the best.  In years with good rainfall, subsistence yields will be 60% to 70% of conventionally planted grain crops.  In dry years the crop may not be worth harvesting for grain (but will make forage for cattle).  Even is no crop is harvested, surface vegetation protects land from erosion while roots improve soil structure and fertility.  Subsistence farming makes economic sense because production costs are minimal (seed + 1 pass across the field).  Low costs mean farmers reduce financial risk and gain higher returns on investment.

Seed Bombing:     Seed bombing is a technique used to re-vegetate degraded lands, or to surreptitiously plant vacant lots or other properties not owned by the cultivator = guerrilla gardening.  Seeds are mixed in a stiff clay paste, hand formed into marble to walnut-sized balls, then air dried and stored until planting.  The clay balls are randomly broadcast = bombed over the landscape (or discretely dropped where soil and micro-climate appear most favorable).  A planting density of 10 balls per square meter or yard is typically used for land reclamation projects.

How To Make Seed Balls:     Seed balls are much larger than pellets.  Typical seed balls are the size of large marbles or ball bearings and contain approximately 1/2 fluid ounce = 1 Tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = 15 milliliters = 15 cubic centimeters of clay.  Very large seed balls can be double this size = 1/4 cup or approximately the volume of a walnut in its shell.  Use the following recipe to make seed balls for land restoration projects:

1 part seeds + 3 parts finely sifted compost + 5 parts clay + 1 to 2 parts water = 9 to 10 total parts by volume.  Compost is necessary to provide symbiotic fungi essential for root growth.   Mix compost with 10% organic seed protectant (powdered chili pepper) if desired.  1 part organic fertilizer (phosphate rock or bone meal) can be substituted for an equal volume of clay powder to help establish seedlings in phosphorous deficient soils.  Other additives might include nitrogen-fixing bacteria or fritted trace elements, as needed.

Combine in order seeds, compost, clay, and water.  Mix gently until paste has uniform consistency like bread dough.  Portion paste with cookie scoops then shape balls by rolling clay between palms of hands.  Place tightly formed (crack free) balls in a single layer on screens to air dry in the sun.  Store bone-dry seed balls in a moisture-free, well ventilated place until ready to plant.

Carefully encase large seeds like maize, sunflower, peas, beans, lentils, pumpkins, squash, gourds, cucumbers, and melons in individual seed balls.  Mix all small seeded crops (including grasses, clovers, weeds, and wildflowers) randomly with the clay paste.

For land restoration projects choose seed mixtures carefully:  Best results are obtained by combining seeds of native plants that normally grow together in the wild.  It is good practice to include a wide range of species:  Cool and warm season plants, annuals and perennials, grasses, wildflowers, broadleaf plants, weeds, clovers and other legumes.  If budgets are tight or seed too expensive, obtain weed seeds from local grain elevators.  Elevator screenings are free or cheap and contain large amounts of weed seed.  Weeds are ideal species for colonizing bare soils.  Weeds heal the earth allowing less hardy species to become established.

Would You Like To Know More?     Please contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information about pelleted seeds for agriculture and land reclamation.

Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United Sates 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 the summer and in Florida during the winter.  (Growing two generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).

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

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).