My calendar says November but the weeds in my garden think it’s spring. That nice rain last month followed by warm, sunny days has prompted them to grow like, well, weeds and that’s not good news for my winter crops.
What’s a gardener to do?
Like so many other gardeners, I turned to the folks at the UC Davis Weed Science Program. Housed in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, the “weeders” are experts at helping growers and gardeners improve plant production by controlling weeds.
Which tools work the best in which situations? Here’s a quick overview, courtesy of Cooperative Extension Specialist Tom Lanini, who specializes in weed control in vegetable crops.
Mulches – Researchers test them all – plastic, bark, wood chips, other porous material, even what they call live mulches like clovers and fava beans. Mulches block light, which weeds need to grow. “I think mulches can be the best organic option for fighting weeds, especially for vines and trees,” Lanini says. Mulches are also a key weed-fighting component in organic strawberry and many other crops.
Organic sprays – Coverage is the key. “No matter what type you use – oils, soaps, acids, etc. – if you don’t spray-to-wet, 100 percent coverage, the weeds will grow back,” Lanini says. Temperature and the age of the weed matters too. Apply in temperatures above 75 degrees when weeds are very young – about a week old – for best results. Broadleaf weeds are easier than grasses to control with sprays.
The most effective organic spray Lanini has found so far is good old-fashioned vinegar, the kind you use to make pickles. The trouble with that is, the FDA has yet to approve it for controlling weeds. “You can eat it, but can’t spray it on your weeds,” as Lanini says. There are herbicides with vinegar as their active ingredient, but they are much more costly than household vinegar.
Flamers – These propane-fueled devices quickly raise the temperature of the weed to more than 130 degrees, rupturing its cell membranes. Grasses are hard to kill by flaming because the growing point is protected underground. Flamers require quite a bit of fuel, which can be costly.
Solarization has become an important method of weed and disease control in organic desert vegetable crops. In this system, four to six weeks of solar heat under clear plastic film will kill weed seeds and pathogen propagules.
Cultural practices are extremely important in all vegetable crops especially in organic crops. Crop rotations result in shifting environments that do not favor any one weed. Use of preplant irrigation followed by shallow tillage, or flaming is a very effective method of reducing the potential weed infestation during the crop cycle.
Weeding and thinning by tool or machine is a time-honored solution. Never underestimate the value of a hoe.
For more detail on weed management for organic vegetable crops, Click here.