My family owns a 10 acre plot in southern Delaware County, Ohio. Most of the property is not at the present time being used for anything other than wildlife habitat. There are some barns and a driveway on approximately 1 acre. There is a small intermittent stream flowing across the middle of the property. Approximately ½ acre is being planted with fruit trees. Two acres are under cultivation with vegetables. We purchased this acreage from the estate of a farmer who owned over 100 acres.
Before we received this grant, we were not actively farming the property. We were fallowing the property to give us the opportunity to have the property certified as organic.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Three different methods of non-chemical weed control were tested to determine which treatment is most cost-effective, both in terms of materials and of man-hours used, for rehabilitating idled farm fields.
The methods used were:
– Flame weeding
– Deep wheat straw used as mulch
– Landscape fabric used as a weed barrier
A total of 1400 pepper plants (Capsicum annuum) were planted 18 inches apart in rows 200 feet long. Both hot and sweet peppers were planted. In the odd-numbered rows, each of four different weed control methods were used in 50 foot sections. The weed control methods were: flame weeding, using landscape fabric as a weed barrier, using straw as mulch, and a control method of had weeding. The order of the weed control methods in the odd-numbered rows were randomized, to eliminate any effects from the positioning of the rows in the field. In the even-numbered rows, all 200 feet of the row contained one treatment only, to scientifically randomize any effect of intra-field positioning. Additionally, several rows were dedicated to determine if there were any allelopathic effects from hot peppers or sweet peppers.
Each weed control method required different amounts of time to install and maintain. These amounts of time were recorded throughout the growing season. When the grand totals for each weed control treatment were converted into dollar amounts, and added to the purchase price for supplies and/or hardware for each treatment, the treatment with the lowest overall cost was the treatment deemed most economical. Please note that this cost does not include a yield component. Finally, a mail survey was conducted of county residents to determine the opinions of the residents to weeds and vegetable farming.
Local farmers who assisted with this project and were paid were Gary Johnson and Daniel Hale. Professor Deborah Rumsey of Ohio State University helped design and implement the pepper experiment, and also helped with the survey. Professor Rumsey also helped to analyze the data. Kythrie Silva from Ohio State University designed the website, and also uploaded all photos and results.
RESULTS FROM THE PEPPER EXPERIMENT
The pepper experiment utilized three different test methods of weed suppression, along with a control method of hand weeding. The test methods were: flame weeding, use of straw as mulch, and use of landscape fabric. Of the three test methods, flame weeding needed the fewest amount of hours at the experiment beginning, and the most hours needed during the duration of the experiment. The straw method required the most number of hours to install, and also required a large amount of hours to maintain. The landscape fabric required a large amount of hours to install, and virtually no hours needed to maintain the treatment. The landscape fabric was the most cost effective means of weed control compared to hand weeding. Using straw was very frustrating because the straw allowed slugs to eat the plants. Flame weeding was effective on immature weeds only, and flames are difficult to use up close to pepper plants. Hand weeding is tedious and difficult.
Each method of weed control was effective indifferent ways. Landscape fabric was very effective against thistle, compared to the other methods. Thistle that grew underneath the fabric “tented” the fabric as the weeds searched for sunlight. I just walked on the landscape fabric to crush the weeds that were growing under the fabric. The only place that thistles grew effectively when using landscape fabric was in very close proximity to the pepper plants, and also at the very edges of the fabric. One weed that was difficult to control was bindweed, which defeated each method that was used.
Straw as mulch was a very effective weed control method. Only thistle and bindweed defeated the straw. Thistles grew up through the straw, but were easily hand pulled. Bindweed also grew through the straw. The straw also contributed some wheat as weeds, which were time consuming to hand-pull.
With flame-weeding, I used the method of flaming the rows weekly, weather permitting. Mature weeds were not killed by the flames, but seedling weeds were controlled nicely. The flame thrower produced 500,000 BTU, which is very hot, creating a dangerous condition for the pepper plants. It was not feasible to use that hot of a flame near plants that were to be saved. Also, the flame thrower caught some neighboring straw on fire, creating anxious moments for me.
In the future, I would not hesitate to use landscape fabric again. Landscape fabric is water permeable, so you do not need to use any special irrigation tools. I used rocks to hold the fabric in place, which creates the problem of putting rocks into the field instead of the usual condition of removing rocks from the field. I would not use landscape staples to hold the fabric, because I do not want to puncture any tires. I will not use straw again, because it is too time-consuming to install and because it harbors hungry slugs and other insects. I will use the flame thrower again in limited applications, so long as there is no straw nearby to catch on fire.
RESULTS FROM THE MAIL SURVERY
The survey was mailed to 196 residents of Delaware County, with 5 surveys returned for bad addresses. The name and address data was randomly obtained from the latest edition of the Delaware County telephone book. There were 62 surveys returned, for a response rate of 32.5%. Most respondents (83.9%) buy fresh fruit and vegetables every week at the supermarket, but far fewer buy Certified Organic produce weekly (14.5%) or from local farmers weekly during the summer (12.9%). Respondents would rather have a weed-free lawn versus a weed-free farm field (35.4% vs. 6.5%). Complete results are posted on the website, along with a sample copy of the survey and the cover letter. To view the Johnson Family Farm website go to: http://www.wideopenwest.com/~drumsey8248/index.html
The most effective method of weed control of this experiment was from landscape fabric. The landscape fabric allows the passage of water and air, but not light, so that the only plants that get sunlight are located where I cut the holes in the fabric. Weeds also grew in the holes, but were shaded by the developing or fully mature pepper plants, and therefore were easily hand-pulled. A problem that developed early in the experiment using the landscape fabric was the fact that the landscape fabric, which is back, got extremely hot. Any fabric that touched a tender transplant burned the transplant, resulting in the death of the transplant and resulting need to purchase more peppers for replanting. Additional hours were needed to widen the holes in the fabric to insure that no more transplants were touched and burned by the fabric. Additionally, the fabric is very easily blown by wind, and must be held down by heavy items (I used rocks) or long fabric staples. The landscape fabric also grew plants that were the most vibrant and heaviest yielding of the four treatments.
The least-effective method of weed control is by use of straw as mulch. We used wheat straw, obtained from a local farmer. The straw was clean and bright. We placed the straw thickly around each plant. Instead of shaking the straw loosely around the plants, we placed the straw in tightly packed “slices” or “sections” of approximately 6 inches thick. The straw did a very good job of limiting the growth of weeds. Weeds did grow up through the straw, especially thistle and bindweed, but these weeds were easily pulled by hand. A much more insidious problem was the problem of the straw as a habitat for harmful insects and slugs. Leopard slugs were ravenous, and enjoyed eating the pepper plants and fruit. The slugs required nightly hand-removal. Some pepper plants were eaten to the point that the plants had to be replaced. Other areas required that the straw had to be removed, a molluscicide applied, and straw re-applied. Another hazard to using straw, in context of this experiment, was that my flame thrower ignited some straw in a neighboring row, resulting in the unintentional death of some plants, along with some scary moments for me. If one were to add a yield component to this experiment, the straw method of weed control would prove to be very ineffective and devastating commercially.
Flame weeding was a rather satisfying means of weed control. I used a propane flamethrower that was purchased from Northern Tool Company. The flamethrower is a wand with a 25 foot section of hose, attached to a 25 pound tank that I purchased separately. The wand gets hot, and it is advised to wear gloves when handling for extended periods. The tank and flamethrower is easy to move to different areas of the field. Weeding by flame is only truly effective on young weeds, and it is difficult to use near established plants. Flame weeding is easy to perform, so it is simple to weed multiple times quickly. As mentioned earlier, the flamethrower can easily cause collateral damage.
The last method of weed control was our control method of hand weeding. Hand weeding is hard physically, since it requires bending for long periods of time in hot weather. Hand weeding requires no advanced purchases, but takes the longest amount of time to perform. I estimate the yield of fruit to be less than that of flame weeding, because of the weed pressure.