My husband, Robert, and I own a small certified organic acreage. It consist of three acres in native grasses and wildlife berry bushes, and the other three, in many different types of herbs, flowers and ornamentals all of which we work by hand.
When we bought our place ten years ago, it had been badly abused by chemicals, junk and misuse. Much of the land was cleared by a scraper, and thus, had no top soil, worms, bacteria, or any organic matter. Since the house was also a “handyman’s nightmare”, there was no money, no time, nor enough man power. Yet, I still had to clean up and cover 6 acres with desirable plants.
The first 5 years, I picked up junk, covered the ground with as many mulches and green manure crops as I could do and planted all the tough, drought resistant, neglect-loving plants that I could find. This was the beginning of my form of Biological Weed Control.
As my criteria was being established; the plant’s requirements became the following:
1) must be a perennial or self seeding annual
2) must be invasive or aggressive in reproduction
3) must subdue their own competitors
4) must be something I want or can use
5) must be plants that (when everything is covered) I can sell
6) must do well in Nebraska naturally, no TLC and Mother Nature added to the list
7) when Nature provides so many of the same plant, that is absolutely over-whelming – “Find the plant’s USE and that will lead to its market”
Since we are still trying to get the ground covered, the rule of thumb, at our place is:
– 1st year – plants get as much TLC as I can provide (mulch, water and weeding – Garden Style)
– 2nd year – they get water on occasion, mulched if the material is available, and weeded at least, once in the spring and fall
– 3rd year – plants receive my blessing, but very little else
As I was able to establish marketable crops, I noticed many of my neighbors spending much money, time and effort to eradicate the same plants that I was selling. I also had many people start to ask what plants might do well in areas that were inaccessible to farm equipment, or sprays. As a result, I wanted the grant project to first, show that there are many natural marketable crops in Nebraska that need little to no care once established. Secondly, I wished to show, with empirical data, how my system works.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The first step was to establish which plants would be used for the Biological Weed Control (BWCs) test plots. Since I had already been trying Peppermint, Ribbon Grass, Chives, Pennyroyal, Lamb’s Ears, Yarrow and Lemon Balm, they were the easiest choices. Comfrey and Orangemint were added in hope that they would do well. Next, the plot sizes would be determined by the number of plants that were already there. The Comfrey and Orangemint would be purchased in amounts that would keep their plots comparable in size to the others. Lastly, each BWC plot would consist of three areas varying in degrees of physical labor and one control.
The area with the highest degree of labor in each plot was Garden Style. It was mulched at planting and weeded and mulched throughout the first growing season. The second year, the area was weeded, once in spring and again in the fall. It received mulch as the materials were available. The third year, it only received a blessing, and on occasional mowing.
The area with the middle degree of labor in each plot was referred to as BWC +1. It was mulched once at planting. The first and second year, it was mowed by a tractor with a sickle blade, as needed (or more honestly put, when the weather allowed). The third year, we switched to an occasional mowing around the plants with a lawn mower.
The area with the least amount of effort was called BWC. After planting, the area was mowed with the tractor’s sickle blade when all the plots were done, but usually, only after it was badly needed and dry enough. Again, in the last year, mowing was changed to an occasional lawn mower around the plants.
The last area was named WEEDS. It was to be the control and was not planted, though it was mowed whenever the other plots were. And like all the other plots, WEEDS received only natural rainfall, had data recorded and was photographed. However, by the third year, since there was no pertinent information being obtained by the WEEDS areas, they were discontinued.
The biggest problem for the BWC plots has been the weather. The first year, the rain and mud delayed planting, made the originally planned sites for the plots impossible, flooded some of the plots and postponed the mowings so long, that many of the plants were damaged. The second year, Nature provided us with early and late frosts, alternating flood or drought conditions, and a contaminated well and flooded basement, which ate up much of our available time. This year, the weather, though it was very hot and dry, had little affect on most of the plots, as the grasshoppers kept most everything mowed down. However, just before the fall evaluation, an early frost wiped out all the plants before they could be read.
Needless to say, this wasn’t what I though would happen. Though, it has been very interesting to see “Who’s the Strongest”. Peppermint’s and Lemon Balm’s BWC and BWC +1 plots were badly damaged by the first year floods. The plants that survived seemed to bounce back only to be nipped by untimely frosts. By the second spring, we lost both of the BWC plots and Lemon Balm’s BWC +1 plot as well. The second year fall evaluation sited the plants though few, healthy, lush and on an aggressive comeback. This year’s wet and cold spring kept them from getting a good start before the grasshoppers started to take them down. By fall’s evaluation, Lemon Balm could not be found. Peppermint BWC +1 and BWC had one good patch, while Garden Style had a couple of clumps of struggling stick-stems.
Orangemint, because of the slope of its bed, faired the first year’s flooding very well. It was hardest hit by the continued wet weather, which greatly postponed the mowing. A mold fungus set in and devastated the BWC and BWC +1 areas. The remaining plants were badly weakened. Though some made it into the second year, they eventually died out. The Garden Style plants did great. The 1994 fall data showed a lush, aggressive growth. In fact, they had nearly filled themselves in, the first year, and were out of their boundaries by the second. They, too, had a though time with the cold spring and grasshoppers, but I believe they will return. Even though, this last fall, the area was covered by only leafless stems, each seemed to be attached to a strong, healthy root.
Chives, on a slope like the Orangemint, had little to no affect from the flooding. They grew consistently though sunshine or rain, hot or cold. Each time I looked, each clump was a little larger, always green and healthy. However, Chives, are not only very tasty to humans, it seems to be a favorite among grasshoppers. As soon as the plants would grow, this year, they were eaten off. By the spring 1995 evaluation, I couldn’t tell if the roots were so stressed that they were dying out or if the hoppers just eating them too. At the 1995 fall evaluation, there was little to be seen.
The Pennyroyal, on the other hand, let very little affect it. Though the flooding affected the BWC and Garden Style some, they revived and increase. The BWC +1, on the other hand, basically filled itself in the first growing season, jumped out of its boundaries, the second, and kept on going. It was the only plant type on our entire farm that all of the insects left alone. The last evaluation found Pennyroyal looking green, lush and very healthy.
Yarrow was another one that suffered some from the flooding. Its BWC area was water-logged for many days and lost most of its plants. Its BWC +1 area was also weakened and lost many. All the survivors regained their strength and aggressively spread. The second year, Yarrow continued to grow quite nicely. It filled out with silvery-green, lush, healthy plants. The last year, however, did not find the plants looking so good. They, like the Peppermints, were continually eaten off, but like the Orangemint seemed to be attached to some very healthy, strong roots. I did find in my research that White Yarrow’s roots release a toxin that can eventually kill itself out. This has happened to a Yellow and Pink Yarrow bed in my garden, but the White Yarrow bed has lasted for five years so far.
Comfrey was in a class of its own. The root pieces, we received were bad. The fist year only one root sprouted and it was in the Garden Style area. It continued to grow lush, green and aggressively spreading throughout the duration of the project. The second spring, we were sent the replacement roots, but by then we were digging a new well and the basement was flooded. Needless to say, we threw the roots into the ground, mulched them heavily, and went about other things. This plot was not measured or laid out like the test plots, nor has had the same data collected. All these plants did very well. They have filled in the three foot gaps, were lush, green and very healthy, with only being weeded three times in two years.
Though planted on the worst ground we have, Ribbon Grass did very well. The first long wet season seemed to hamper the BWC +1 area, but it didn’t hurt it much in the long run. Actually, the BWC area without mulch survived the wet spell better than the BWC +1. The Garden Style area didn’t seem to have any discouraging affect. Since then all of the surviving plants have spread, growing into a beautiful green-striped-white and blushed pink bed. Even though it was another favorite feast for the grasshoppers, the pruning only seemed to make the rhizomes grow faster and spread farther.
Lamb’s Ear being the next neighbor to Ribbon Grass, also was planted on very poor and compacted soil. It had a tough time getting started the first year, but certainly made a comeback in the next two years. The BWC and BWC +1 lost several plants that first growing season. Once established, the second year plants flourished. The clumps increased in size and produced a pretty, silvery, fuzzy-leaf bed. The plants are healthy, with strong root systems, and the self-sown seeds have been jumping out its boundaries.
The next evidence of poor planning came with the compiling of the data. I had planned on using a 24/24 inch grid, to toss randomly onto the plot and record the height, health and numbers of the WEEDS and BWCs. Since some of the BWCs were spaced 2-3 feet apart, the Comfrey had only one plant, and the mowing kept all the plants (esp. the grasses) at about the same height, I often obtained useless information.
We then decided to record data on only the BWCs, noting the heights, diameters of the clumps when possible, and any pertinent notes on the health of the plants. The new format for the data gave a clearer and more accurate picture of the plants progress.
In order to insure pertinent information, we also called in two more people from the area. Pastor Abigail Byrd (BS – Horticulture and Agronomy, MS – Agronomy and Plant Genetics) and Noel Erskine (BS and MS in Ag. Education) agreed to act as BWC Test Plot Evaluators and consultants. We asked Abigail and Noel to assist us for several reasons. They were both very knowledgeable, interested in the project, had the time to commit, and could give accurate marks. This also added to our community involvement.
We decided the plots would be evaluated by them, once in early spring, and again in the late fall. The grade would only reflect the amount of ground covered, and the health and vigor of the BWC plants. The scale to be used would be from 0 to 20 with 20 being the best.
Paul Hay, our Gage County extension agent, was a great help throughout the project’s duration. In fact, he’s been involved with our place since we moved here and understood the method to his madness. Besides being a consultant, Paul did the Soil Samples for the Test Plots, 8/18/93 and 10/10/94, had the Comfrey’s Nutritional Value evaluated, and submitted the last Professional Evaluation on the WBC plots.
– Background weeds were similar on all plots and consisted of both annual and perennial weeds. Foxtail, henbit, crabgrass, lamb quarters, kochia, downy brome, ragweed, bindweed, brome and pigweed make up the majority of the weeds present.
– The most impressive plants in controlling the weeds were yarrow, pennyroyal and ribbon grass. The pennyroyal has been the most aggressive since the start.
– Soil tests showed high nutrient levels and high organic matter levels. This would allow for both excellent test plant growth and excellent weed competition level.
– The plots were tended according to the plan.
– The plants have improved in competitive ability as they have become more established in the plots. This is particularly true of the peppermint, comfrey, yarrow, and ribbon grass.
– The chives live with the competition and do quite well, but they do not control weeds well
– Garden style did the best job on yarrow, lamb’s ear and ribbon grass
– Pennyroyal and peppermint did better with the mulch treatment
– The plants which did the best with no additional care were pennyroyal, ribbon grass and chives.
If the data seems to be faltering in the fall of 1995, it’s because we truly thought the study would be over by then. I didn’t have a clue as to the length of time it would take to sort, compile and type my findings. On 9/18/19, we gathered the last data and officially closed down the test plots. Though my fall report doesn’t have as many numbers, it does reflect an accurate picture of the last season’s growth, health and aggressiveness in spreading. A clump is defined as a group of the desired plants, without weeds or bare ground between them.
9/18/95 FALL REPORT
BWC, BWC +1, Garden Style – there are dry, brown, crumbly, grass-like stems on the ground: couldn’t find much evidence of where the plants should be, the few clumps I found were little hollow papers.
BWC, BWC +1 – no change Garden Style – the one plant is big, green and lush; there are lots of hopper chew marks, but less than 10%: Height – 38” Diameter – 36”
BWC, BWC +1 – no change Garden Style – lots of green-brown leafless stems, one right next to another; stems don’t pull off from the roots, roots are solidly in the ground. Average height – 10” Diameter – 1 clump-approx. 7’x12’
BWC and BWC +1 had one mutual clump together, green with brown stems, leaves still there, but lots of hopper damage, roots sound. Ave. height – 12” Diameter – approx. 9’
Garden Style – green, mostly leafless, weak roots. 2 clumps Ave. height -9” Ave. diameter – 6”
BWC, BWC +1 and Garden Style – share the same patch, it’s about half of the Garden Style. All of the BWC +1 and three-quarters of the BWC area, plus another 2’ on both of the non-plot sides. Plants are green, lush and whole; only the outside plants show any insect damage and that is very little. Ave. height – 20” Diameter – 16’x48’
BWC – nice, healthy plants, very little insect damage, almost filled in, 7 clumps Ave. height – 12.5” Ave. diameter – 13”
BWC +1 – the one clump is healthy and lush; height – 11” diameter – 24”
Garden style – beautiful, lush plants, in many areas, only 1-2” between clumps, no insect damage 9 clumps Ave. height – 10” Ave. diameter – 33”
Outside the plot boundaries – 7 clumps Ave height – 5” and Ave diameter – 3”
BWC – the plants are healthy but show extensive insect damage to the leaves, lots of new growth emerging between the old: 1 clump Ave height – 33”(old growth) 15”( new growth)
Ave. diameter – 7”
BWC +1 – new and old growth are not as evident as in BWC, lots of insect chew marks 12 clumps Ave height – 24” Ave diameter – 24”
Garden Style – lots of insect damage though like the other areas, it seems to have made the rhizomes spread faster. 18 clumps Ave. height – 32” Ave diameter – 34”
BWC – no yarrow plants in boundaries also lost the self sown plants that were outside the plot, few WEEDS, mostly bare ground and intensive insect damage.
Garden Style and BWC +1 – grew together, little sign of insect damage because they ate it the area is covered with a mass of tiny, feathery, silvery leaves: Ave height – 3” diameter – 5’x35’
Though I may not have the imperical data that I was hoping for I feel that the Test Plots were very successful. By documenting, the growing seasons of these plants, I now which ones are tough. The remaining plants have survived flooding, wet conditions, drought, untimely frost and insects without much help, nor any added expense. Each one of them could have been harvested during the last two years. In the case of comfrey, it could have been cut back 10 times. Lemon Balm and Chives should stay in the garden, where they can receive more TLC. But the other plants, I believe would make good field crops, especially in areas that are inaccessible to farm equipment or sprays. These plants not only increase their numbers, but overcame the competing plants as well and they have a market value.
The other part of this grant was to research the USES and MARKET ABILITY of these plants and forty-plus Nebraska WEEDS. Needless to say this like everything else has been a real adventure. I guess I thought that I would talk to a few people, read a few books, and find all the answers. I was really surprised. There are many resources that can state the composition of a plant, its habitat, what a pest it is, and how to eradicate it, but very few that know its use.
I had decided on which plants to research when I submitted the application. I picked the plants by those that grow in our area, or because I had heard about them and added the BWCs to the list. I then had to choose which plant and/or species I would research. Goldenrod has 150 species, all very similar, but not all sharing the same characteristics or uses. I also found that by starting with the Common Names, there may be several different and distinct plants using the same name. in addition, one plant my go by 100 different common names. Once, I found the more commonly used name for a plat, after looking in 22 books. I had sent he name earlier, but did not know that it was one of them I had wanted. So I had to backtrack through all the books. It also seems to me that I located more information from earlier books that did not use the Latin names or if they did it was omitted form the book’s index. In other words I had to at least scan every page of every book and cross reference each name; so that I could be sure I had the correct plant.
Once I caught on to the method and started getting good leads for interviews, things greatly improved. The OCIA, NASA, and Frontier Herb Coop annual meeting and workshops were extremely helpful. The other part of the research was to determine the local and state markets for the WEEDS listed. Though I spent much time contacting the various types of buyers, I don’t know if I was asking the right questions. Thus, I have gathered up enough information that I can make on informed guess, but can’t say that I have the statistics to back me up.
I did discover that many of the larger companies would rather deal with growers who have volume. While many of the smaller local shops seem to prefer the smaller growers. Many of the crafters and other potential buyers are often found at flea markets, food coops and your own neighborhood. I have a couple of regular shatter cane buyers. Granted I don’t sell a lot of it yet, but I get more for it than the price of a bushel of corn. For the larger crops, there are food and herb warehouses, and botanical and pharmaceutical companies. I even found a company that buys nothing but WEED seeds, to be used in research and another company that is making pasta out of foxtail seed. The markets really are there, but are determined by the size of the crop.
However, the more I found out, the more I managed to compile several boxes of notes, interviews, research data and papers of all sorts, which brings us to the last big obstacle of the grant. Our computer broke down and could not be repaired right after I started using it to compile the data from the plots and the research was starting. The paper pile has truly been the worst aspect of the whole project. If I learned anything about doing research, it’s USE a computer. I tried countless times to get the information gathered up and sorted. It usually ended up with me being greatly frustrated and my house in a disaster. I really did try to finish this without the technological convenience, but I just couldn’t do it. I finally took from of the grant monies and bought a second-hand computer. I have spent the last 4 months making everyone I know sit at the keyboard and type as fast as they could while I was busy shifting piles, sorting and computing data to be dictated. Later, I compiled and organized the information into what you’re reading.
I would like to thanks all those persons who made the last part of this research possible. They granted interviews, answered my survey questions and were kind enough to refer me to other resources. Though several people asked not to be listed, I hope all of those involved will know how greatly they are appreciated.
Though we sponsored Farm Tours about our type of Biological Weed Control and growing soil, prior to the grant we felt that there had always been a poor turn out (less than 25 people). As you have read the last three years have been chaotic and we were unable to host a formal tour. However, we did conduct informal ones all the time. Some of the groups have included Ag students (both high school and college levels), Ladies Extension Clubs, local farmers, and other interested persons (some came over 200miles to be here). Several people came a couple of times each summer. Needless to say if anyone stopped here for any reason they usually got a tour. Many of our friends have watched the test plots on a weekly basis. I would estimate that at least 300 people have viewed the plots.
In addition I took the opportunity to speak to any interested groups. I have been a guest speaker at Tri County Agricultural and Horticultural classes, nearly every semester. I have spoken to Ladies Aid groups, Extension Clubs, and basically anywhere someone would listen. Most importantly we were able to include our local community in the project.
Not only have all of our friends and family been given a role in the grant, we have included as well almost every Ag agency in the area. NSAS, two of the Nebraska OCIAs, SCS, Pheasants Forever, and two of the County Extension Offices are just a few agencies that were involved. There were also many Nebraska State and UNL Departments and personnel that were quite helpful. We somehow managed to also include a majority of our neighbors in some way or another. Whether it was because of doubtful curiosity, renting or loaning equipment, or through polite conversation we were able to spark the interest of many living close to us.
All in all I believe we have been able to reach many people about my system of biological weed control. More importantly I hope that we have been able to also teach them a new way of looking at the natural occurring plants around them. To insure that the word stays out there we will be sending out 25 copies of the findings. Many are being sent by request and other as our Thank You.