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The Crop Report Week 24 | Song of the Weeds

Well, last week brought the rain so it figures that this week the weeds show up, darn it. The summer rains have a funny way of making the weeds around here grow like Jack's magic beanstalk virtually overnight. Yes, the rain also makes our flower crops grow, but not like the weeds. To them, it’s like super juice, and they triple in size in a matter of just a few days.

Here on the farm, a weed isn’t a problem until it is. We don’t eradicate weeds, we manage them, and in farm talk, kinda feels like definition of insanity! If they’re small and not in the way, then weeds can probably hang out longer than expected, but once they become unruly and start to create hiccups in our program, they have to go. Weeds tend to choke out production crops, rob nutrients and water, and become habitat refuges for unwanted insect populations.

 

 

What exactly defines a weed? It’s actually just an undesired plant in a specific location, so a dahlia in the middle of the celosia bed could be a weed (yeah, I threw the dahlia under the bus.) Any plant not in its intended place can be a bit wild, and usually on the farm, there are a few standout weeds that couldn’t hide in a field row if they wanted to.

The big contenders we battle on the farm are wild atriplex (saltbush weed or orache), spiny amaranth (pigweed), and broadleaf dock (this one has roots lead to the other side of the world.) Man, I hate these guys - and there aren’t many plants that I hate.

 

 

Wild atriplex. While we grow the cultivated versions in red copper and chartreuse green, the wild cousin of our refined crops gives us heartburn throughout the season. Wild atriplex has less visual appeal than its counterparts, only appearing in a drab green and looking more ragged and seedy as it develops (reads: not pretty from a flower appreciator’s eyes.) The seed plumes pop up in a matter of a few days and if not immediately discarded, each stem will drop and spread thousands of seeds for the following seasons to deal with. This plant tends to enjoy heavy clay compacted areas and the full sun to maximize its growth.

We manage to control of this weed by knowing the key areas to watch for its annual return. The peony field and the oldest perennial garden. These two locations are our most compacted and have the highest percentage of clay in soil structure, a long-term project to balance out our soil composition that will help lessen these weeds’ control over farm areas. But, to combat the wild atriplex in season, we scout the farm paying close attention to these areas for the first signs of growth and remove them as early as possible. That said, these guys tend to pop up overnight, and once you see the seed plume, it’s nearly impossible to remove the roots without damaging the crop it’s growing in. When this happens, we aggressively cut the weeds back to ground level to weaken the weed in order to save the production crop. Once we harvest the main field crop and don’t have to be concerned about damaging it, we remove what’s left of the atriplex plants. We have significantly diminished the population in our fields using this method.

 

Spiny Amaranth. This is one of the biggest reasons we can’t flower farm barefoot in summer dresses. Well, that, plus I like my leggings and muck boots, but still! Spiny amaranth is just like it sounds - it’s covered in very sharp spines! Like the wild atriplex, the spiny amaranth is a close cousin to the cultivated and beautiful amaranthus that we grow and love (which is easy since it’s not covered in SPIKES.) Spiny amaranth is a soft annual that tends to have a red or purple tone on the main stem with carpet-like fur that develops with the flower. The fur hides its defensive spikes that grow at each branch of the stem resulting in a painful experience when pulling this weed. Each plant has over 100,000 seeds that begin to drop as soon as they start to develop, making this a hard weed to permanently remove from our farm. The plant tends to pop up in the most stressed crops, and knowing that the seeds in the soil probably originated around 25 years ago when cattle were raised in our fields, this will be a longstanding weed we battle. I assume that there are millions of seeds in the soil just waiting for the first glimmer of light to germinate. Great. 

To battle the spiny amaranth there is one key tool to use: GLOVES! And thick ones because the spines of these guys hurt A LOT! The root structure of these plants isn’t robust, so the plants are easily pulled from the ground if you can find a non-pokey grasp on the stalk. Even still, the waste from removal is like a briar patch far past the life of the leaves, so we try to isolate the green matter from the rest of our compost pile until it has fully decomposed.

 

Broadleaf Dock. Our last evil villain on the farm is the broadleaf dock. If you ever wanted to visit the other side of the world, the most direct way would be to follow the broadleaf dock's roots! These plants dig in deep with the most aggressive root system of all the weeds we battle. Dock shows up in newly cultivated soil, and a big reason as to why all our fields are covered in landscape fabric. This weed loves when we break ground on a field, amend and cultivate a row bed, or flip a tunnel. It likes to crash our housewarming parties for new crop beds!  

While our first trick to handle this weed is to suppress the areas that it grows, we also use a solid trowel to dig as much of the root as possible when we remove them. We also identify our most troublesome patches, and if we can’t remove them from their location in a production crop, we will put a field flag or marking tape to identify it for removal when the crop it lives within is done. We know that we have to go back to remove the root or the following season the problem will be much more severe. 

 

 

Each of these problematic plants do have good attributes though, as do all weeds (remember it’s just a plant in the wrong spot.) All of them have herbal, medicinal, and food properties that serve other purposes for humans or animals in a biodynamic way. It’s important to balance our weed control against these positive aspects that the plants provide. None of the control methods referenced above default to chemical applications. While our farm is not 100 percent organic, we firmly believe in making chemical applications of any kind a last resort.

 

 

Instead of only seeing these plants as problems, I see them as indicators on the farm. They tell me what is happening below the soil where I can’t see. They are showing me the history of the land, and what I can do to help it be better down the road. They tell us of the diversity of the plant families, and how they work together or against each other at different times. Sure, I could look at it as just weeds to pull, or I could stop and listen to the ballad of the soil and use it to create my own symphony.

- xoxo Jess

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