Weed Master Video Update!

We are wrapping up the final reports for our NE SARE-funded project that supported our on-farm trials of the Weed Master.  In addition to inspiring this blog, we used this project as a test case for using video to capture the on-farm trials and experiences of participating growers and our research group.  Tavi Merrill, who recently graduated from the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture undergraduate program, has done a fine job of directing and editing these videos.

We are continuing our field research on hand tools and scale-appropriate weeding tools for the small farm.  Ben Costanzi is a new M.S. student who will focus on this topic for his thesis work.

You can view the most recent videos below, or go to our YouTube Channel:



Prologue to the Weed Master Project


Weed Master Field Trial:  Fisher Farm


Weed Master Field Trial:  Fail Better Farm


Weed Seedbanks: 2009 On-farm Sampling

“Credits” to the weed seedbank occur when weeds shed seed, i.e., seed rain, and “debits” when seeds are removed from the soil by germination, predation, or decay/death, in this declining order of importance.
Seedbanks on the Beech Grove, New Leaf and Peacemeal Farms
During the 2009 field season we visited Eric and Anne Nordell of the Beech Grove Farm in Trout Run, PA, Dave and Christine Colson of New Leaf Farm in Durham, ME, and Mark Guzzie and Marcia Ferry of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, ME, to collect soil samples from selected fields.  At each sampled location on each farm we collected ten soil cores (6.5 cm diam. x 10 cm deep) from a 25 square meter area.  Soil samples were sieved to remove stones and spread over a layer of vermiculite and placed in a greenhouse.  Weed seedlings were identified, recorded and removed weekly.  The soil was allowed to dry and was then mixed and replaced in the flats once a month for four months.
Weed communities were comprised of an average 8 to 10 species on each farm (see Table, below).  The three most abundant species at the Peacemeal Farm are troublesome in most vegetable crops and are a widespread problem among northeastern vegetable growers.  At the New Leaf Farm, smooth crabgrass was the top-ranked species, primarily because of a large infestation in a field where pigs had been pastured.  Low cudweed and corn spurry, while a problem in salad mix, are not particularly troublesome in most other vegetable crops.  At the Beech Grove Farm, typically pernicious summer annual weeds were rare and not among the top ranked species.

Typical samples are shown below.  These photos were taken after approximately 4 weeks in the greenhouse.  They offer a visual representation of the “low,” “medium,” and “high” seedbanks measured on these farms.

Seedbank Management

Managing weeds with a focus on the seedbank looks at the farming system with an eye first towards opportunities for preempting seed rain with short-season cash or cover crops that are harvested or terminated before troublesome weed species produce mature seeds.  Next, opportunities for shallow soil disturbance, strategically-timed to be coincident with weed species-specific peak emergence potential, will encourage germination.  Subsequent disturbance events can kill these “flushes” of weeds.  When seed rain occurs, opportunities for predation are greater if seeds remain on the soil surface.  This hypothesis, that fall tillage should be delayed to encourage seed predation is the focus of current field studies.

For more information see:

Managing weeds with crop rotation


and these eXtension articles:

Manage the Weed Seed Bank—Minimize “Deposits” and Maximize “Withdrawals”


Manipulating Weed Seed Banks to Promote their Decline


Managing weeds with crop rotation

“Rotation of crops…is the most effective means yet devised for keeping land free of weeds.  No other method of weed control, mechanical, chemical, or biological, is so economical or so easily practiced as a well-arranged sequence of tillage and cropping.”

— C.E. Leighty.  1938 Yearbook of Agriculture

Diversity is key.  Dissimilar crop species with disparate management practices impose a wide range of stresses and mortality factors, creating an unpredictable environment to which the weed community is continually adjusting (Liebman and Staver, 2001).  Diversity, however, may also establish and/or perpetuate weed problems.  Fall cucurbits, for example, may permit considerable weed growth after vines run, causing abundant seed rain (see, Figure 1, below).  Cover crops, while frequently noted for their ability to reduce weed biomass, often contain weeds going to seed.  Perennial legumes or sod crops favor perennial weeds such as quackgrass, and do not include timely soil disturbance events that promote germination losses of annual weeds.  Thus, while diversity is key, successful weed management requires cropping sequences that feature practices that minimize, or better, eliminate, “credits” to the weed seedbank, while maximizing seed “debits.”

Short-season cash or cover crops, whose growth is terminated before weeds set seed, are the most useful elements in preventing weed seed credits (Figure 1).  The tillage events necessary for these crops are often well-timed to preempt seed rain of winter annual weeds.  Ideally, the crops are then terminated before their associated summer annual weeds set seed.  In considering longer-season crops, good weed control, a competitive canopy, and opportunity for hand roguing surviving weeds are key attributes.

We measured common lambsquarters weed seed rain in a broccoli, winter squash rotation, managed without cover crops (control), with fall cover crops, two consecutive years of red clover (2-Yr. CC), or alternate years of vegetables and cover crops with summer fallowing (e.g., after strategies described by Nordell and Nordell, 2007; Figure 1).  The alternate year cover crop system consistently had the lowest common lambsquarters seed rain (see Alt.-Yr. CC, solid boxes, below).  This, combined with the seedbank depleting fallowing periods during the cover crop years, prevented this species from increasing over the four years of the experiment (data not shown).


Figure 1.  Effect of cover crop systems on common lambsquarters seed rain in 2001 through 2004.  Within a year means labeled with different lowercase letters are significantly different based on Tukey’s HSD (P < 0.05).

Debiting strategies require consideration of weed seedbank ecology (Gallandt, 2006).  Because germination is the most effective way to deplete the seedbank, it may be useful to consider primary tillage practices that maintain seeds at or near the soil surface, in the “active seedbank,” where seeds are most likely to experience environmental conditions that encourage germination.  Seed predation is also an important source of loss from the seedbank, and a further reason to keep seeds at the soil surface.  Avoiding fall tillage and rapid weed seed burial maintains seed at the soil surface where they are more readily consumed by predators.

Initial conditions of the seedbank should be carefully considered in short-term crop sequence planning.  Where the starting weed pressure is very high, a clean fallow period is the best strategy for drawing down the seedbank (Mohler, 2009; Nordell and Nordell, 2007).  Because weed species vary in their seasonal patterns of emergence, the timing of fallow periods should target the most problematic species or group of weeds.  Winter annuals, for example, exhibit peak emergence in the late fall and early spring—summer annuals, in the warmer periods of June and July.  Shallow tillage coincident with this emergence periodicity will stimulate germination of the targeted group of weeds, and subsequent tillage kills these seedlings.

If the seedbank is at a moderate level, cropping options may be expanded to include crops that are both amenable to effective cultivation, and are sufficiently competitive that abundant weed seed rain is unlikely.  These so-called “cleaning crops,” seem to vary from farm to farm.  Onions, for example, are a cleaning crop for some growers.  A long-season and uncompetitive crop, growers know onions must be nearly weed free, so they make frequent cultivation a priority for this crop.  This frequent, shallow cultivation offers benefits similar to fallowing strategies, encouraging successive flushes of weeds that are removed by subsequent cultivation events.  While the need for repeated cultivation may be viewed negatively in the short-term, the long term effect is depletion of the seedbank. Potato and sweet corn are cleaning crops for some growers.  These crops can be aggressively cultivated and weeds kept at a minimum.  Slow to establish, uncompetitive species, e.g., carrot and parsnip, onion and leek, are ideally planted in the cleanest of fields.

Given the importance of the relative size of the weed seedbank to the success of subsequent weed management practices, it seems counterproductive for an otherwise clean rotation sequence to include a crop likely to result in abundant weed seed rain (e.g., my problem with winter cucurbits).  Rotation blocks could consider likelihood of seed rain as a first separating criterion.  “Weed-free” blocks could be managed with a long-term vision for improving weed management conditions.  Elsewhere, the commonly used “critical period” for weed control can continue to guide management, focusing on control of weed seedlings in the early to mid-period of crop growth.  Before the start of this period, weeds are too small to reduce crop yield; after this period crop competition alone will avoid weed-related yield losses.  In other words, “beat the weeds back” early to ensure a good crop and don’t worry about weedy crops late in the season.  There are many successful farmers who rely on this approach to weed management.  They focus on repeated cultivation and hand weeding until crops are judged to be sufficiently weed-free.  However, seed rain from weeds surviving the critical period means that weed pressure is likely to increase over time.  In response, the frequency of cultivation and hours of hand weeding will have to increase to simply maintain a given level of weed control.  The alternative, managing for improving weed conditions, requires careful deployment of diversity, minimizing credits and maximizing debits to the seedbank (Gallandt, 2006).


Gallandt, E. R. (2006). “How can we target the weed seedbank?” Weed Science 54: 588-596.

Leighty, C.E.  1938.  “Crop Rotation.”  in Soils and Men, U.S.D.A Yearbook of Agriculture.  pgs. 406-430

Liebman, M. and C. P. Staver (2001). Crop diversification for weed management. Ecological Management of Agricultural Weeds. M. Liebman, C. L. Mohler and C. P. Staver. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press: 322-374.

Mohler, C. L. (2009). The role of crop rotation in weed management. Crop Rotation on Organic Farms.  A Planning Manual. C. L. Mohler and S. E. Johnson. Ithaca, NY, Natural Resource, Agriculture, an dEngineering Service (NRAES): 44-46.

Nordell, A. and E. Nordell (2007). Weed the Soil, Not the Crop.  A Whole Farm Approach to Weed Management. Trout Run, PA: 42.

Prepared for the 2009 Proceedings of the New England Vegetable & Berry Conference.

A Look Back at Hand Weeding Tools

In preparation for some fall meetings I spent some time recently looking for other examples of hand weeding tools and, thanks to the scanning efforts of Google, happened upon some fantastic advertisements from the 1919 issues of The Garden Magazine. It would seem that we could have initiated the Weed Master Project nearly a century ago!

From:  The Garden Magazine, 1919

From: The Garden Magazine, 1919

"On-farm evaluation of innovative cultivation tools"  The Garden Magzine, 1919

"On-farm evaluation of innovative cultivation tools" The Garden Magzine, 1919

I have started a collection of images of these tools for a future article, so if you have any good examples please send them our way.

"Eliminating the backbreaking drudgery of weeding."  from The Garden Magazine, 1919

"Eliminating the backbreaking drudgery of weeding." from The Garden Magazine, 1919

Rain, rain, rain…

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wolf Pine Farm, Alfred, Maine

On the way to the York County Farmers’ Network July meeting at Wildroot Farm in Kennebunk, we stopped by Wolf Pine Farm so Amy Sprague and crew could field test the Weed Master cultivation tools.  Unfortunately, the rain started soon after we completed assembly, but with a coarse textured site in mind, and the seemingly unending days of rain we have had in recent weeks, we headed to the field.

Although the finger weeders were quickly clogged, we were able to use the disk hillers in leeks despite the rain (although it was raining too hard at this point to get the camera out!).

Disk-hilling leeks

Disk-hilling leeks

We then headed to the nearby Wildroot Farm where the York County Farmers’ Network was holding a potluck and meeting.  We retreated indoors to assemble the Weed Master, examine the components, and discuss the experiences from our field tests conducted to date.

Unloading the Weed Master at Wildroot Farm in Kennebunk.  July 7, 2009

Unloading the Weed Master at Wildroot Farm in Kennebunk. July 7, 2009

Farm Training Project Workshop

June 16, 2009

Peacemeal Farm, Dixmont, Maine

There was an impressive turnout Tuesday evening for the Weed Management workshop at the Peacemeal farm.  Part of the Farm Training Project Workshop program organized for farm apprentices, and others, by MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the presentations, demonstrations and field tour for this session were focused on weeds.  After some introductory comments related to the ecology of weeds in organic farming systems, the seventy five participants moved to the field for a demonstration of hand tools, including the Weed Master.

Clayton Carter, Fail Better Farm, Montville, Maine, demonstrates the Weed Master to MOFGA Apprentices at the June 16 evening Farm Training Project Workshop on weeds.  Photo Credit: Mike Mardosa, University of Maine

Clayton Carter, Fail Better Farm, Montville, Maine, demonstrates the Weed Master to MOFGA Apprentices at the June 16 evening Farm Training Project Workshop on weeds. Photo Credit: Mike Mardosa, University of Maine

Mark Guzzie, Peacemeal Farm, Dixmont, Maine, offers Russell Libby, Executive Director of MOFGA a turn at the helm of the Weed Master.  Photo Credit: Mike Mardosa, University of Maine.

Mark Guzzie, Peacemeal Farm, Dixmont, Maine, offers Russell Libby, Executive Director of MOFGA a turn at the helm of the Weed Master. Photo Credit: Mike Mardosa, University of Maine.

Fail Better Farm, Montville

June 2 and 3, 2009

We visited Clayton Carter, Fail Better Farm, Montville, Maine, this week to test the Weed Master in several crops on his diverse organic vegetable farm.

Here are some images from these tests; I’ll update the post further next week.

Cultivating garlic with the Weed Master and sweeps

Cultivating garlic with the Weed Master and sweeps

Sweeps attached to parallel linkage units entering a 3-row bed of garlic

Sweeps attached to parallel linkage units entering a 3-row bed of garlic

Sweeps even controlled some large horsetail weeds in fava beans

Sweeps even controlled some large horsetail weeds in fava beans

Fava beans cultivated with disk hillers and then sweeps

Fava beans cultivated with disk hillers and then sweeps

Using the depth control wheels as row markers

Using the depth control wheels as row markers