Solarization to Prepare a Stale Seedbed

Sonja Birthisel, PhD Student in Ecology and Environmental Sciences

Eric R. Gallandt, Professor of Weed Ecology and Management

Solarization is the practice of using clear plastic mulches to trap solar energy, heating soils to temperatures lethal to pests including weeds.  Solarization is nothing new; it has been researched and used by growers extensively since the 1970s in warm, sunny places like Israel and California, but the conventional wisdom has been that it is not consistently effective in cool, northern places like Maine.

We expected that two weeks of solarization during May-June in Maine would not achieve temperatures hot enough to kill weeds, but would rather lead to an early flush of increased weed emergence.  After solarization, we thought these weeds could be killed by flaming, resulting in creation of a better stale seedbed than a “control” created with flaming only.

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Hypothesis: two weeks of spring solarization will encourage weed seeds to germinate so they can be killed, depleting the seedbank and creating a better stale seedbed. 

We tested this hypothesis through four experiments in May-June of 2015 and 2016.  At the start of each experiment, fields were rototilled, thoroughly irrigated, and solarization plots were covered with salvaged 6-mil clear polyethylene hoophouse plastic.  We secured the plastic edges by clipping them to metal pipe laid in a shallow (4” deep) trench around each plot.  Control plots were left fallow after rototilling and irrigating.  After two weeks, plastic was removed, and all plots (solarized and control) were flamed using a hand-held propane burner to create stale seedbeds.  Two weeks after flaming, we counted the number of weeds that had emerged in each plot.

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To our surprise, two weeks of springtime solarization actually suppressed weed emergence, both while plastic was in place and after plastic removal and flaming.  On average, solarization plus flaming resulted in stale seedbeds with 78% fewer weeds than control stale seedbeds created with flaming only.  Soil temperatures were higher in solarized plots, reaching a maximum of 117°F at 2” soil depth, as compared to a maximum of 100°F in controls.

Picture5.pngResults: two weeks after we removed plastic and created stale seedbeds, there were 78% fewer weeds in the solarized treatment than the flamed control.  The “*” indicates a statistically significant difference between solarized and control treatments.  

 The weed suppression following solarization was so visually apparent, we wondered whether flaming after plastic removal was necessary.  To address this question, during one of our experiments we kept half of each plot un-flamed for comparison.  We found that flaming significantly reduced weeds in the control plots, but not the solarized plots.  In short, solarization did a good enough job that flaming afterward was not necessary.

Picture6.pngSolarization with or without flaming created an excellent stale seedbed.  The “*” indicates that flaming significantly reduced weeds in the control treatment, the “ns” indicates that flaming did not have a significant effect in the solarized treatment. 

 

Overall these results suggest solarization is a very promising strategy for stale seedbed preparation in Maine.  Although laying the plastic is labor-intensive, the weed control benefits may be worth the extra effort, especially prior to planting high value direct seeded crops.  More blog posts about solarization coming soon!

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Weed Seedbanks: 2009 On-farm Sampling

Seedbanks
“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

http://www.newenglandvfc.org/pdf_proceedings/2009/MWWCR.pdf

and these eXtension articles:

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

http://www.extension.org/article/18527

Manipulating Weed Seed Banks to Promote their Decline

http://www.extension.org/article/18528