Monday, February 10, 2014

Steel in the Field

Steel In the Field

A famous farming publication from the early 20th century was a book called “Steel in the Field”.  It was a text on all the different ways you could use tillage for weed control. So this blog is about weed control, some with steel and some without. 

A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow and typically a plant the competes with your crop.

One of the best ways to control weeds is to avoid them in the first place. For us this avoidance strategy is easily done by putting down a strip of finished compost that doesn’t have any weeds in it. That sounds like a lot of work and resources just to prevent a few weeds. It is labor intensive, it takes the place of my gym membership, and compost is a precious resource, which is why we concentrate its use around the plants instead of spreading it all over the place. But for certain types of crops it is the creme-dela-creme of growing techniques. Carrots for example, germinate very slowly and are often at the mercy of the weeds. But in addition to the weeds, the carrots respond with a delicious sweetness when planted in compost. Other plants like Okra also grow slowly at the beginning and get a fast break from some compost.

So how about the steel part of the equation. A stirrup hoe is an indespensible tool in the arsenal of weed control. It is light and easy to flow through the soil on the forward and back stroke. It does not invert the soil layers like a traditional hoe, so if you have a layer of compost on top you minimize soil mixing. It can also slice through some heavy duty weeds like thistles.

If you have larger area to weed a rototiller is useful. We often run our 13 Hp BSC tiller in second or even third gear to weed. The tines rotate at 200 RPM and in higher gear only go 2-3 inches deep. This minimizes the amount of new weed seed brought to the surface and is effective at disrupting weed seedling growth. When it go out to cultivate (weed) with the tiller I destroy millions of tiny weeds and if done at the right time, this maybe the only weeding that needs to be done. I space the tiller to roll a little dirt into the row to cover the emerging weeds (but not the crop). If done correctly this can provide a nearly clean sweep, with only a light clean-up needed with a hoe or by hand.

A wheel hoe if another invaluable tool for the small farm or garden. It works similar to the shuffle hoe but the hoe part it wider and a support wheel in the front means you can walk along the rows at many times the speed you can weed by hand. It also has more attachments for making furrows or hilling. I recently bought one of these that you can also attach a precision seeder to. Works great. I may do a review in a future post. The origin of these tools was back in the day when horses pulled the farm implements. I guess if you are Amish they still do, good for them. They have been miniaturized and made more efficient, with the use of additional attachments.

Some times there just isn’t anything better than hand weeding, when I was young one of the sources of employment for young people was walking beans. But even in the rather mundane world of walking beans, there were work aids like a sharpened steel hook called a bean hook. We still use those to weed in the prickly raspberry patch or with weeds that have their own prickles like thistles. We also used a corn knife (like a machete) to cut out the occasional weed. We weren’t typically hacking our way through the jungle, but just making a judicious slice at the occasional cockle bur or button weed.

The ultimate in hand weeding is to pull the weeds out by the root. My children are very familiar with this technique. As teens they have trained themselves to be ambidextrous and weed with both hands, which nearly doubles productivity. A good set of gloves is essential equipment, especially when working with thistles or nettles.

Even when you are weeding 5 acres like we do. They key is to do a little bit every day.  If you have three workers and each person weeds two 500 foot rows a day you can cover 180 rows in a month, that works out to 90,000 linear feet of weeded row (or approximately 18 miles of row in a month). This is excellent exercise and flexibility training. For you athletes, this will really work your core. 

A little high tech and a little high touch in the weed department keeps the summer time chore of weeding to a manageable level.

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