A lot of market gardeners rely on plastic for weed suppression. Some say it's nearly essential in order to reduce hours of labor and thus be profitable. Do you use plastic weed suppressing materials? If not, what do you use? How do you reduce plastic waste in your operation?
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
posted 2 years ago
My only weed management strategies are weeding by hand or steel, or not weeding. I do not use any weed suppression plastics, chemicals, or mulches.
I am getting better all the time at growing crops without weeding after planting. For example, last year I grew a beautiful crop of corn without weeding a single time, because I planted it after the lambsquarters and amaranth had already germinated for the year. I got tired of losing carrot crops to the weeds, therefore, I selected for carrots that can out compete my local weeds. We grow weeds as cover crops. For example dandelions growing in the garlic are a wonderful combination.
I have found that a rake is a great weeding tool. For example, when the amaranth or red roots are germinating, and other crops are already growing, I can rake a field of corn, garlic, peas, etc. That mostly kills the small weed seedlings, and mostly spares the crops which are larger plants and harder to kill by raking.
I also use no weed suppression. I weed by hand, or with my forked jembe. Weeds in my farm have purpose.
1. Weeds are fed to the animals. Rabbits, goats, pigs, cows and poultry.
2. After they have picked over the weeds for their favorite tasty bits, the weeds become bedding. They trample it and do their business on it, and generally ensure those weeds are good and dead, and well amended with manure and urine.
3. The weed bedding then becomes pre-fertilized mulch which can be put back out. My banana trees really love this stuff.
Yeah, there is the labor factor of hand weeding, but the multiple benefits make it worth the time. I buy no commercial animal feeds, no bedding, and no mulch.
That being said, I have accumulated a bit of cardboard, and was thinking of using that, weighted with some stones, to either mulch or to clear some small areas.
Thanks for the replies. I forgot to mention in the subject line that this was a question for Zach. Who just wrote a book about permaculture market gardening. Either way I appreciate the replies, I just wanted to clear up the context of the question. PEACE
Joseph, what do you use to suppress weeds in your garden paths? If anything?
I borrowed a lumber mill a year ago or so. Ahh I miss it. I cut some really thin boards and used that for weed suppression in paths. It lasts so much longer than wood chips. I'm using some plastic in the paths now, but would like to avoid it. Things just got out of hand without it and I unfortunately didn't mill enough weed supressing boards, for the mill was unexpectantly needed back.
Landscape fabric is evil. When I first established my food forest, I used it liberally, laying it down on the ground all over the place and then piling wood chips on top of it. BIG mistake. First, the tree roots quickly entwined with the fabric making it very difficult to pull up later. Second, it effectively blocked all the carbon goodness of the mulch from being integrated down into the soil profile. Above the fabric, black crumbly humus. Below, grey and mostly lifeless clay. Several years later when I realized the mistake, I spent hours ripping that fabric loose from the fine tree roots and pulling it up. I'd laid hundreds of yards of that stuff. HUGE mistake.
Every now and then, I'll still find some piece of it out there and I'll try to pull it up. Its like digging your own grave. HORRIBLE stuff.
There is a difference between growing annual crops in traditional rows and beds (which most market gardens do for efficiency) and those of us using an integrated food forest approach. I don't think I've got a row of any one thing longer than 3 feet anywhere on my entire property—everything is plunked-down into little drifts and guilds throughout the orchard. On a limited basis, I've occasionally used black plastic as a surface mulch around some of the trees, to knockdown crab grass or other invasives that are hard to kill, but at the most, I'll only leave it there for 2 years. And, again, its on the surface, not buried. Plastic sheeting doesn't get tangled with the tree roots, and if you buy the good stuff, it's UV resistant so it doesn't crumble and fall apart after one summer of hot sun.
If you're not familiar with Stefan Sobkowiak's Miracle Farm in Quebec, he has created an integrated food forest that also functions as a you-pick garden.
He planted his trees according to the date the fruit will ripen, so that everything on one or two rows will all ripen in the same 10 day window—apples, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, etc. The next two rows ripen in the next 10 day window. Throughout the growing season, the trees ripen in succession, so that the customer can walk a set of rows within the orchard and fill their basket with everything ripe at that time. He uses black plastic to keep weeds down and retain moisture immediately beneath the trees, running the plastic along the length of the row, while letting grass grow in the alley between the rows. Then, he cuts holes in the plastic and plants annual veggies in that same space below the trees. He thinks this out well in advance of the tree ripening date, so that the veggies on that row are also ripe and producing at the exact window that the fruit is ripe. Thus, when a customer walks that row of trees, not only are the peaches, apples, pears and such ripe in the branches above, but below, they can find cabbages, carrots, tomatoes, etc. ready to pick beneath. It's quite impressive.
No two trees standing next to each other are the same. He's got hundreds of different varieties -- over 50 apples alone. Interspersed throughout are nitrogen fixers, berry bushes, and bee hives.
Once those rows are picked over and the last remaining fruit begins to fall to the ground, he cordons off those rows with electric fencing and runs sheep, chickens and ducks in to clean things up. Its a tremendously efficient system for the customers, the animals and to maintain, as every two weeks or so, you just move things over a row or two and open it up for picking or grazing. Nut trees ripen much later in the season (he's got something like 60 different varieties of nut trees as well) so he's able to open things back up to harvest the nuts. He's getting multiple yields off the system throughout the growing season.
Anyhow, here is a Permies thread that was moderated by Stefen where he talks about the use of black plastic in his integrated orchard. If you haven't read it, I think you'll find it interesting. (He's not an anti-plastic purist, the way some organic orchardists are.) He makes judicious use of plastic mulch.
"The rule of no realm is mine. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything that passes through this night can still grow fairer or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I too am a steward. Did you not know?" Gandolf
Listen this is a controversial one and there is no one answer. So first of all I will say each farm has to make their own decision based on their ideology, scale of operation and access to resources.
That being said I try to be open-minded and not adhere to any one fixed ideology. I also try to weigh the pros and cons.
For instance, if you are a larger commercial grower and laying a row of plastic mulch allows you to integrate perennial species interxropped with your vegetable operation or cash crops and be able to not worry about their weeds and if this strategy produces a 10,50 or 500 acrepolyculture in the next decade...go for it. You are doing far more good using that supply. After all frowning on a little plastic used in the garden seems a bit niece when plastic is in every business world wide at this point. So practice restraint.
On the other hand if your production strategy is to lay down a plastic mulch for every single Garden bed and transplant into it and rip it up every year for the dump...then maybe it's best to consider alternatives.
These include using weed barrier that can be moved from season to season over many years, or using rolled and crimped cover crops, hay and straw mulches, and biodegrade mulches.
What do we do? We work with all of these to find a solution to best fit our needs for a profitable and sustainable market garden.