Ah spring! The war against weeds begins anew. The first major skirmish of the growing season should happen before planting. The stale seed bed technique is an often over-looked practice that can be used before planting. It works by first encouraging weeds to sprout and then killing them when they are young and most vulnerable. For organic growers, a stale seed bed can replace the effects of a pre-emergence herbicide. And when used properly, it can contribute to both short-term and long-term weed management.
Weed control can be handled with short-term or long-term approaches. Short-term management focuses on controlling weeds during the first part of crop growth when weeds are more likely to affect crop yields. Long-term weed management, however, works all season-long to deplete weed seeds from the seedbank (the reservoir of viable weed seeds in the soil). Whichever approach you take, using a stale seed bed is a great cultural weed control technique.
To use the stale seed bed most effectively, start several weeks before planting. An initial cultivation kills any emerged weeds that have overwintered. It also brings weed seeds to the surface where exposure to light and oxygen stimulate germination. Depending on the weather and types of seeds present in the soil, weeds may sprout up overnight or over a few weeks. When weeds have germinated and are still small and young, they are easy to kill with a second light cultivation. This process is then repeated as needed and as time allows. As few as three cycles of light/ shallow tillage can reduce the number of subsequent weeds noticeably. For fields and gardens with very heavy weed infestations more cycles of repeated tillage over a few years will be needed. Using a stale seed bed may push back your planting date; but in the absence of weed competition, the crop will have more access to water and sunlight and be able to make up for lost time.
Keys to Success
- Do not allow emerged seedlings to grow large. It is best to till lightly just as the first seedlings are emerging as this and the earlier ‘white thread’ stage are the most susceptible to desiccation. The more time new weeds have to develop roots, the harder they become to kill with a shallow cultivation.
- Keep the cultivation shallow to avoid bringing new weed seeds to the surface. The implement used to stir the soil should not go deeper than 2 inches with most of the stirring in the top inch.
- The technique is dependent upon having adequate soil moisture. Under drought conditions preparation of a stale seedbed may require irrigation to stimulate weed seed germination.
- Deeper initial tillage can be used to bury an existing weed problem. Tillage, especially when done with a disc or a power tiller, distributes the previous year’s weed seeds throughout the top 6 inches or so of soil. In contrast, an inversion tillage that turns sod upside down will place last year’s seeds 6 inches or so under the surface. From there they are unlikely to emerge unless further discing or lighter tillage moves them closer to the surface. Used skillfully, a deep inversion plowing followed by stale seed bed can put a serious surface weed problem out-of-sight and out-of-mind, at least until the next time the field is plowed deeply.
Stale Seedbed is most effective when it is part of a zero weed threshold system.
The common short-term approach to managing weeds, (weed scientists usually call this the “critical period approach”) is to control weeds aggressively during the first 4-6 weeks after the crop is planted. This 4-6-week period is the critical period during which crops stands are established and yield is secured. Afterwards weeds are of less threat to production; therefore, many farmers scale back control efforts. However, weeds that grow before and after the critical period are still a problem. If allowed to flower and set seed, they will be planting a future crop of weed problems. A long-term approach to weed management, called zero weed seed threshold, requires constant diligence and removal of all weeds before they produce seeds–even after harvest. Research indicates that 3-4 years of using this approach will result in a field with relatively few weeds, provided weed seeds are not introduced from without the field (in seed, irrigation water, on equipment, etc.).
Both short-term and long-term approaches have benefits and drawbacks, many of which depend on a farmer’s individual goals, crops, and available resources. A new online tool from Ohio State allows farmers to think through various weed control approaches in the context of their own individual situations. For those looking to make changes to their weed management, the Organic Weed Decision Making Tool, shows pros and cons of various strategies over time and gives steps to implementing new tactics. Learn more at go.osu.edu/eco-weed-mngt.