Weeds, Glorious Weeds

by Gary Mount

I think everyone who tries to grow something, homeowner or farmer, ornamentals or food crop, always, always ends up saying the same thing – if only my plants could grow as well as the weeds! Sound familiar? You bet. At Terhune Orchards, it is just about time to begin the annual battle against weeds.

Weeds are really devilish.  They rob my crops of space, sunlight, nutrients and water, they provide refuge for all sorts of damaging insects and they look terrible. Not to mention poison ivy and Canada thistle – ouch!

Enough complaining – what do we actually do about weeds? When I first became a farmer, it was common practice to clean cultivate the peach orchards. We (I) would go back and forth with a tractor and a heavy disc, up and down and across the rows until all the weeds were uprooted and buried. The ground was loosened down about six inches and this reduced the competition for water and nutrients – the peaches had it all to themselves. Sounds great?  Not exactly. It turns out that peaches are very shallow rooted. Many of the feeder roots come up to three inches or so from the surface. As I was going back and forth, I had been chopping off roots that were needed by the tree. Smaller peaches and weaker trees (read more likely to die) resulted. Not good.

Then there was the rain. It being my first year at farming, I did not have a full appreciation of rain. I didn’t realize that it could rain seven inches in one week, as it did that first July, right during peach harvest. And it kept raining, a lot, all summer. I sadly watched a lot of my topsoil wash away. It takes a few hundred years for one inch of topsoil to be created. Not good.

Then there was the lugging. Lugging occurs when peaches are being picked after having a lot of rain on a clean cultivated orchard. It is impossible to drive through the orchard and picking becomes a team event. One picker, one lugger. The lugger’s job is to slog through the mud with a just picked, full basket of peaches to where the truck is parked at the edge of the orchard. Even 33 years later, I can still hear the pickers calling, when their baskets were full – Lugger!

Fortunately we have come to a better way to deal with all this.  We plant a thick growing sod between the rows – one that we can drive and walk on easily. Under the trees, we use a weed spray – not one that is taken up by the trees but rather a spray that keeps the weed seeds from sprouting. The spray doesn’t last very long before it breaks down into inert materials, but it does not have to. Weeds mostly sprout over a two to three month period of the growing season. I guess we might say that in weed control, as in many things, timing is crucial.

In the peach orchards, we are no longer chopping peach roots with the disc, but since there are no weeds to rob the trees of water and nutrition, we are still able to reduce irrigation and fertilizer. And there is another big advantage. One of the very damaging insects to the peach takes a small bite of the peach when it just begins to grow – when it’s smaller than a pea. As the peach grows, the area around the bite does not. The fruit becomes distorted, misshapen and gives the name cat facing to describe the result. It takes insecticide spraying to prevent this injury.  Except!  Peach growers have found out that this particular damaging insect needs an additional place to live other that just on the peach tree. It has to live part of its life of broadleaf weeds on the orchard floor – ”sort of a city house/country house situation. By using a weed spray under the tree and a tight, vigorous grass sod in-between the rows, we are able to eliminate broadleaf weeds in the orchard.  The cat facing insects cannot live in the orchard without the alternate place to live. This technique works so well, it has actually been several years since I have had to spray insecticide for the cat facing insects – so cool!

Much the same story can be told about most of the crops grown on the farm. Weeds are one of the biggest problems. This is especially true in our certified organic acreage. 2007 was our first year to have any certified organic production-about 8 acres- and the national organic program rules do not allow chemical weed sprays.  Thus the question – can the farmer still be clever enough or energetic enough to defeat the weeds?  In addition to the vegetables that I grow organically, I also have dreams of growing some apples organically.  It is a difficult project.  I tried it twice before – in 1978 for 3 years and in 1984 for 4 years.  I was unsuccessful in producing good quality apples.  And one of the biggest unsolved problems for me was – you guessed – weeds.

This time I have some new techniques and new materials to work with. Stay tuned for a further report but just hope that when you visit the farm sometime, you don’t hear someone, in the distance, shout – Lugger!