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Grassland Weed Control, on the Old Farm

‘Thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins’ (Proverbs 24:31).

Some of you may already own or have considered purchasing an old farm where once upon a time the trees were cleared for pastures and then cattle, goats and sheep grazed on the grasses season after season.  But, that was some years ago and now without the farm animals, the grass just grows.  And grows, and grows, and grows into tall surly grass that not even the deer will touch.

Certainly a grassy hillside can be a beautiful site in the spring and fall.  Many of the wild plants that are mixed in with the grass can be of garden quality and provide flowers in many seasonal colors.  The issue with barnyard grass, or what some might call weeds, is specific to the areas where you might want a botanical garden, vegetable garden, or a landscape design instead.  So unless you plan to have goats, cows, or use weed killer to keep the grass under control, what are your options?

[Grassland Definition: a large open area of land covered with grass, especially one used for grazing. ]

First, let’s discuss the challenges that happen when working with this old and well established grassland.  This is not your typical lawn type grass.  The roots are thick, deep, and tangled.  Some grass varieties, such as barnyard grass, release about 250,000 seeds per plant so the germination rate is high.  This grass can also survive long hot summers without rain.  Due to the tenacity of this grass, if not pre-treated properly before your project, you may never see the end of it.

Your options will depend on what you want to do with each area of your old grassland property.  You might want to create a yard space and landscape it with shrubs and other perennials.  You may like to grow your own vegetables and want a backyard garden.  A major consideration in some arid climates is fire safety so keeping the area around the house free of dried vegetation will be a priority in this case.  And if your plans include developing a homestead, then building an orchard is a must.  And lastly, let’s not forget about the need for pathways and various access points around the property.  The ability to move around your property, whether on foot or in a vehicle, should be considered a high priority and this may be the first component to plan.

For any project that will be built on grassland, pre-treatment of the area is a must.  The last thing you want to do is build a decomposed granite or a beautiful stone walkway and by the next spring, the grass is pushing it all up and out of place.  Tilling or turning the topsoil will not be enough to stop this heart-wrenching sight from occurring.  The seeds and roots could still be hiding safely below just waiting for another season of rain.

The solution comes from a variety of options for pre-treating these grassy areas and the right choice depends on what you have planned for that area.  Following is a summary of some excellent methods to consider and each is discussed in more detail below. You may need to use more than one treatment method for each area to achieve the best results.

  1. Deep tilling: used for large crop plots, garden beds, field-flowers, and areas where cover crop will yield the best results. Things you’ll need: tiller; either gas or electric (size depends on project), pick, digging shovel, and a bow rake.
  2. Grading or excavating: used for access roads, driveways, pathways, and terraces. Things you’ll need: front-hoe, pick, digging shovel, and a tarmac rake.
  3. Black plastic sheeting: used for front and back yard development, perennial gardens, orchards, and future garden beds and crop plots. Things you’ll need – weed wacker or mower, black polyvinyl sheeting 10 ft wide 6 mil, loop-stakes, or bricks and concrete blocks, and a hose with a sprayer.
  4. Sheet mulching: used for front and back yard development, perennial landscapes, areas around fruit trees, general reduction of mowing requirements, and garden beds. Things you’ll need: weed-wacker or mower, cardboard, brown shipping paper or newspaper, mulch, scoop shovel, and a hose with a sprayer.
  5. Weed cloth: used for pathways, around perennials and shrubs, and under decks. Things you’ll need – weed- wacker or mower, weed-cloth, loop-stakes, and whichever finish treatment you choose such as stones or decomposed granite.
  6. Cover crop: used for areas where soil regeneration is required, where planting will occur within a few seasons, and where grasses need to be suppressed so as not the encroach into newly developed areas.  Things you’ll need: tiller, seeds, or plant starts.

TILLING –

Let’s first talk about tilling because I know that many people might be wondering why you wouldn’t just till in the grass and move on.  It’s also an age-old method that can’t be ignored here.  First, this article isn’t just focused on preparing the ground for gardening and farming, but for all the sorts of development that you might do on a homestead property.  I have never tilled large areas on my property because I don’t use large scale garden plots.  But, I have tilled areas where the earth needed to be moved or slightly re-shaped.  If your plans include planting a large field or garden, this just may be the easiest way to start.  However, tilling has its drawbacks in the long run including soil structure disruption as well as the need for expensive machinery with ongoing maintenance requirements.  So if you’re concerned about soil quality and soil building, consider a one-time till and then move on to some of the other methods of no-till gardening.  If you’re not yet familiar with the no-till method of gardening (and farming) this is a must for sustainable gardening or farming.  Or learn a bit of history on the method with Plowman’s Folly, written by the man who first brought no-till farming to the public eye, Edward H. Faulkner.

GRADING AND EXCAVATING –

If your project requires a major change in the slope, or if you are cutting in a road or driveway, this will require removal of large quantities of the upper layer of the earth therefore removing the surface grasses as well.  For lighter projects, such as terraces or pathways, grading will also likely be necessary to get the level surface and slope you require.  Whether by heavy machinery, tiller, or by hand, some surface will be removed thus removing the grass along with it.  However, the lighter tilled projects that don’t need major changes to the surface may still leave the root of the grass in the ground.  In this case an additional method can then be used to ensure that you have cleared the grass from that area.

BLACK PLASTIC SHEETING METHOD –

This method is by far the best natural weed killer. It entails laying black plastic over the area for a time-frame of anywhere from two to eight weeks depending on the temperatures and the available sunlight in that particular area of your property.  In the middle of a hot summer, a two week period with direct sun will likely be enough time to get good results.  This method works by drawing the heat into the black plastic therefore heating up the ground underneath.  The goal is to get to temperatures as high at 160 degrees for good results.  Not only does this kill the grass, but the seeds in the soil as well.  Keep in mind that it will also kill some of the good things in the soil, like microbes.  I would suggest this method for areas such as gravel driveways and parking spaces, pathways, or areas where you won’t be planting for a few of seasons so that you’ll have time to rebuild the soil.

The method works best with a smooth ground surface so that the plastic will lay close to the ground with little air space beneath.  You may find that the grass is low enough in the spring and you can start immediately applying the plastic cover.  Otherwise, simply mow or weed-wack the grass to about 2” in height.

Next, water the area well so that the earth is soaked to about 2” below the surface.  This is important as the water will hold the heat, where-as air itself will cool off quickly and your results will be diminished.  The grass will die at about 110 degrees, but the seeds will maintain their ability to germinate even after being exposed to this temperature.  If you’re working with a smaller area, try a weed sprayer with distilled white vinegar to speed up the process.

Lay the plastic sheeting over the area and weight it down.  Bricks, concrete blocks, or anything heavy that you have lying around can be used as weights to hold the plastic down.  Another solution is loop-stakes.  Either way, don’t under-estimate the strength of the wind in lifting up your plastic.  Once it gets going, your sheeting will act as a sail and the force can easily move a brick.  I’ve learned the hard way and now I prefer to do it once instead of dragging my plastic back from the neighbor’s yard and replacing the weights after one windy day.  I use the loop-stakes quite a bit since they aren’t as heavy to move around as a concrete block.  although I keep a stack of concrete blocks just for this purpose as well.

Make a note on your calendar to check under the plastic in two to four weeks.  If you can see anything green, cover it up and wait again.  If your project has no timeframe, there is no reason why you can’t get the plastic down and just leave it until you’re ready.  Although, I wouldn’t suggest this for a vegetable garden area since it will reduce the active soil components to much in time.  Instead, take a look at my cover-crop method if you plan to build a vegetable garden down the way sometime.  Or consider a lighter method such as the cardboard and mulch, which I’ll describe next.

One last note on the plastic sheeting method; not all plastic sheeting is equal.  The thicker and better quality plastic will last longer.  A 2 mil thickness is too thin and due to the UV rays it will shred into little pieces before you can pull it up.  The 4 mil is typically not intended for outdoor use either and doesn’t have the UV protection additives.  To be sure that I’ll get the job done right I only use the 6 mil thickness in about a 10’ width (for ease of handling).  The 6 mil is typically formulated for outdoor use, but check with the manufacture.  The right plastic can be reused in multiple locations if you are able to fold it up and store it between projects.

SHEET MULCHING –

The popular name for this method is sheet mulching, but is sometimes called lasagna mulching.  This method would be used in an area that you intend to use for planting, whether vegetables, perennials, or fruit trees.  It consists of a layer of biodegradable weed barrier topped with compost and then a final layer of wood chips or other mulch.  In some locations you’ll even want to skip the layer of compost and just put wood chips on top of the barrier.  Sheet mulching is also a component of the no-till method of gardening.  Here we’ll discuss it for the primary purpose of resolving the grassland issue.

The material that you’ll use for the first layer of your sheet mulch could be cardboard, newspaper, brown packing paper, old wool rugs, or even natural fabrics as long as they are permeable.  The choice of material should depend on what type of project you have planned for each area.

For instance, if you intend to build a vegetable garden then newspaper or brown packing paper might be best since its lightweight and you can break through it to place your seeds or seedlings.  Keep in mind that unless you implemented the tilling or black plastic method in the previous season, those heavy grasses will come right through the paper.

On the other hand, if you plan to build an orchard, start with heavy cardboard from the appliance store and get it laid down before the rainy season.  This material will suppress the grass for multiple seasons allowing your new fruit trees to get established.  To provide for space around each tree, either cut a 2’ diameter hole in the cardboard, or lay it down in such a way that it creates a square opening where each tree will be planted.  This method can also be implemented after the trees are in the ground.

If you are planning a perennial landscape then I would suggest a layer of cardboard, brown packing paper, or fabric.  This will allow for good weed suppression, but with this thickness you’ll still be able to easily cut opening to place your plant in the ground.  Another method for each opening is to cut an ‘x’ shape in the cardboard, pull the flaps back, and then replace the flaps once the plant is in the ground.  The flaps can be cut back as needed so they don’t touch the base of the plant.  Anytime you use cardboard, I would suggest placing it before the rainy season so that it’s fully saturated and soft when the spring comes along and it’s time to plant.

For locations such as pathways within the orchard or garden, the wool rugs do well and last for many seasons.  Pieces of wool rug can be placed in perennial beds so that you have a place for your foot as you move through the space for pruning or picking.  If you don’t mind the look, you don’t even need to cover them with mulch.  Heavy cardboard can also be used for pathways, but keep in mind that it can be slippery when wet.

Consider planning ahead for other areas of your property where you eventually may want to do some planting.  Put the cardboard in place and cover with a thick layer of mulch.  By the time you get around to this area, your soil will be ready to plant or it will at least be weed free in the meantime.  For instance, I have some low incline embankments along the side of my driveway where I didn’t have time to plant right away and mowing on a hillside is tricky so every year I was weed-wacking to keep it from getting more over-grown.  The method I employed was a layer of heavy cardboard from refrigerator boxes, then held down with loop-stakes and covered in a thick layer of pine wood chips.  The wood chips came from a tree that I removed on my property and were full of sticks and pine needles as well, but this isn’t a problem.  It’s been there for two years and no weed-wacking has been required.  At anytime now it’s ready to place the rosemary and other herbs that I have planned for that area, but there’s no rush to do anything further with it.

The mulch topping can come in many varieties.  Almost all types of wood chips work well around shrubs and trees.  There are many opinions on this, but I use whatever I chipped up from the last tree that was felled on my property and have had great results in soil improvement and weed suppression.

As a homesteader, you will want to try to make your own mulch as much as possible.  Use your leaves and pine needles where appropriate.  Purchase a small wood chipper and chip all your tree and shrub trimmings.  Some of the taller, stocky, weeds can also be mulched in the chipper.  If you hire out for tree trimming and felling, have them chip the wood in place leaving you with a nice pile of mulch that may have as much value as the cost of the tree work.  Keep an eye on the utility companies that regularly trim trees away from their power lines.  They may prefer to dump the chips close by instead of drive to the dump.  Neighbors who are trimming trees just might sell you their mulch for a good price.  Or you could just be a good neighbor and share with them the value of mulching on their own property.

WEED CLOTH METHOD –

The weedcloth method is a more permanent weed suppressor for areas such as pathways and terraces.  You can always go as far as pouring concrete or even consider any of the new construction materials on the market for building outdoor spaces, but I am primarily interested in methods that reduce the manufacturing of products and retain a natural quality on the property.  Retaining permeability in the ground surfaces is also a very important consideration for building a healthy sustainable property.

Another location to consider placing weedcloth is under your fenceline where it would extend to either side by about a foot or more.  The weedcloth method can be used in planter areas as well, but this method does not add to the quality of your soil as it won’t break down and improve the soil structure.  In planter areas I would first consider using the sheet mulch method due to that fact that you are also recycling and reusing waste materials as opposed to buying a new product that requires additional manufacturing and creates further waste products.

There are basically two types of weedcloth, but there are multiple other weed barriers on the market.  Choose what best fits your needs and budget.  For permanent installations such as pathways and terraces, I use the construction quality weedcloth that is designed to be placed below the final finish layer and can handle the foot traffic.  The basic weedcloth is intended for planter beds and will tear in time so use the construction quality for your pathways and terraces.

Most locations where you will be building terraces and pathway will likely benefit from a couple weeks of the black plastic treatment first.  Use the black plastic method for a few weeks after you grade the area.  Then lay down your weed-cloth and finish your pathway with stepping stones, gravel, or decomposed granite.

COVER CROP METHOD –

The cover crop method is our last method to address.  Those of you that intend to do larger scale crop plots will want to do further research on the method used for that purpose alone.  What I’m suggesting here is really a method that is similar to the cover-crop method and uses the theory of companion planting as well.  The idea is the same; to cover the ground with plants to get a plot ready for future planting.  However, the plots of land could be designated for an orchard, decorative landscape, perennial garden, or vegetable garden.  During the period of time when you’re not-quite-ready to plant in this space, the cover-crop will hold back the weeds, add nutrients to the soil, and possibly provide for greater beauty.

Let’s start with a plot that you may want to build an orchard, but not until two to three years from now.  In the meantime, those surly grasses will either be further established, need mowing during this time, and if left to dry they now become a fire hazard.  First consider one of the previously discussed methods such as tilling, or the black-plastic method to loosen up the heavy roots.  Now, what to plant?  The type of plant to use depends on what you will grow there later.  Take care to check that your plant of choice is not an invasive variety or you may create bigger problems than the barn grass with which you began.  There are many plants that will do great with fruit trees.  The comfrey plant is one of them.  This is not an invasive plant, but will continue to spread about with each season.  This plant has many uses and deserves a full page of its own.  Some other great plants could be any sort of perennial herb such as sage, marjoram, or lemon balm.  Mix in some annuals such as borage.  Start placing in the ground a variety of bulbs such as daffodils, giant garlic, onions, etc.  These will push back the grasses from around their bulb all year long.  Then consider at least one nitrogen fixer such as lupine, but be sure you don’t choose one that might take over such as clover.  Also, include some flowering pollinators that will re-seed themselves year after year.  The marigold is an easy choice.  Lastly, consider keeping some of the wide-leaf weeds that grow naturally as long as they are not an invasive plant in your area.  In the end, if you don’t plant something useful, something else is sure to grow in its place.

‘Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the LORD, For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off’ (Isaiah 55:13).

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