One of the tricks of weed control by burning is creating the right conditions. Burning can kill the actual weed plant, and it can also kill weed seeds retained on the soil surface. “Once weed seeds are buried below the soil surface, killing seed using heat is difficult,” says Spaunhorst. “The soil acts as an insulator to protect seeds, similar to a heat shield on a space shuttle that protects astronauts as they reenter into Earth’s atmosphere. But, the temperature, length of time of exposure, and other variables need to be determined for each weed species.”
Once the seeds had been heat-treated, they were planted to see if they would grow in a greenhouse. This is where the seeds from the two weedy species differed in how they reacted to heat. This makes sense, because each is from a different family of plants.
During 2017 and 2018, researchers from Spaunhorst’s team researched the effects of heat on weed seeds in the lab. After collecting seeds, they applied temperatures of 100, 150 and 200°C to various groups. Times of heat exposure varied as well.
“Evaluation of non-chemical strategies for itchgrass and divine nightshade management is limited,” says Spaunhorst. Chemical-alternative weed control can help slow herbicide-resistance evolution. “In fields historically under sugarcane cultivation, no chemical-resistant divine nightshade or itchgrass has been reported,” says Spaunhorst. “However, a few examples have been found where resistant itchgrass became established in soybean fields.”
These two weeds are a growing problem in Louisiana, where nearly half of the United States’ sugarcane is grown. Itchgrass competition can reduce the sugar yield in cane by 7-17%. And, the longer it competes with sugarcane, the more the sugar yield is reduced. Although divine nightshade is a relative newcomer to Louisiana, it can reduce sugar production by up to 43%. Therefore, researchers are looking at the effect of heat to control itchgrass and divine nightshade seed before it emerges in sugarcane fields.
A more important variable for heat tolerance is that the seeds of the plant have different structures. “Itchgrass seed is protected by an outer coating, similar to a husk,” says Spaunhorst. “However, divine nightshade seeds are located inside a fluid-filled berry. The fluid inside the berry seems to insulate the seed from high temperatures for short periods.”
Now that the team has collected lab and greenhouse results, the next step will be to apply these conditions in the field. It’s easy to control temperatures in an oven, but care will need to be taken to get the temperatures just right in the field. Wet crop residue in the field may not completely burn and produce temperatures too low to kill weed seeds. The burns will be started just like prairie burns — a little fuel, some wind, and a match.
When you cut slits in the landscape fabric and install new plants, be careful that you don’t get dirt all over the landscape fabric. After all, why prepare a home for airborne seeds? Sure, you will be applying mulch. But airborne weed seeds can wend their way through mulch particles. If they find dirt, then they are “weeds waiting to happen.”
If there are shrubs and trees present, cut them down with an ax or chainsaw. The ground needs to be smooth before you begin soil solarization (since you will be spreading plastic over it), so you will also have to remove the stumps left behind. If you are looking for a cheap way, use a tool called a “mattock.” Dig and chop your way with the mattock under the root-ball to access and remove the taproot. Warning: this is hard work and may be feasible only for smaller stumps.
Now you truly have a “clean slate” with which to work. Remove the plastic and lay down landscape fabric. You should try to use one of the stronger types of landscape fabric if possible, just in case—in spite of your best efforts—any sharp objects remain in the ground (which would puncture the landscape fabric).
Of course, if you use an organic mulch (such as a bark mulch), it will eventually decompose anyhow, becoming fertile ground for weeds. What can you do? Well, you had better keep new weeds pulled, faithfully. Vigorous roots pushing downwards can stress landscape fabric and breakthrough. On the bright side, these weeds should be relatively easy to pull, since mulch is a lot looser than dirt, and weed roots will not become impossibly entrenched.
First hack down the tall vegetation with a sickle, power trimmer, etc. But before doing so, make sure you know how to identify poison ivy, poison sumac, etc.
Now use a steel rake on the area that you have just tilled, wielding it like a fine-toothed comb to remove the majority of the uprooted weeds. Next, rake the area again, this time with the object of evening out the soil as best you can and removing stones, twigs, etc. The final preparation for soil solarization will require the use of a garden hose. According to the University of Idaho Extension (UIE), you should moisten the area that you have just raked to “conduct and hold heat, to stimulate weed seed germination, and to prevent dormancy of below-ground vegetative plant parts.”
Cover the raked, moistened area with a clear polyethylene sheet. The edges of the sheet can be held down by cinder blocks to keep the plastic from blowing away. If the raking mentioned above was done diligently enough, there will be no sharp objects sticking up to puncture the plastic. The sheet of clear plastic can be anything from 1 to 6 mil. in thickness. In the Northern hemisphere, the best time for soil solarization is June and July, when the sun is at its peak. UIE recommends keeping the sheet of clear plastic tightly stretched out over the area for about 2 months. During that time, the sun will be killing weeds for you—”cooking” them before they have a chance to sprout. Plant pathogens will be killed, to boot.