Many materials used for making compost are contaminated with weed seeds. Late cut hay will certainly contain weed seeds. Straw can be examined for fruiting stalks of weeds. All manure other than poultry manure should be considered contaminated unless you have tested it. Horse manure and manure from other animals that have access to weedy pastures or pastures along roadsides are most likely to be contaminated with weed seeds.
In general, it is easier to use weed free materials to make compost than it is to try to kill weed seeds during the composting process. The problem with adding weedy compost to your garden is rarely that you will be immediately overwhelmed with weeds: usually the weed seed density of garden soil is higher than that of manure or poorly made compost. Rather, the problem is that you may introduce some new pernicious weed species that will cause management problems for years to come.
You can test manure for weed seeds by mixing several quarts of manure taken from various parts of the pile with potting mix in a 1:1 ratio and spreading it in flats. Keep the flats warm during the day and cool but not cold at night. For example, run the test inside in the winter, outside in the summer and in a cold frame during the spring or fall. Water the flats regularly, and observe any weed seedlings that emerge over the following two to three weeks. This test will usually show if weed seeds are present, but it may not accurately predict their density since some seeds may be dormant.
Organic vegetable farmers rely heavily on labor-intensive tillage for weed management, which adversely affects soil health and harms beneficial insects that consume crop pests and weed seeds. Using cover crop residues as a weed-suppressive mulch enables some reduction in tillage, and combining this tool with recently developed organic herbicides may further enhance weed suppression in vegetable production. However, organic herbicides may also adversely affect beneficial insects, and their nontarget effects are unknown. Here, we examine the combined impacts of cultural and chemical tools on weed cover while monitoring activity of beneficial epigeal insects and measuring rates of weed seed biological control to assess potential nontarget effects of organic herbicides. In a 2-yr experiment, we compared three cover crop mulch treatments and three organic herbicide treatments (capric/caprylic acid, corn gluten meal, and herbicide-free) in a reduced-tillage system. Organic herbicides led to no reductions in beneficial insect activity nor weed seed biocontrol. In both years, capric/caprylic acid herbicide and cover crop mulches reduced weed pressure relative to a fallow control treatment, whereas corn gluten meal had no effect. In year 2, a combination of cover crop mulch with organic herbicide had the greatest weed suppression relative to the fallow control. Integrated weed management is a perpetual challenge, but our results suggest that organic herbicides used in concert with cover crop mulch may enhance weed control and reduce the need for tillage, with limited collateral damage to natural enemies.
Keywords: fall cover crops; integrated weed management; reduced-tillage; weed seed predation.
Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Entomological Society of America 2020.