Weeding by Hand: It’s a Fool’s Task
By Staff Writer Stacey Warde.
I wish we were.
Although we’ve never used pesticides, and have kept herbicides to the barest minimum, we infuse the chemical fertilizer Grow More into the irrigation system and add N-phuric® acid to break down the bicarbonates in the highly alkaline water common to this area. Blueberries like acidic conditions and they’re not particularly fond of high levels of nitrogen. So we have to be careful in the way we feed them.
At some point, however, I hope that we can eventually wean ourselves from this dependency on chemical inputs and lean more toward a sustainable model of growing blueberries.
But not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Once, while having a beer at Schooner’s pub in Cayucos, I met a pest control advisor from the Valley who didn’t even try to hide his contempt for farmers who don’t use pesticides: “Are you one of those gay hippie organic growers?”
It might have been the beer speaking, or it may have simply been the way he was taught to think about farmers who don’t use chemical controls, which obviously would put him out of a job.
So far, we’ve been supremely lucky. We haven’t needed to spray for bugs or any of the other various diseases that are common with blueberries. Maybe it’s the variety, or the location, or the overall good health of the plants, but pests and disease have been thankfully minimal.
Our biggest problem, up this point, has been birds and weeds.
But netting can get expensive; it can cost up to $10,000 an acre for the right setup, and that’s more than we can spend at the moment.
We tied flashing strips of ribbon along the six-foot deer fence that runs along the perimeter of the field and keeps out large animals; and we tied the strips to selected plants to distract the birds and discourage them from alighting. They come anyhow, and sit on the fence, or flit among the blueberry plants, seemingly oblivious to the deterrent.
We rigged a scarecrow of sorts—a baseball cap and a work shirt hung on a post with a crossbar in the middle of the field—which doesn’t seem to do much other than evoke laughter from the few visitors who’ve come to see the farm.
“What’s that?” they’ve asked. “It looks like a clothing display or a hat rack.”
We also put up a couple of kestrel boxes at either end of the field in the hope that the small raptor would make its home there and serve as a deterrent. But so far, the only birds I’ve seen near the boxes are blue jays, not kestrels.
For now, and until the berries begin to ripen, the birds haven’t been too much of a problem. My biggest worry has been the prolific growth of weeds.
Fortunately, weeds are not as problematic as they could be because the blueberry plants aren’t in the ground; they are protected in their 5-gallon grow bags above the ground.
They can stay in those bags for up to five years, according to the farm advisor who helped us get started. We’ll keep them in the bags until we can find a suitable place to put them in the ground.
Meanwhile, before putting the plants in place, we rolled out nearly 30 rows of weed mat to keep weeds to a minimum.
Between the rows, however, where we can move freely between the plants to trim and harvest, we left the ground bare, perhaps foolishly, and now it’s inundated with what is called common knotweed.
This weed grows in compacted soils, which are fairly common on the Central Coast, and feature mostly heavy clay that dries and cracks in the summer, offering the perfect haven for common knotweed.
The weed puts down a taproot that can penetrate the clay soil several feet until it finds moisture. It’s grows in a low circular fashion, spreading itself up to several feet long in a thick mat of leaves.
In our current grow-bag arrangement, common knotweed doesn’t pose any direct threat to the blueberry plants; it won’t choke them out. But the weed attracts mildew and, although our plants are disease resistant, I don’t want to take any chances infecting the berries.
So I’ve been hoeing and mowing, managing the weeds by hand, avoiding the use of herbicides. At one point, however, the weeds seemed to get the upper hand and continued to spread, digging more deeply into the soil, and making it harder to control.
Finally, exasperated, I called for help and a local farmer suggested spraying Roundup® weed killer, a product from Monsanto that a friend calls “Devil’s Juice,” and which farmers praise as the quickest and most economical way to control weeds.
I reluctantly tested selected areas of the field, feeling bad, imagining the destruction of beneficial organisms in the soil, and of impacts to the watershed. But I was tired of running ragged, trying to weed more than an acre of crops by hand.
Sadly, at the recommended dose, the spray proved ineffective. The weeds had matured too much and were not affected by the spray. I had two choices: To continue weeding by hand or mix a “hotter” batch of weed killer.
I chose to step up weeding by hand and not risk hurting the plants by inadvertently spraying them, or depleting the soil of healthy microorganisms. It’s a fool’s task but I’ve gotten the hang of it and the weeds keep me busy.
I try to work within my limits without doing more harm than is necessary, and one day I hope to be one of those “gay hippie organic farmers.”