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Using ragweed and wingstem as mulch

Golf cart load of weeds

Our farm grows wingstem and ragweed better than anything else.  Although our honeybees visit the flowers, we don't get any other products from these acres and acres of wildflowers...until now.

Weed-lined road

Cardboard mulchThe tall weeds that line our driveway have always looked like an opportunity, but I never could figure out what they were an opportunity for.  One winter, I gathered the dead stalks and sent them through our shredder/hammer mill, but the process took forever and I was worried that the seedy mulch would cause problems.

At this time of year, though, ragweed and wingstem are shooting up fast and have no flowers or seeds in sight.  Add in the scythe and a bed of raspberries that the chicks had scratched nearly bare, and I thought I might have figured out my opportunity.

It took me about an hour (and two big golfcart loads) to cover up the cardboard of my kill mulch with a new organic layer.  I mulched very thickly since I know the weed leaves will wilt down to nearly nothing, but I hope the stems will be enough to provide a long-lasting mulch.  That means it took just a bit longer to mulch the row than if we'd hauled buckets of composted wood chips from the parking area, but only about half as long as raking leaves out of the woods.

Driving mulch to the garden

Mulching with weedsThe trick to speedy weed gathering was to hit spots right along the driveway where partial shade keeps the vines down and allows the scythe to make short work of the weed stalks.  Actually, I spent a lot more time collecting the weeds off the ground than cutting them down, meaning that if I wanted to build a grain cradle for the scythe, I could probably become significantly more efficient.

I also suspect that I'd get more biomass for my effort if I waited another few weeks until the weeds were starting to bloom.  At that stage, they'd be higher in carbon, which would make the mulch last longer while encouraging beneficial fungi in the soil.  Right now, the shaded wingstem and ragweed in the woods are between three and five feet tall, but they'd be bigger at bloom time.

I'll try to remember to report back once I get an idea about how well the weeds work as mulch.  I'll probably repeat the experiment in a few other patches in the meantime --- scything combined with the golf cart is too much fun to pass up.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a wet, dirty chicken coop.


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You mentioned waiting a bit longer as to let the weeds grow some more... Joel Salatin of Polyface farms does this with the grass in his cow pastures. He says there is the "infant" stage, followed by the "teenager" stage, and then the nursing home stage in plant growth. Tongue in cheek… He waits to graze his cows on a pasture until the grass is past the "teenager" stage which is where the most growth occurs. Mr. Salatin raises cows, chickens, rabbits, and various crops, but refers to himself as a grass farmer.

It looks like you grow ragweed and wingstem like we grow lambs quarter. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a hostile take over; the stuff grows everywhere at our place!

Comment by chris @ backacrehomestead.com Thu Jun 14 11:01:44 2012
But if you waited until the weeds started to flower before harvesting them, wouldn't you get a lot of weed seeds in your raspberry bed?
Comment by mitsy Thu Jun 14 11:51:40 2012

Chris --- I found Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence even more helpful for an in-depth understanding of grass growth rates over time.

Mitsy --- The goal in cases like this (and when mow-killing cover crops) is to hit the plants right before the flowers turn into seeds. That way, you get more carbon, take advantage of the peak growth of the plant, and in the case of some cover crops make the plant more likely to die on its own, all without seeding your garden with things you'd rather keep out.

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 16:56:43 2012
I'm trying a version of this too, though my weeds this year are poke and mullein. They grow big and fast and with their taproots I'm hoping they are mineral "goldmines" for my preferred plants (blueberries, raspberries, etc.) where I'm dropping them to dry.
Comment by sweetgum Sat Jun 16 00:41:47 2012
Sweetgum --- Funnily enough, someone on my blog reading list was just posting about using poke as a dynamic accumulator --- http://www.appalachianfeet.com/2012/06/13/how-to-get-excited-about-poke-sallet-native-options-for-permaculture-nutrient-accumulators/.
Comment by anna Sat Jun 16 18:43:24 2012

How do you identify pasture grasses/forbs/weeds etc? Do you have any resource suggestions? Would you consider doing/have you done a pasture identification post?

We JUST move to a farm in SW Virgnia and I am struggling to identify many of the plants that are growing!

Comment by Emily Wed Jun 20 23:22:32 2012

Emily --- Welcome to southwest Virginia! Where is your new farm?

I've considered doing an ID series on pasture plants, but there are just so many options, and the grasses are so tough! I recommend getting a copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers. It's easy for beginners to use and will help you ID most of your common plants, except those pesky grasses.

I'm actually still working my head around grasses myself, and the best advice I can give you is to figure out who the most likely candidates are and learn those first. Fescue and bluegrass seem to be the most common ones in mowed areas here, but hayfields and other areas that are allowed to get taller have a whole different set of species. Your extension agent might be able to help you out if you bring in plants to be IDed.

Good luck!

Comment by anna Thu Jun 21 15:59:46 2012