Composting Weed Seeds

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How to Kill Weed Seeds in Compost Ideally, you wouldn’t add weeds that are in seed or even in the late part of their blooming cycle to the compost pile. Thus you can avoid the problem of their Weeds can be safely added to a compost pile if you make sure temperatures are high enough to kill the seeds and roots. Organic weed management techniques described in detail.

How to Kill Weed Seeds in Compost

Ideally, you wouldn’t add weeds that are in seed or even in the late part of their blooming cycle to the compost pile. Thus you can avoid the problem of their seeds germinating in the garden when you later use the compost you produced. But sometimes, you have little choice: perhaps the most easily available compostable material (horse manure, hay, etc.) contains seeds or else the endless sorting of weeds according to their “seediness” would just be too complicated. Or, like me, you just feel that everything organic should be composted.

Fortunately, there are other solutions.

A Big, Hot Pile

A compost pile that gives off water vapor is working hard to kill weed seeds. Source: Anatomy of Living, www.youtube.com

In general, the bigger the compost pile, the more heat it produces … and heat kills seeds, even weed seeds.

After a week at 130 ° F (55 ° C)*, most weed seeds will be dead, but it takes a month at 145° F (63 ° C) or more to kill the most resistant ones. Curiously, most common weeds actually produce seeds that are fairly easy to kill and they’ll die at relatively low temperatures. That’s the case with dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), for example.

*Note that such temperatures will also kill any weed roots and rhizomes placed in the compost. Two birds with one stone!

Heat-resistant weed seeds requiring treatment at 45° F (63 ° C) include:

  • Bird’s-eye speedwell (Veronica persica)
  • Broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius)
  • Common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
  • Common lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)
  • Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)
  • Ladysthumb (Polygonum persicaria, now Periscaria maculosa)
  • Round-leaved mallow (Malva pusilla)
  • Spiny sowthistle (Sonchus asper)
  • Wild buckwheat (Polygonum convolvulus, now Fallopia convolvulus)

To find out if your compost pile heats up enough to kill weed seeds, simply insert a compost thermometer into it and note the temperature. If you don’t have a compost thermometer, try sinking your hand into the pile. If it’s so hot you to feel uncomfortable, it’s heating up enough.

Do not forget to return the pile regularly, not only because that helps to oxygenate it and thus stimulates microbial life, leading to and maintaining higher temperatures, but also so the ingredients on the outside of the pile, where it’s cooler, can also get their full heat treatment.

Note too it may be necessary to water your compost pile from time to time. Compost heats most efficiently when it is neither dry nor wet, but moderately moist.

When the Pile Is Not Heating Up Enough

The compost bins commonly sold generally can’t hold enough material to ensure high temperatures. If you’re using one, you’ll have to resort to other methods if you want to kill weed seeds in your compost.

Bury compost to prevent weed seeds from germinating. Source: thelegitimatenews.com

It’s important to understand is that weed seeds* can only germinate when exposed to light. If you are concerned that your compost might contain viable weed seeds, simply bury it when you use it, covering it with soil or, if you apply it to the surface, cover the compost with mulch. Problem solved!

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*Warning: unlike annual and perennial weed seeds, a few tree seeds, especially nuts, will germinate when covered with soil or mulch.

You can also kill the seeds at the end of a composting cycle by solarization. To do this, spread the compost on a very sunny surface and cover it with a sheet of transparent plastic, holding the plastic in place with rocks or bricks. That will quickly create a greenhouse effect and very high temperatures. Even if there is some germination at first, the heat underneath the plastic will be such that it will soon kill both the seedlings and any remaining seeds, leaving you with weed-free compost you can use as you want.

With these methods in mind, you can dare to add weeds at any stage of their life to your compost pile.

Tips for Composting Weeds

Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.

Amanda Rose Newton holds degrees in Horticulture, Biochemistry, Entomology, and soon a PhD in STEM Education. She is a board-certified entomologist and volunteers for USAIDs Farmer to Farmer program. Currently, she is a professor of Horticulture, an Education Specialist, and pest specialist.

David Freund / Getty Images

Compost is a great way to recycle organic material in your garden. All those spent flower blossoms, fall leaves, dead plants, grass clippings—even non-meat kitchen scraps—can be transformed into a great soil amendment and nutritious mulch, simply by throwing them into a heap and allowing the refuse to decompose naturally.

Composting Issues

Done correctly, composting creates a sterile organic material that does nothing but good things for your garden and the plants in it. However, nearly every gardener who practices composting has occasionally experienced “volunteer” plants sprouting up in the garden where the compost has been spread.

This can actually be rather charming when the volunteers are tiny impatiens seedlings, tomato plants, or even pumpkins that volunteer because last Halloween/s jack o’ lanterns were added to the compost heap. It’s far less charming when the volunteer plants are hundreds of dandelions or tiny sprigs of bindweed or crabgrass that get into the garden via the compost you spread.

A gardener who experiences such an explosion of volunteer weeds may well swear off composting altogether, or at least stop adding weed material to the compost pile. To be clear, there is no reason to stop composting weeds. With a slight adjustment to the composting process, you can ensure that weeds and their seeds will be killed completely and won’t be resurrected where you least want them .

How Weeds Survive

In an ideal compost heap, the temperatures generated by the breakdown of plant material can get quite warm, and if temperatures exceed 145 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty much all seeds and roots will be killed. However, if the temperatures do not get warm enough—or if a portion of the compost heap does not experience sufficiently high temperatures—seeds or perennial roots can survive the composting process. When these seeds or bits of root later reach your garden inside the compost, they can—and usually do—quickly germinate or take root again.

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How do you know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill all weeds? A variety of compost thermometers are available that can gauge the temperature of your pile. Experienced gardeners may simply thrust a hand into the pile. If it feels uncomfortably warm to the touch, it likely is warm enough to kill all seeds and roots in the pile.

Hot Composting

The classic method of composting—the method purists would call the “right” way—is known as hot composting. This simply means that you turn the pile regularly and allowing it to really heat up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A properly maintained hot compost pile will kill weed seeds, as well as many other pathogens, so you can compost weeds without having to worry about them popping up in your garden beds.

For hot composting to fully kill all weed seeds and roots, follow these tips:

  • Turn the pile frequently. All compost heaps have localized cool spots that are slow to break down. By mixing the pile frequently, you ensure that all material is achieving the necessary heat to kill the seeds and roots.
  • Give it time. Practiced correctly, hot composting involves processing a volume of material fully until it is fully decomposed. Don’t continue to add small amounts of additional material to the heap; start another heap while the first one breaks down completely. The compost is ready to spread when turning and mixing the pile no longer causes the compost to heat up.
  • Weed the garden before adding compost. Fresh compost is laden with nutrients, and if there are weeds growing in your garden, adding compost will simply nourish the weeds along with your garden plants. Make sure your garden is well weeded before adding fresh compost to the soil.

Cool Composting

So-called “cool composting” is a more informal style of composting. It is a passive method that doesn’t involve constant temperature monitoring and mixing. In cool composting, fresh material is constantly added to the top of the heap as the lower levels are breaking down into compost. In cool compost bins, gardeners periodically remove the prepared compost from the bottom of the pile as fresh material is constantly added to the top. Cool composting is an easier style, though it can take somewhat longer.

Here are some tips to keep a cool compost pile free of weeds:

  • Don’t compost pernicious weeds. There are certain perennial weeds that require lots of heat to kill, and if you don’t have the time for hot composting, it is best to keep them out of the compost pile altogether. In a cool compost pile, weeds to avoid include morning glory, buttercups, bermuda grass, oxalis, quackgrass, and crabgrass. Any garden plant that spreads by runners, such as mint or raspberry canes, should also be kept out of a cool compost pile.
  • Don’t compost weeds that have gone to seed. Most annual weeds pose no problems if they are added to a cool compost pile before they are mature and set seed. But throw those same dandelions into the pile after their flower heads have produced thousands of seeds, and you may experience a dandelion epidemic when that compost is later added to the garden. If you are cool composting, weeds that have gone to seed should be thrown in the trash, not added to the compost pile.
  • Prebake the weeds. Pretty much any plants, even the pernicious varieties that spread by runners, become safe for any compost pile if you heat them up to the temperature necessary to kills seeds and roots. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, you can solarize them by baking them inside a black plastic bag in the sun for a few days. Other gardeners bake weeds on a sheet of metal laid in the sun; once the weeds are baked to a dried crisp, they pose no risk in the compost heap. Some gardeners have even been known to keep an old microwave oven in the garage or garden shed, using it to “nuke” the weeds into oblivion by heating them until they steam before adding them to the compost heap.
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Seeds in compost

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.

To kill weed seeds during the composting process, the pile should reach 140? F for at least two weeks. Some of the more resistant species may not be killed even by this treatment. For a small compost pile achieving a high sustained temperature may require insulating the pile (e.g., with loose, straw over plastic). If the weather is warm and sunny, the heat generated by biological activity can be supplemented with solar energy by covering the pile with clear plastic. Since the outside of the pile is unlikely to attain the required temperature for a sustained period in any case, thoroughly mixing the pile several times will probably be necessary. For a very small pile (e.g., < 1 cubic yard) attaining a high enough temperature for a long enough time to kill most weed seeds may be impossible.

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