Monday, January 20, 2020

Fighting Garlic Mustard with Fire? Or Something Else...

A couple of years ago I added a garden torch to my arsenal of tools to maintain the landscape.  Fire can be a natural and effective tool in controlling invasive species and is one of the better ways to maintain a prairie ecosystem.  But, fire can also get out of control and its effectiveness is diminished if it is not timed properly or its intensity is not sufficient to destroy the target species.  On the garden scale a garden torch is a good way to kill weeds growing in cracks in a drive or walkway.  It is also effective at killing young seedlings, particularly annuals.  I found it particularly useful for  for clearling plants away from the partially buried wire fence around the vegetable garden.  Perennials and established plants require much more heat to kill them.  For established weeds repeated burning 2-3 weeks apart may be necessary.  Though it seems counter-intuitive, flaming moistened soil is more effective at killing young plants and seeds than dry soil because the moisture helps conduct  the heat through the soil.

Here's my Benzomatic garden torch.  It is light weight and a good size to fit into tight spaces. 
The one pound tank lasts an hour or so, depending on how big a flame you use.  

I originally got my torch to use on Japanese stiltgrass.  While spring burning does kill the sprouts effectively, other plants are actively growing at this time and the fire will set those back as well.  Also stiltgrass germination occurs over an extended time period, so multiple burns would be necessary.  For stiltgrass in a cool season lawn, burning in late summer, while the perennial grasses are in summer dormancy, is very effective at preventing the stiltgrass from setting seed.

This success with stiltgrass got me to thinking about using the torch on garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata.  Garlic mustard is a monocarpic biennial. It spends its first year as a rosette of deeply reticulated, reniform (kidney-shaped) leaves that builds up energy reserves in its fleshy white roots.  The following year it sends up a 2-4 foot flowering stalk in mid- to late-spring. It seems that winter time might be a good time to take out the garlic mustard.

Winter rosette of garlic mustard.

In the past when I have tried to burn garlic mustard I found I had to hold the flame on the plant for a long time before I could see much damage.  Before burning through a lot of propane, I decided to do a little research on using fire against garlic mustard.  The U.S. Forest Service has reports that document the effects of fire on a number of important plant species, including invasives.  Follow this link to the Forest Service report on garlic mustard.  A study authored by Victora Nuzzo for the Illinois Department of Conservation in 1990 compared the effectiveness of fire, herbicide and cutting for the control of garlic mustard.  They found that for fire to be effective it needed to be moderately intense and carried out in early spring.  Ideal burning conditions were often not available.  Herbicidal spray treatments were most effective in early fall and spring, timed for when native vegetation was dormant and thus less susceptible to the herbicidal effects.  One study out of Ohio showed that winter-time application of glyphosate when temperatures were between 25-45 F was very effective at killing garlic mustard rosettes.

Cutting plants after seed formation had begun in mid- to late-summer was very effective at reducing the number of plants in subsequent years.  Cutting at ground level resulted in nearly complete mortality, while cutting a couple of inches above the soil surface was only about 70% effective at killing the plant.  Since flowers and seeds continue to develop on cut stems, it is important to bag and dispose of all the garlic mustard cuttings.

Pulling mature garlic mustard is also very effective, and can be done anytime.  As with cuttings, if there are any flowers present the pulled plants should be bagged and disposed of.  While completely non-toxic, pulling garlic mustard is labor intensive (pulling and clean-up) and disturbs the soil.  This allows for the germination of additional seeds buried in the soil.

Here are some of the interesting garlic mustard facts that I came across while researching this post:
  •        Seeds lie dormant for a year before germinating.  This means you may not see the effect of control measures on new seedlings until the second growing season.
  •         Flowers are self pollinating; many are already pollinated before the flower opens.
  •         Flowers can photosynthesize.  They can continue to mature to form seed even after they have been cut or pulled.
  •        Plants are monocarpic.  They will continue to live until they set seed, even multiple years.
  •        Seedling mortality is high, 80-90%, during their first year.  More effort should be expended on removing maturing plants particularly in late fall to early spring.
  •       Of the common herbicides, glyphosate and triclopyr are very effective at controlling garlic mustard, 2,4-D is not.

So, Burn or Not?

So to answer the original question, should I use fire to control my garlic mustard?  The answer, for me, is no.  I will need to use a combination of tactics appropriate to the situation and season.  Winter spraying with glyphosate will be easier and more effective than fire at my location.  In the spring, pulling or carefully targeted spraying would be most effective.  And for those plants remaining in the late summer, cutting close to the ground or continued pulling will be in order.

To test this I will target spray with 3% glyphosate in a section of the woods in February if (when) we get a stretch of days in the 40’s with no rain and see how that compares to untreated areas.  (February seems a little early, but we are in the 60’s in early January, so plants may be getting woken up a few months before normal.)  Rather than blanket spraying I will try to target the spray onto existing rosettes.  One of the reasons to use target application is to avoid those few natives that are still in leaf through the winter. 

Some native plants that may look similar to garlic mustard rosettes include violets, Heuchera, Tiarella, and white avens (Geum canadense).  Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and common mallow (Malva neglecta) are some weeds that look similar, but are not currently on my hit list.  (I found no studies that indicated that ground ivy is susceptible to herbicides in winter.  Based on that I wouldn't waste time and materials treating it in the winter.)

Compare the palmate lobed leaves with the deeply veined (reticulated), bright green leaves
of the garlic mustard.  Here, pulling is the only option for removing the garlic mustard.

The leaves of foamflower are distinctly lobed.  The vein pattern
is different from that of garlic mustard.

Golden ragwort has regularly toothed leaf margins and a more linear vein pattern.

White avens over winters as a loose rosette of leaves.  Though most winter leaves
 have 3 lobes, some appear roundish and vaguely similar to garlic mustard.

The leaf shape of common mallow is similar to that of garlic mustard,
but the vein pattern is different.

In areas where I am more actively managing the garlic mustard I will continue pulling plants through late spring (before flowering).  In late summer I will see if there is a practical way to cut the plants close to the ground without leveling the surrounding vegetation.  Otherwise, keep pulling!

This table summarizes the garlic mustard control methods mentioned in this post.

Summary of Garlic Mustard control measures
Late Fall to Early Spring
Difficult to achieve ideal conditions; Need to keep under control
A good moderately hot fire is effective, but difficult to achieve.
Herbicide Spray
Dormant season
High kill rate; can be targeted; no soil disturbance
Spraying toxic materials; may affect non-target species
Dormant season spraying reduces damage to non-target species.
Summer, after flowering
Non-toxic; cutting at ground level nearly 100% effective; minimal soil disturbance
Labor intensive; must dispose of stems/flower stalks; use of weed whacker causes collateral damage.
Very effective when done right.
Anytime ground is soft and easily worked
Non-toxic; very effective as long as most of the root is removed
Labor intensive; disposal of pulled plants required once flowers are present; soil disturbance
Very effective