Control weeds with propane: A more effective weed management approach

A method developed in the mid-19th Century for eliminating weeds and noxious plants is emerging again as a more effective and sustainable management tool for both home gardens and environmentally conscious farmers and producers. 

Propane-fueled flame weeding equipment doesn’t carry the risks of dangerous weed control chemicals, such as glyphosate, the core ingredient in Roundup. Instead flame weeding relies on a more natural process that disrupts the unwanted plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis. The process, first engineered in 1852, applies intense heat to developing nuisance plants. This heat causes the fluid inside the plant’s cells to expand, and rupture the cell walls. With its internal structure damaged, the unwanted plant is unable to convert sunlight to energy production. Within a few days, the plant wilts and dies. 

This method of killing weeds doesn’t disrupt soil organisms, and in fact, adds to organic matter as the plants decompose. It likewise presents little danger for nearby plants and animals, and doesn’t contain the potential environmental havoc of chemicals that often drain into nearby streams and waterways. In many cases, it’s also a more efficient method of nuisance plant control, requiring less labor and time than hand or mechanical eradication. 

The once-popular method of relying on flame weeding equipment waned after World War II, when more families built homes in suburban cities amidst growth in the development and application of chemical herbicides. As questions have grown about the chemicals’ effect on public health, and as farmers explore ecologically balanced practices, organic weed control methods have gained renewed attention. 

While the use of propane fueled weed control looks different for homeowners and farmers, the application of flame weeding vs Roundup holds potential for less damage to the surrounding environment, better management of soil, and better efficiency in controlling weeds - on your farm, or in your backyard. 

Flame weeding for farming and agriculture

Ag producers interested in eliminating weeds in a more sustainable manner are finding a solution in industrial-scale flame weeding. Implements attached to tractors can maneuver large propane tanks, connected to directed flame mechanisms that are capable of covering multiple rows at once. Travelling over the area between 5 to 7 miles per hour allows the heat enough time to damage the plant’s cellular structure.

This presents the producer with an efficient way to eliminate weeds from large fields, without the use of herbicides or deploying mechanical means - such as plowing, which can damage soil integrity and increase runoff of valuable topsoil. The temperature of these implements can reach as high as 1.2 million BTUs, exponentially higher than the 12,000 BTUs of most stove burners. This intense heat doesn’t completely consume the plant, but it is high enough to permanently damage the cell’s structure, disrupt water delivery and the flow of nutrients, and render the plant inert. 

This process is effective at eliminating most annual weeds, and even some perennials. It is particularly useful against broadleaf weeds, but can also interrupt grasses and other noxious plants with multiple passes. Growers of soybeans and corn often pre-treat a field before or shortly after planting, and again when the plants are well into their growth. 

For organic farmers, or anyone oriented toward sustainable farming practices, the use of flame weeding is preferable to herbicide application. Propane fueled weeding doesn’t require the use of harsh chemicals that can damage the soil, water sources, or wildlife. It doesn’t “drift” to adjacent fields, and there are no concerns about handling massive amounts of dangerous compounds. Additionally, the use of flame weeding is less labor intensive, and less costly, than manual or mechanical weed removal. 

Propane fuels weed-free homes

Propane fueled flame weeding is a great way to safely keep vegetable and flower gardens free from weeds - without the fear of contamination from poisonous chemicals. And because weed flaming wands for home use are smaller, they can be easily maneuvered around established plants to target only unwanted invaders.

In addition to gardens and flowerbeds, flame weeding is a great way to keep unwanted plants out of sidewalks, driveways, and landscaping materials. This method eliminates the need for hand-pulling, which can disrupt features like retaining walls and accents. Some homeowners even use their weed flaming wands in the winter months to melt ice and snow in targeted areas. 

Flame weeding also avoids the use of chemicals, which can end up in your vegetables, or consumed by plant-eating wildlife in your area. Additionally, in urban and suburban areas, rainwater runs into storm water collections systems, where it eventually drains into canals, streams, and rivers. The most popular herbicide, Roundup, has been found to bond to the soil, where it will remain until metabolized by organisms within the soil. Flame weeding evades such environmental concerns - it leaves behind no toxic chemicals and the decomposing plant matter left from flame weeding safely enriches the soil. 

Flame weeding systems for homeowners rely on a long metal wand with an trigger-activated flame on the end. A long hose connected to a standard size propane tank provides flexibility and mobility, and the use of a pressure regulator provides an extra layer of safety. Some users prefer to carry the propane tank on their backs, with fittings that allow it to be worn like a backpack. Others move the tank around by strapping it to a dolly.

How to flame weed your garden

The goal of weed flaming isn’t to burn the plant, but rather to apply enough heat that the plant’s cell structure is compromised. To achieve this, walk slowly while applying the torch on the unwanted plants. The foliage should develop a glassy appearance without catching on fire. The release of steam from the plant is an indication that you’ve lingered too long. Within a day or two, the plant will wilt and die. Application of flame weeding is particularly effective when preparing soil in the garden bed, and throughout the growing season, once desired plants are well established. 

Though there’s no fear of over-spraying or spillage of toxic chemicals, flame weeding still calls for caution. The use of an open flame requires care to protect yourself, and the plants you’re trying to protect. If you’re mindful of where you direct the flame, you’ll find flame weeding is a safer, more organic way to rid your gardens of intruders. 

Flame weeding is historically safe and effective

Since John A. Craig first patented the first flame weeding machine for use in sugar cane fields in 1852, farmers have relied on the process to clear their fields and crops of invasive plants. By the mid-1930s, producers relied heavily on the process, using the intense heat generated by propane to manage their investments. The use of chemical herbicides grew exponentially in the 1970s, and today researchers are studying the health effects of these chemicals, as well as the effect on the environment and the emergence of weeds resistant to commonly-used herbicides. 

Flame weeding has long been proven safe and effective, particularly for corn and soybean growers, as well as for the home gardener or flower enthusiast. The process offers a environmentally sound way to control weeds, and doesn’t require mixing of chemicals. It protects the delicate balance of microorganisms in the topsoil, and presents no risk to adjacent fields or waterways. Flame weeding is a great option for both producers and homeowners searching for safe, sustainable, and organic weed control methods.

Contact Ferrellgas for your propane needs

Whether you're taking up a gardening project or own a farm, Ferrellgas is the one-stop shop for all your propane needs. Get in touch with your local Ferrellgas office today to find out how we can fuel what matters to you. 

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