Weed management for field and container nurseries

Follow these best management practices to reduce and prevent weed problems.

Make a plan. Once the nursery is planted, it becomes more diffcult to control weeds.
Photos by Kelli Rodda

Weeds are a continuous issue for nursery production crews since they can pop up in any area of the operation throughout the year. To win the war on weeds, nurseries should adopt best management practices (BMPs) to save labor, inputs and improve overall plant health. The University of Massachusetts Extension has provided these strategies for an improved weed management system.


All areas of the nursery (nursery fields, container yards, hoop houses, greenhouses, potting and propagation areas, holding areas and areas adjacent to these locations) should be scouted for the presence of weeds on a regular basis. Give special attention to those weeds that might be new to a nursery. Correctly identify and record all weeds. Determine and record the life cycle of each weed. Regular scouting enables a nursery manager to plan and implement appropriate management strategies and evaluate the long-term effectiveness of those strategies.


Develop a weed management program before planting. This should be one of the first steps in the production process. A complete weed management program outlines all strategies to be implemented.

Preventive strategies

Weeds should be prevented from going to seed in all areas of the nursery. Control measures include mowing, hand-pulling and herbicides. Weeds should be controlled before they produce viable seed. Special attention should be given to weeds with unique seed dispersal mechanisms. Seeds can be moved by wind (dandelion, horseweed, groundsel, hawksbeard), splashing irrigation water (chickweed, pealwort) and force seedpod dehiscence (woodsorrel, bittercress). Optimize the production cycle and minimize the duration in which container and field nursery stock remains in the nursery. Weed problems increase over time and nursery stock that is held for long periods of time can be problematic. In nursery fields, a short production cycle allows for effective perennial weed control. Control weeds in nursery fields before planting. This is especially true for difficult-to-control perennial weeds such as mugwort, quackgrass, yellow toadflax, bindweed and Canada thistle. Once the nursery is planted, it becomes increasingly difficult to control these weeds.

Pre-plant applications of a non-selective, translocated herbicide will effectively control many perennial weed species. Cultivation, unless it is done multiple times over a period of time, may spread perennial weeds. Cultivation also can result in the loss of soil structure and organic matter. If weed populations are considerably different among nursery fields, cultivation equipment should be washed to remove soil and weed seeds. Maintain a weed-free ground cover in field nurseries.

Depending on the type of nursery stock being grown, fields can be maintained either vegetation-free or in a system in which the weed-free areas are maintained in the rows and a persistent sod grassway is established and maintained in the alleys. Weed control in the rows can be achieved with programs that include residual preemergence herbicides and both selective and non-selective postemergence herbicides. These areas can also be mulched. If cultivation is used to control weeds in the row, pay special attention to the movement of soil. Over time, a substantial ridge of soil may develop at the base of nursery stock and be detrimental. Sod grassways will support equipment and allow field access for digging, spraying, mowing and other practices to continue when soils are muddy and snow covered. Additionally, sod grassways can effectively compete with weeds and prevent their spread. These areas are traditionally managed by mowing; however, plant growth regulators can also be used. Maintain a weed-free area around the base of nursery stock. Nursery stock that is surrounded by weeds is prone to rodent damage. Weeds around the base of nursery stock can compete for water and nutrients. Maintain cover crops in fields that are not being used. Cover crops will not only improve soil but also reduce weed growth. Winter rye and oats can be used as cool-season cover crops. Buckwheat and sudangrass can be used as cover crops for the summer months. Maintain weed-free areas around and between greenhouses and hoop houses. These areas can be a source of weed seed that can infest container nursery stock. An early season preemergence herbicide or a postemergence non-selective and preemergence herbicide tank-mix can be used.

All weeds should be controlled in container areas. Nursery fabrics can be used in container areas to prevent weed growth. Container media that has spilled or has fallen from nursery container drain holes and all plant debris should be cleaned from container areas. While initially weed-free, growing media that is stored improperly or in an open area can quickly become contaminated with weed seeds. Covering the pile or storage indoors should be considered as strategies to keep weed seeds from entering the media. If soil or compost is a component of a container media the weed levels should be determined. Nursery liners and transplants should be weed-free. Inspect purchased liners and transplants for weed growth. If weeds are present, remove as many as possible, especially those near the surface, before planting. Ask the supplier questions about their production process weed management programs and weed levels before purchase. Nursery containers that are going to be reused should be washed thoroughly. Washing should be done in a manner that removes all leftover growing media and weed seeds. Many weeds are very small and can easily be missed when containers are inspected visually so washing is necessary. Routinely scout and monitor newly potted plants. Recently planted nursery containers can be very prone to weed growth. If weeds do appear, examine the nursery container closely and determine if the weeds are germinating from the liner or from the growing media. Take the appropriate action based on the location of the weeds. Implement management strategies that are targeted toward preventing weed growth in container nursery stock. Several container surface covers can be used to reduce weed growth in nursery containers.

Growers should keep in mind that recently planted containers are prone to weed growth.

Herbicides and applications

All characteristics of a particular herbicide should be considered when selecting an herbicide, including weed species controlled and longevity of effective control, weed growth stage at time of application, crop tolerance to herbicide and potential for injury, herbicide rate and activation requirement including rainfall/irrigation free period, application timing, herbicide formulation, herbicide mode of action, herbicide persistence and speed of degradation, potential for leaching and runoff, potential for injury from spray drift and volatility, selective vs. non-selective, contract vs. systemic/translocated, and cost. The product labels of all herbicide products should be read and understood before application. Make applications according to label directions.

Combine herbicides to increase the spectrum of weeds controlled. Most herbicides used singly do not control all the weeds at a specific site. A particular preemergence herbicide is generally stronger on “grassy weeds” or “broadleaf weeds” and therefore a tank-mix of “grass” and “broadleaf” herbicides will increase the spectrum of weeds controlled. Apply preemergence herbicides at frequent enough intervals to maintain effective weed control. Rotate herbicides based on mode of action and weed spectrum controlled. Using the same herbicide or herbicides with the same mode of action at a specific site can result in a shift in weed populations as well as increase the potential for herbicide resistance. If weeds that had previously been controlled with a specific herbicide are not currently being controlled, herbicide resistant weed populations may be developing. Steps should be taken to prevent suspected weeds from producing seed and spreading.

All herbicide application equipment should be calibrated on a regular basis. Check delivery rate and application pattern on all sprayers and spreaders and adjust accordingly. Replace worn or damaged spray tips. Apply herbicides based on the germination period and growth stage of the specific weeds. Postemergence herbicide applications should be made only to weeds that are actively growing and not under moisture stress. Weeds should not be mowed for two weeks prior to and one to two weeks after application.

An accurate record of all herbicide applications should be kept on file. Information recorded should include application date, herbicide used and formulation, herbicide rate and spray volume output, weeds present and their growth stage, crops and their growth stage, location and amount of area treated, weather (air temperature, dewpoint temperature, wind speed and direction, post application rainfall), soil moisture, application problems, and other information that might be helpful. Avoid over-watering container and field nursery stock. Over-watering can increase weed germination and establishment. The effectiveness of preemergence herbicides can be significantly decreased as a result of herbicide degradation as a result of over-watering. Thoroughly clean herbicide application equipment after application. Evaluate herbicide applications for effectiveness. Use the information collected to make appropriate adjustments to the herbicide program.

Best Management Practices information compiled by Tina Smith and Paul Lopes, University of Massachusetts Extension; weed management information edited by Randall Prostak, University of Massachusetts. Read the entire BMP publication at https://bit.ly/nursery-BMPs

August 2020
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