Flame Weeding, Fire Weed

Certain things don’t mix. Eating weed, flame weeding -- don’t mix. Despite the fun syntax and potential for puns, it turns out to be quite a dangerous activity, one that could send your crops, your farm and your dreams up in smoke.

Flame weeding is a particularly effective means of weed suppression used by organic growers because it uses elemental fire instead of petrochemical herbicides. Basically you take a propane grill tank, strap a flamethrower on there and fit it to a backpack. Then you take that mobile flame thrower and literally scorch the earth. Ideally you do this when weeds are just sticking their heads out of the soil and right before your crop has germinated. The fire kills the weeds that would have otherwise had a head start over your crop and gives your carrots or greens or whatever a fresh bed to be born into. If you get the timing right -- young weeds, crop still gestating underground -- it’s one of the best methods of organic weed suppression I know. If you get the timing wrong, say a windy, dry day when you’re as barbequed as a brisket, the results are disastrous.

Weed (cannabis, not thistle or lambs quarter) played a big part in my first year farming independently. I was leasing land off of a British ex-pat who had hustled his way into owning 80 acres upstate. He had grown vegetables for 12 years up there but the debt load and his ailing body finally caught up to him. He needed someone else to work the land. That’s where I came in. I learned a lot from him -- how to produce beautiful greens and hoop house tomatoes, how to tinker with small engines and operate some heavy duty tractor implements, and how to do those things stoned as hell.

George smoked weed everyday. All day. The first time I went up to the farm to get some beds ready for garlic planting, George showed me the tractor I’d be using, ran through how to operate the bed shaper, pointed me out to the field and said, “Alright she’s all yours. But first … bong rips!”

I was so stoned running that tractor, every bump and hiccup could have stopped my heart. But I got through it. The beds got made. The garlic got in. I was learning how to ride the wave of marijuana induced panic and still get shit done.

I started getting high more and more with George until it became a morning ritual for us. We’d roll a spliff and talk farming, share strategies and life stories, then I’d head out to the fields and figure it out. One morning George had some weed cookies a friend had made. It seemed like a fine idea. There was much to do that day -- move irrigation lines, water the spinach, flame weed the beds before the carrots come up -- and a nice edible would keep me stoned throughout the day. Which it did. I was baked.

By the time I strapped the flame weeder on my back, well, I didn’t know what time was. I was in edible space/time. A mad revolving door of impulse, panic, clarity and bewilderment. I turned the propane on, lit up the torch and started making my way down the bed, scorching the little baby weeds and watching them melt away like the wicked witch of the west. But then a breeze picked up. It hadn’t rained for weeks. Disaster struck.

A leaf or a stick or piece of hay in the bed caught fire. This happens when you flame weed, but the debris usually burns for a moment and extinguishes itself. This time it caught fire, was caught in the wind and blew 6 feet over, across another bed, right into the garlic.

The garlic was mulched heavily with straw. A good 6 inch depth of straw, running the 200 feet of bedspace, 20 feet wide -- dry, brittle, oh-so-flammable straw.

Within seconds the straw had caught fire. My stoned mind switched into panic mode. I threw off the propane backpack and shut the valve, ran to the garlic and tried to stomp out the small blaze, only with each panicked stomp I sent embers and more flaming straw into the air. The wind blew these further down the mulched bed and the fire swelled and spread like, well, wildfire. In no more than 30 seconds the fire had gone from a single piece of straw to a 20 foot blaze, roaring down the bed of garlic.

Ohhh, fuck -- was all I could mutter. My mind raced. What to do. Think, you stoned fool, think. The waterpump! The irrigation! Water fights fire, right?

My irrigation lines ran from a wetland pond in the woods. There was a tractor powered PTO water pump down there that I had got running earlier in the day. This would turn out to be a fateful decision because getting that tractor started and running the pump was a nightmare. A pull start diesel engine. I’d spend so much time pulling and pulling and pulling, trying to get that thing to catch, throwing out my shoulder, cursing, feeling like a madman for always thinking this next one will do it. Surely it will start.

That day of the fire I had got the pump running earlier in the day and locked in the tractor’s clutch, which disables the PTO and basically idles the pump. When I needed to irrigate, I could simply walk down to the wetland, pop the clutch and not waste all that time fighting the damn pull start.

Only that day I couldn’t walk down there. I had to sprint. The fire was spreading fast.   

The pump was probably 200 yards away from the beds and I ran those yards like an idiot, tripping and mumbling, ohhhh fuck, shit, shit, shit.

I got to the tractor, popped the clutch and sprinted the 200 yards back to the fire that at this point was about 60 ft long, 20 ft. wide. If I had got stuck trying to get that tractor to start, I think we would have lost the farm, the fire was spreading that fast.

But I got back in time. I ran to the irrigation line that ran the length of the field and sawed into it with my field knife. Cold, muddy water coursed from the line. I dragged the line to the fire and used it like a firehouse, hurrying from one section to the other, dowsing the flames as best I could. I think it took 10 minutes to fully extinguish the flames. By the time the last ember burnt out, the fire had taken a full third of my garlic crop, the straw and young bulbs leveled to the ground, a black ash all that remained. I surveyed the damage, my heart pounding in my chest. Just beyond the garlic, at the end of the bed, where the fire was heading like a wick to a stick of dynamite, acres and acres of overgrown, dead, dry, brown grass and weeds from the previous season. Kindling that would have burned just like that straw. And burned and burned for acres and acres.

I collapsed to the ground where the wet ash clung to my clothes and hands. The adrenaline calmed, leaving behind shame and panic and fear. I buried my head in my hands, the ashen mud now fixed to my face, and replayed it all in my mind. I walked back down to the water pump to shut it off, then went about picking up the pieces of my disaster. I patched the irrigation line where I had sawed through it, picked up the flame weeder with a new fear of its potential and walked back to the barn.

When I told George the story he laughed like a madman, like someone who had been through his share of self-made micro-cataclysms, and could see the humor in it all. “Well I should of told you no flame weeding on windy days. But you didn’t lose the farm, no one was hurt. All you lost was your pride and some straw and garlic.”

And it turns out, I didn’t even lose the garlic. The fire wiped out the green growth above ground, but to my astonishment the bulbs held onto life underground. They sent up new growth in a matter of weeks. And they did so into a clean bed. The fire had wiped out the weeds that were getting established in spite of the straw. We had to hand weed the rest of the garlic -- the stuff that wasn’t touched by the fire -- but the regrowth, the survivors, we just remulched and it regrew.

This got George and I thinking. One morning over coffee and a spliff we dreamt up a new garlic growing technique. Plant the garlic in the fall and mulch like mad. In the spring when the weeds under the straw are stubbornly germinating and fighting for the light, set those beds a blaze and let it burn in one fell swoop. Of course we’d be ready to extinguish the flames when they reached the end of the bed -- a controlled burn. Then you could remulch the beds and let the garlic grow back into significantly less weed pressure. Perhaps the garlic would be that much stronger from facing the fire, growing back.

Anyway, we never got to try it out. Never made it to the next season at all. It turned out the weed consumption both contributed to and concealed the chaos of the place, the instability, and that winter George lost the farm.

I guess there’s a metaphor in there, be like the garlic, save some strength underground, face the fire and grow from it -- but really the simple moral of the story, the hidden meaning, the parable of it all is just don’t get high and play with fire, stupid.