My New Favorite Tool: The Flame Weeder

When it comes time to deal with problem weeds, a burn may be the best answer.

by Rachael Dupree
PHOTO: 24carrotfarm/Instagram

I have a confession to make. As much as I know the importance of creating a diverse landscape, I’m attracted to the clean lines and smooth textures of that quintessential farm scene. You know, the one with freshly mown pastures, a garden with straight rows of perfect crops, a few sheep nibbling on forage, with maybe a whitewashed fence and a red barn in the background.

Our farm looks nothing like this, by the way. It’s beautiful in its own wildness, but it, indeed, boasts more of that “wild jungle” look than than the traditional bucolic imagery that accompanies the stereotypical dream farm. As I do the internal work of reconciling my desire for neatness around the property with the sustainable and, let’s face it, practical notion of letting nature be nature, we’ve found some tools that can help us keep certain parts of our land—the parts that will be used for growing our food—under control. One of the newest additions to our farm tool kit is a flame weeder, and let me tell you, I’m in love.

Why Flame-Weed?

I first saw flame-weeding in action while working on a flower farm last summer. The farmers would run over a freshly cultivated bed with the flamer weeder to scorch any small undesirables poking their first leaves above the dirt before they went on to put in their transplants. The scorching the weeds’ leaves before they have a chance to photosynthesize, stresses the plant, perhaps even killing it. Sometimes a second flaming is required to catch a second flush. This drastically reduces weed pressure on your baby crop, and giving it a fighting chance at outcompeting the weeds later on in the season.

I wanted to adopt this technique on our farm for several reasons. First, it doesn’t require the application of herbicides, which I want to keep off my food and out of the soil. It also doesn’t require tillage. No-till methods of cultivation help build up all the good soil organisms that will allow our garden to thrive in the long run, so I want to minimize the amount of tilling we do in our garden overall. We also haven’t invested in a tiller yet, so we need a method of weed management that suits our limited schedules and heavy weed pressure well.

How A Flame Weeder Works

Our flame weeder is basically a wand that you hook up to a propane gas tank—like the one you use for your grill. While there are flame weeders suitably sized for larger scale farms, this model makes the most sense for us. Most people use a backpack specially designed to carry the tank in order to cart it around their garden plot. We don’t have one of these yet, so in the meantime, we’re going to have to get creative with how we tote ours around. (I’m thinking a yard cart or dolly will have to do for now.)

Our First Flame Weeder Project

While getting a garden started this year is definitely a desire for Mr. B and me, much of our time is still focused on general land management. We’ve been working on fixing up our home, maintaining the trails through our forestland, and troubleshooting some problem areas around the property. A major issue for us has been our steep driveway, which is constantly being washed out and rutted by heavy rains (or “gully washers” as they like to call them around here). We’ll be applying a new load of gravel in the near future, but Mr. B wants to try to get rid of much of the plant growth off the drive before we do that.

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That’s where our first flame-weeding project came in. We packed up the propane tank in the back of Delia, our UTV, and headed down the quarter-mile drive to scorch any weeds and grass that had gotten overly thick in the middle of it. One of us drove, while the other walked behind to operate the flame weeder.

Our plan to tackle the overgrowth this way worked like a charm. Almost like magic, the grass growing up in the middle of the drive—the grass we’ve wasted so much time mowing) turned brown and began shriveling up. We also caught some dandelions, tree sprouts and other wild things that are better left to the forest and pasture than the driveway. The one plant we had a hard time scorching with the flame weeder was plantain, but knowing it’s properties as an herbal skin soother, I’m guessing it’s full of moisturizing constituents that stand up to the heat pretty well.

What’s Next?

I’d like to employ the flame weeder in the garden next. Between being pregnant (read nauseous all the time) and the amount of rain we’ve gotten this year, it’s been a bear to get our garden plot in working order and keep it that way until we can actually get plants into the ground. Fortunately, a neighbor helped us with the initial tilling at the beginning of the season, but the weed pressure out here is real and intense. After the weekend’s rain, we’re back to having to battle a thick blanket of weeds. We may need to take a mower or weedeater to the plot first, but then I want to use the weed eater to seal the deal and make a garden bed worthy of our transplants.

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