Composting to Reduce Weed Seeds and Plant Pathogens A key feature of organic farming systems is the utilization of organic residues as soil mulches and amendments in an integrated system to Weeds can be safely added to a compost pile if you make sure temperatures are high enough to kill the seeds and roots. How to Kill Weed Seeds in Compost Ideally, you wouldn’t add weeds that are in seed or even in the late part of their blooming cycle to the compost pile. Thus you can avoid the problem of their
Composting to Reduce Weed Seeds and Plant Pathogens
A key feature of organic farming systems is the utilization of organic residues as soil mulches and amendments in an integrated system to maintain and improve soil quality. Organic residues used for these purposes may be produced on the farm, or they may be imported from off-farm sources. Often, fresh organic residues produced in place are used in these practices, such as when cover crops are plowed down as a green manure to build soil organic matter and improve soil fertility, or rolled as a mulch in organic no-till systems to suppress weeds, reduce soil erosion, and conserve soil moisture. Organic residues may also be processed before being used to attain desirable qualities, such as when animal manures are composted to reduce volume and improve stability. Regardless of the circumstances, organic residues that are handled incorrectly can introduce otherwise avoidable problems to the farming system. For example, raw cattle manure may contain viable weed seeds and may spread an otherwise isolated weed infestation more broadly across the farm or, if the manure is imported from outside the farm, introduce a weed problem that previously didn’t exist. Similarly, plant residues may be infected with pathogens that can infest subsequent crops. This article provides a brief description of the composting process, discusses the use of composting to reduce weed seeds and plant pathogens, and identifies issues that can lead to the failure of composting to reduce weed seeds and plant pathogens.
What is composting?
For the purposes of organic certification, the National Organic Program rule (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2000) defines compost as:
“The product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 °F and 170 °F for 3 days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 °F and 170 °F for 15 days, during which time, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.”
–7 C.F.R. § 205.2 (2000)
Composting is the controlled management of the normal biological process of aerobic (in the presence of oxygen) decomposition of organic residues by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes. This process is optimized when the various organic residues are mixed to provide certain conditions:
- a balance of energy (carbon, C) and nutrients (primarily nitrogen, N), with an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1
- sufficient—but not excessive—moisture (typically 40–60% by weight)
- sufficient oxygen to support an aerobic environment (typically 5% or more)
- a pH in the range of 6–8
Under these conditions, populations of microorganisms will thrive and organic residues will be decomposed, consuming oxygen and releasing intermediate breakdown products, carbon dioxide, and heat. As the temperature of the pile rises, the community of microorganisms will go through a succession, culminating in thermophilic (heat-loving) organisms at temperatures above 113 °F (45 °C). If the mass of the compost pile is large enough to be self-insulating, temperatures within the pile during this active phase of composting may reach 131–170 °F (~55–70 °C) within 1–3 days. To maintain biological activity and to bring the active phase to completion, temperatures should be monitored and compost moisture and aeration should be maintained. After the most readily decomposable organic matter in the compost is consumed, biological activity will decrease in intensity, and temperatures and oxygen consumption will decline. The compost then enters the curing phase, during which decomposition proceeds more slowly and organic matter is converted to stable humic substances—the finished or mature compost.
See the related article, Making and Using Compost in Organic Agriculture, for more information about composting.
How does composting reduce weed seeds?
Several factors contribute to weed seed mortality during composting. In compost systems assembled and managed in accordance with requirements for organic certification, the most important factors are the interaction between weed species, temperature, time, and moisture (Eggley, 1990; Shiralipour and Mcconnell, 1991; Eghball and Lesoing, 2000; Larney and Blackshaw, 2003; Dahlquist et al., 2007). In general, the higher the temperature to which weed seeds are exposed during the active phase of composting, the higher the weed seed mortality. Similarly, the longer the duration of high-temperature exposure, the higher the weed seed mortality. Thus, Dahlquist et al. (2007) estimated that three of the six weed species they examined under controlled laboratory conditions were unaffected by temperatures of 108 °F, but 90% of the seeds of all six species were killed after less than three hours at 140 °F (Table 1). Furthermore, all six species suffered 100% mortality after less than an hour at 158 °F. Similarly, in Texas, Weise et al. (1998) found that, in composting manure at 35% moisture, barnyardgrass, pigweeds, and kochia seeds were killed after three days at 120 °F; Johnsongrass seed was killed with three or more days of exposure at 160 °F; but field bindweed seeds were killed only after seven days at 180 °F.
|time required to kill 90% of seeds (hours)|
Susceptibility of weed seeds to thermal mortality, however, is influenced by the moisture content of the compost; weed seeds in a dry environment are able to survive higher temperatures for longer times than seeds in a moist environment. Some (Egley, 1990; Thompson et al., 1997) have suggested that thermal mortality may be greatest for fully imbibed seeds—seeds that have absorbed water and split their seed coat in the process of germination. In Nebraska, Eghball and Lesoing (2000) showed that adding water to beef manure compost greatly enhanced weed seed destruction; moist compost was faster and more effective at killing cocklebur, morningglory, pigweed, sunflower, velvetleaf, foxtail, smooth brome, and shattercane than dry compost, in part due to higher compost temperatures.
Other factors are thought to contribute to weed seed mortality during composting. Larney and Blackshaw (2003) observed considerable variability in the relationship between temperature exposure in windrows and seed viability for a number of weeds, and concluded that additional factors, such as germination into lethal conditions or pathogen infestation, were contributing to weed seed mortality. Others have implicated plant-toxic compounds that accumulate to sufficiently high concentrations during composting (phenols, ammonium, and acetic acid, for example) in weed seed mortality and suppression of germination (Eghball and Lesoing, 2000; Shiralipour and Mcconnell, 1991).
How does composting reduce plant pathogens?
Several factors are known to contribute to the eradication of plant pathogens and nematodes during composting (Noble and Roberts, 2004):
- heat generated during the active phase of the composting process
- the production of toxic compounds such as organic acids and ammonia
- lytic activity of enzymes produced in the compost
- microbial antagonism, including the production of antibiotics and parasitism
- competition for nutrients
- natural loss of viability of the pathogen with time
- the production of compounds that stimulate the resting stages of pathogens into premature germination
Of all these factors, heat generated during the active phase of the composting process appears to be the most important in pathogen destruction.
Bollen et al. (1998) found that only two of 17 plant pathogens investigated—Olpidium brassicae and one form of Fusarium oxysporum—survived when exposed to small-scale static pile composting of infected plant residues, and then only at greatly reduced levels. Thermal mortality during the active phase of composting was found to be the most important factor affecting pathogen destruction.
In California, Downer et al. (2008) found that unturned piles of fresh and aged green waste (note that these piles would not have satisfied organic certification requirements) did not uniformly expose pathogens to lethal temperatures. They recommended that green waste stockpiles should be turned intermittently to mix pile contents and move propagules to a part of the pile where they would be more likely to be killed by heat, microbial attack, or chemical degradation that occurs during active aerobic composting.
What can go wrong?
In general, adherence to a composting process that meets the requirements of organic certification should result in substantial—if not complete—destruction of weed seeds and plant pathogens. Incomplete composting, on the other hand, can result in the survival of weed seeds and/or plant pathogens.
Improperly assembled and maintained piles or windrows may not reach high enough temperatures during the active phase of composting for killing all weed seeds and pathogens. Failure to reach adequate temperatures can have several causes:
- Too high a C:N ratio of initial ingredients, too little water, or too little oxygen can inhibit the rate of decomposition, and thus the production of heat.
- Too much water can starve the pile of oxygen and result in anaerobic decomposition.
- Accumulation of toxic products may inhibit fungal and microbial activity, thus slowing the rate of decomposition.
- Too small a pile or windrow may loose heat too quickly to reach adequate temperatures, whereas too large a pile may have inadequate aeration to support aerobic decomposition.
To avoid these problems, assemble raw materials carefully to achieve the proper starting conditions of C:N, moisture, pile porosity, and size; monitor temperature and moisture conditions; and turn/aerate as needed to maintain a biologically active, aerobic environment. Excellent resources providing detailed instructions and guidelines for composting include The Art and Science of Composting (Cooperband, 2002), Composting on Organic Farms (Baldwin and Greenfield, 2009), and On-Farm Composting Handbook (Rynk, 1992).
Temperatures at the edges and surface of compost piles and windrows may not be sufficient to kill weed seeds and pathogens. This is an especially important risk in static piles that are not turned and mixed during the active phase of decomposition, but rely on forced aeration to maintain an aerobic environment. Thorough mixing or turning during the active phase is essential to ensure that all the material achieves elevated temperatures for a long enough period of time to kill weed seeds and pathogens.
Dry heat is less effective than moist heat at killing weed seeds. Ensure that moisture content of the pile or windrow is maintained at 40–60%.
Contamination with soil or uncomposted residues, especially after the active phase of composting has finished, can lead to the reintroduction of weed seeds or plant pathogens. Avoid adding fresh material after the active phase.
Finished compost can become recontaminated with weed seeds if weeds are allowed to grow and go to seed on or adjacent to the pile or windrow. Similarly, compost can become contaminated with vegetative reproductive structures from some weeds—Canada thistle and rhizomateous grasses, for example—if they are allowed to grow on or adjacent to the pile. Keep vegetation adjacent to stored compost mowed short, and tarp piles or windrows to prevent contamination by wind-blown weed seeds. When moving or spreading finished compost, avoid picking up soil or other contaminants from under or around the pile or windrow.
- Baldwin, K. R., and J. T. Greenfield. 2009. Composting on organic farms. Organic Production Publication Series, Center for Environmental Farming Systems. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, Raleigh. (Available online at: http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu/resources/organicproductionguide/compostingfinaljan2009.pdf) (verified 20 March 2010).
- Bollen, G. J. , D. Volker, and A. P. Wijnen. 1989. Inactivation of soil-borne plant pathogens during small-scale composting of crop residues. Netherlands Journal of Plant Pathology 95 (Supp 1): 19–30.
- Cooperband, L. 2002. The art and science of composting. Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin, Madison. (Available online at: http://www.cias.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/artofcompost.pdf) (verified 20 March 2010).
- Dahlquist, R. M., T. S. Prather, and J. J. Stapleton. 2007. Time and temperature requirements for weed seed thermal death. Weed Science 55:619–625. (Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1614/WS-04-178.1) (verified 17 Nov 2009).
- Downer, A. J., Crohn, D., Faber, B., Daugovish, O., Becker, J. O., Menge, J. A., and Mochizuki, M. J. 2008. Survival of plant pathogens in static piles of ground green waste. Phytopathology 98:547–554. (Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1094/PHYTO-98-5-0547) (verified 29 June 2010).
- Eghball, B, and G. W. Lesoing. 2000. Viability of weed seeds following manure windrow composting. Compost Science & Utilization 8:46–53.
- Egley, G. H. 1990. High-temperature effects on germination and survival of weed seeds in soil. Weed Science 38:429–435.
- Larney, F. J., and R. E. Blackshaw. 2003. Weed seed viability in composted beef cattle feedlot manure. Journal of Environmental Quality 32:1105–1113. (Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2134/jeq2003.1105) (verified 17 Nov 2009).
- Noble, R., and S. J. Roberts 2004. Eradication of plant pathogens and nematodes during composting: A review. Plant Pathology 53:548–568. (Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1111/j.0032-0862.2004.01059.x ) (verified 29 June 2010).
- Rynk, R. 1992. On-farm composting handbook. Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, Ithaca, NY.
- Shiralipour, A., and D. B. Mcconnell. 1991. Effects of compost heat and phytotoxins on germination of certain Florida weed seeds. Soil and Crop Science Society of Florida Proceedings 50:154–157.
- Thompson, A. J., N. E. Jones, and A. M. Blair. 1997. The effect of temperature on viability of imbibed weed seeds. Annals of Applied Biology 130:123–134. (Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-7348.1997.tb05788.x) (verified 17 Nov 2009).
- United States Department of Agriculture. 2000. National organic program: Final rule. Codified at 7 C.F.R., part 205. (Available online at: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=3f34f4c22f9aa8e6d9864cc2683cea02&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title07/7cfr205_main_02.tpl) (verified 14 June 2010).
- Wiese, A. F., J. M. Sweeten, B. W. Bean, C. D. Salisbury, and E. W. Chenault. 1998. High temperature composting of cattle feedlot manure kills weed seed. Applied Engineering in Agriculture. 14:377–380. (Available online at: http://amarillo.tamu.edu/files/2010/11/bean6_High-Temperature-Composting.pdf) (verified 29 June 2010).
- Composting | Reduce, Reuse, Recycle | US EPA [Online]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Available at: http://www2.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home (verified 29 Jan 2010).
- Composting. WSU – Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources [Online]. Board of Regents, Washington State University. Available at: http://csanr.wsu.edu/pages/BIOAg_Compost (verified 29 August 2011).
- Cornell Composting. Cornell Waste Management Institute [Online]. Cornell University. Available at: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/ (verified 16 Dec 2009).
- LeaMaster, B., J. R. Hollyer, and J. L. Sullivan. 1998. Composting animal manures: Precautions and processing. University of Hawaii, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Available online at: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/AWM-1.pdf (verified 24 Nov 2009).
- US Composting Council [Online]. US Composting Council. Available at: http://www.compostingcouncil.org/ (verified 16 Dec 2009).
Published June 12, 2019
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic’s articles on organic certification.
Welcome to the public website of eOrganic, the Organic Agriculture Community of the Extension Foundation.
Tips for Composting Weeds
Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.
Amanda Rose Newton holds degrees in Horticulture, Biochemistry, Entomology, and soon a PhD in STEM Education. She is a board-certified entomologist and volunteers for USAIDs Farmer to Farmer program. Currently, she is a professor of Horticulture, an Education Specialist, and pest specialist.
David Freund / Getty Images
Compost is a great way to recycle organic material in your garden. All those spent flower blossoms, fall leaves, dead plants, grass clippings—even non-meat kitchen scraps—can be transformed into a great soil amendment and nutritious mulch, simply by throwing them into a heap and allowing the refuse to decompose naturally.
Done correctly, composting creates a sterile organic material that does nothing but good things for your garden and the plants in it. However, nearly every gardener who practices composting has occasionally experienced “volunteer” plants sprouting up in the garden where the compost has been spread.
This can actually be rather charming when the volunteers are tiny impatiens seedlings, tomato plants, or even pumpkins that volunteer because last Halloween/s jack o’ lanterns were added to the compost heap. It’s far less charming when the volunteer plants are hundreds of dandelions or tiny sprigs of bindweed or crabgrass that get into the garden via the compost you spread.
A gardener who experiences such an explosion of volunteer weeds may well swear off composting altogether, or at least stop adding weed material to the compost pile. To be clear, there is no reason to stop composting weeds. With a slight adjustment to the composting process, you can ensure that weeds and their seeds will be killed completely and won’t be resurrected where you least want them .
How Weeds Survive
In an ideal compost heap, the temperatures generated by the breakdown of plant material can get quite warm, and if temperatures exceed 145 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty much all seeds and roots will be killed. However, if the temperatures do not get warm enough—or if a portion of the compost heap does not experience sufficiently high temperatures—seeds or perennial roots can survive the composting process. When these seeds or bits of root later reach your garden inside the compost, they can—and usually do—quickly germinate or take root again.
How do you know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill all weeds? A variety of compost thermometers are available that can gauge the temperature of your pile. Experienced gardeners may simply thrust a hand into the pile. If it feels uncomfortably warm to the touch, it likely is warm enough to kill all seeds and roots in the pile.
The classic method of composting—the method purists would call the “right” way—is known as hot composting. This simply means that you turn the pile regularly and allowing it to really heat up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A properly maintained hot compost pile will kill weed seeds, as well as many other pathogens, so you can compost weeds without having to worry about them popping up in your garden beds.
For hot composting to fully kill all weed seeds and roots, follow these tips:
- Turn the pile frequently. All compost heaps have localized cool spots that are slow to break down. By mixing the pile frequently, you ensure that all material is achieving the necessary heat to kill the seeds and roots.
- Give it time. Practiced correctly, hot composting involves processing a volume of material fully until it is fully decomposed. Don’t continue to add small amounts of additional material to the heap; start another heap while the first one breaks down completely. The compost is ready to spread when turning and mixing the pile no longer causes the compost to heat up.
- Weed the garden before adding compost. Fresh compost is laden with nutrients, and if there are weeds growing in your garden, adding compost will simply nourish the weeds along with your garden plants. Make sure your garden is well weeded before adding fresh compost to the soil.
So-called “cool composting” is a more informal style of composting. It is a passive method that doesn’t involve constant temperature monitoring and mixing. In cool composting, fresh material is constantly added to the top of the heap as the lower levels are breaking down into compost. In cool compost bins, gardeners periodically remove the prepared compost from the bottom of the pile as fresh material is constantly added to the top. Cool composting is an easier style, though it can take somewhat longer.
Here are some tips to keep a cool compost pile free of weeds:
- Don’t compost pernicious weeds. There are certain perennial weeds that require lots of heat to kill, and if you don’t have the time for hot composting, it is best to keep them out of the compost pile altogether. In a cool compost pile, weeds to avoid include morning glory, buttercups, bermuda grass, oxalis, quackgrass, and crabgrass. Any garden plant that spreads by runners, such as mint or raspberry canes, should also be kept out of a cool compost pile.
- Don’t compost weeds that have gone to seed. Most annual weeds pose no problems if they are added to a cool compost pile before they are mature and set seed. But throw those same dandelions into the pile after their flower heads have produced thousands of seeds, and you may experience a dandelion epidemic when that compost is later added to the garden. If you are cool composting, weeds that have gone to seed should be thrown in the trash, not added to the compost pile.
- Prebake the weeds. Pretty much any plants, even the pernicious varieties that spread by runners, become safe for any compost pile if you heat them up to the temperature necessary to kills seeds and roots. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, you can solarize them by baking them inside a black plastic bag in the sun for a few days. Other gardeners bake weeds on a sheet of metal laid in the sun; once the weeds are baked to a dried crisp, they pose no risk in the compost heap. Some gardeners have even been known to keep an old microwave oven in the garage or garden shed, using it to “nuke” the weeds into oblivion by heating them until they steam before adding them to the compost heap.
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
How to Kill Weed Seeds in Compost
Ideally, you wouldn’t add weeds that are in seed or even in the late part of their blooming cycle to the compost pile. Thus you can avoid the problem of their seeds germinating in the garden when you later use the compost you produced. But sometimes, you have little choice: perhaps the most easily available compostable material (horse manure, hay, etc.) contains seeds or else the endless sorting of weeds according to their “seediness” would just be too complicated. Or, like me, you just feel that everything organic should be composted.
Fortunately, there are other solutions.
A Big, Hot Pile
A compost pile that gives off water vapor is working hard to kill weed seeds. Source: Anatomy of Living, www.youtube.com
In general, the bigger the compost pile, the more heat it produces … and heat kills seeds, even weed seeds.
After a week at 130 ° F (55 ° C)*, most weed seeds will be dead, but it takes a month at 145° F (63 ° C) or more to kill the most resistant ones. Curiously, most common weeds actually produce seeds that are fairly easy to kill and they’ll die at relatively low temperatures. That’s the case with dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), for example.
*Note that such temperatures will also kill any weed roots and rhizomes placed in the compost. Two birds with one stone!
Heat-resistant weed seeds requiring treatment at 45° F (63 ° C) include:
- Bird’s-eye speedwell (Veronica persica)
- Broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius)
- Common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
- Common lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)
- Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)
- Ladysthumb (Polygonum persicaria, now Periscaria maculosa)
- Round-leaved mallow (Malva pusilla)
- Spiny sowthistle (Sonchus asper)
- Wild buckwheat (Polygonum convolvulus, now Fallopia convolvulus)
To find out if your compost pile heats up enough to kill weed seeds, simply insert a compost thermometer into it and note the temperature. If you don’t have a compost thermometer, try sinking your hand into the pile. If it’s so hot you to feel uncomfortable, it’s heating up enough.
Do not forget to return the pile regularly, not only because that helps to oxygenate it and thus stimulates microbial life, leading to and maintaining higher temperatures, but also so the ingredients on the outside of the pile, where it’s cooler, can also get their full heat treatment.
Note too it may be necessary to water your compost pile from time to time. Compost heats most efficiently when it is neither dry nor wet, but moderately moist.
When the Pile Is Not Heating Up Enough
The compost bins commonly sold generally can’t hold enough material to ensure high temperatures. If you’re using one, you’ll have to resort to other methods if you want to kill weed seeds in your compost.
Bury compost to prevent weed seeds from germinating. Source: thelegitimatenews.com
It’s important to understand is that weed seeds* can only germinate when exposed to light. If you are concerned that your compost might contain viable weed seeds, simply bury it when you use it, covering it with soil or, if you apply it to the surface, cover the compost with mulch. Problem solved!
*Warning: unlike annual and perennial weed seeds, a few tree seeds, especially nuts, will germinate when covered with soil or mulch.
You can also kill the seeds at the end of a composting cycle by solarization. To do this, spread the compost on a very sunny surface and cover it with a sheet of transparent plastic, holding the plastic in place with rocks or bricks. That will quickly create a greenhouse effect and very high temperatures. Even if there is some germination at first, the heat underneath the plastic will be such that it will soon kill both the seedlings and any remaining seeds, leaving you with weed-free compost you can use as you want.
With these methods in mind, you can dare to add weeds at any stage of their life to your compost pile.