Solar tents can easily, inexpensively and successfully kill weed seeds and rhizomes, eliminating the need for hauling weeds out of remote areas where the unwanted plants have taken hold, a UC researcher has demonstrated.

Research by Jim Stapleton, a UC Cooperative Extension advisor based at Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, was published as Feasibility of solar tents for inactivating weedy plant propagative material in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Pest Science.

Stapleton, who specializes in plant pathology and integrated pest management, was inspired to conduct the study when a fire crew came upon a patch of Iberian starthistle growing along a stream in the Sierra foothills near Mariposa. Iberian starthistle is a robust, spiny weed native to the Middle East that, left unchecked, can dominate entire landscapes.

“Crews were going through and cutting dried plants and stacking them, but the seeds survived,” Stapleton said. “If you start moving plant material around with viable seeds, seeds are liable to spread, making the problem worse instead of better.”

Iberian starthistle is only one of many exotic, invasive plants that are capable of transforming California’s open areas into useless and unsightly tracts of land. On rangeland, for example, such weeds diminish desirable annual rangeland feed for cattle and wildlife. Weeds can shade out native wildflowers, make recreational areas inaccessible and, in dense infestations, become a fire-laddering fuel.

In the past, such weeds may have been stacked and burned, but fire danger and air quality regulations have forced land managers to find alternatives.

Stapleton adapted a chemical-free, solar tent process he developed for nurseries, gardeners and small-scale farmers to kill weed seeds, insect pests and pathogens in the soil. The concept involves covering moist soil in containers with transparent plastic and allowing the greenhouse effect to raise the temperature in the soil to a level that kills harmful organisms. The solar tent has been found to have the same effect on invasive weeds and is particularly useful to control patches of weeds in inaccessible areas that get plenty of sun. It will not work where the climate is cold, cloudy or persistently foggy.

“You wouldn’t want to try this on a 40-acre area,” Stapleton said. “Eradication of weeds with solar tents is best suited for small-scale weed infestations in warm climates.”

For the research project, Stapleton constructed three replicate solar tents with concrete rubble, mulberry shoots and clear plastic tarps. He placed johnsongrass rhizomes inside black trash bags along with about one cup of water. The sample bags were left inside the solar tents for 72 hours.