CORVALLIS, Ore. – Corn gluten meal is a natural substitute for a synthetic “pre-emergence” herbicide and has been advertised as a more environmentally friendly way to control weeds.
A pre-emergent herbicide is one that kills seedlings as they germinate. Pre-emergent herbicides generally have to be applied and watered in before weed seeds germinate. Other herbicides, such as glyphosate (e.g. Round Up) kill plants after they have emerged.
A by-product of commercial corn milling, corn gluten meal contains protein from the corn. It poses no health risk to people or animals when used as an herbicide. With 60 percent protein it is used as feed for livestock, fish and dogs. It contains 10 percent nitrogen, by weight, so it acts as a fertilizer as well.
The use of corn gluten meal as an herbicide was discovered by accident during turfgrass disease research at Iowa State University. Researchers noticed that it prevented grass seeds from sprouting. Further research at Iowa State showed that it also effectively prevents other seeds from sprouting, including seeds from many weeds such as crabgrass, chickweed, and even dandelions. Components in corn gluten meal called dipeptides are apparently responsible for herbicidal activity.
Researchers at Oregon State University were not able to duplicate research results reported by Iowa State researchers, said OSU turf grass specialist Tom Cook. A former graduate student, Chris Hilgert completed his masters thesis by investigating corn gluten meal use as a pre-emergent herbicide in shrub beds and on lawns.
In their trials with corn gluten meal, Hilgert and Cook found the following:
Corn gluten meal did not control any weeds in any trials under any circumstances over a two-year period. They found no evidence of pre- or post-emergence weed control in any of their trials. Because it contains 10 percent nitrogen, corn gluten meal proved to be a very effective fertilizer, causing lush, dense growth of turfgrass and of weeds in shrub beds.
James Altland, nursery crops specialist at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, spoke to his observations when corn gluten was used in plant nurseries as a pre-emergent herbicide.
“I've seen nursery situations where the applied product caused a bad odor, as do some herbicides, and attracted rodents,” said Altland. “In nursery situations where the goal is complete weed suppression, my overall impression is that it doesn't work that well.”
“My overall impression has been that in turfgrass it provides a lot of nitrogen,” added Altland. “Thicker, denser turf from high nitrogen rates will reduce weed numbers alone, without the help of herbicides.
“Applying 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet of corn gluten meal would be equivalent to two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. That's a lot of nitrogen! Applying that much nitrogen is not good for the environment. It doesn't matter if it's a 'natural' fertilizer or not. That nitrogen will ultimately be converted to nitrates, which potentially could leach into groundwater.”
It is not clear why the commercial version of corn gluten meal used in OSU trials was not effective, said Cook. One possibility is that the product as formulated for sale has a short shelf life and loses potency during manufacture, shipping and storage. Further research needs to be done to test this hypothesis, he said.
If you want to discourage weeds from germinating and growing in your garden beds over the winter, try adding mulch to soil surfaces. Use a minimum of three to six inches of composted material. Tuck mulch up to the shoulders of your perennials, but don't cover the growing crown until freezing cold weather sets in. If you cover plant crowns too soon, they may begin to grow under the mulch and could be killed when temperatures dip.
Shredded bark, leaves, mint hay, wood chips, or yard waste all offer benefits. Large chunky material such as fresh clean wood chips and bark nuggets work best for weed control, as they are low in available nutrients so won’t fertilize germinating weeds.
Avoid mulching with hay or with ryegrass straw. Their seeds will sprout to create an unnecessary headache for you in the spring. And don't use grass clippings from a lawn treated with a weed-and-feed preparation. The herbicide in the clippings can damage your shrubs.
A low-nutrient mulch such as well-rotted sawdust will benefit shrubs such as roses, azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas. Lilies, dahlias and spring bulbs will do better with this type of mulching also. But be aware that composted sawdust or other fine organic material may contribute to weed growth.
Caneberries benefit from higher-nutrient mulches such as composted manure. Dormant vegetable beds can use a six-inch blanket of manure and leaves. Rhubarb and asparagus beds do best covered with a mix of well-composted straw and manure.
Over the winter, the composted material will mix with the soil, so a second application of mulch in March or April will keep your garden soil in better condition.