J. Bangladesh Agril. Univ. 13(2): 221–228, 2015 ISSN 1810-3030
Soil weed seed bank: Importance and management for sustainable
crop production- A Review
M. M. Hossain* and M. Begum
Department of Agronomy, Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensigh-2202, Bangladesh
The seed bank is the resting place of weed seeds and is an important component of the life cycle of weeds. Seed
banks are the sole source of future weed populations of the weed species both annuals and perennials that
reproduce only by seeds. For this reason, understanding fate of seeds in the seed bank can be an important
component of overall weed control. When weed seeds enter the seed bank, several factors influence the duration for
which seeds persist. Seeds can sense the surrounding environment in the seed bank and use these stimuli to
become dormant or initiate germination. Soil and crop management practices can directly influence the environment
of seeds in the soil weed seed bank and can thus be used to manage seed longevity and germination behavior of
Keywords: Weed seed bank, Deposit, Distribution, Withdrawal
The weed seed bank is the reserve of viable weed seeds present on the soil surface and scattered
throughout the soil profile (Singh et al., 2012; Begum et al., 2006). It consists of both new weed seeds
recently shed, and older seeds that have persisted in the soil from previous years. In practice, the soil’s
weed seed bank also includes the tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, and other vegetative structures through which
some of our most serious perennial weeds propagate themselves. Agricultural soils can contain
thousands of weed seeds and a dozen or more vegetative weed propagules per square foot (Menalled,
The weed seed bank serves as a physical history of the past successes and failures of cropping systems,
and knowledge of its content (size and species composition) can help producers both anticipate and
ameliorate potential impacts of crop weed competition on crop yield and quality. Eliminating “deposits” to
the weed seed bank also called seed rain-is the best approach to ease future weed management
Weed seed banks are particularly critical in farming systems, which rely on cultivation as a primary means
of weed control. Because a cultivation pass generally kills a fixed proportion of weed seedlings present, a
high initial population will result in a high density of weeds surviving cultivation and competing with the
crop. Initial weed population is directly related to the density of seeds in the seed bank (Brainardet al.,
2008; Teasdale et al., 2004); thus, effective cultivation-based weed control requires either a low seed
bank density (Forcella et al., 2003) or multiple cultivation passes to achieve adequate weed control.
Types of seed bank
This review focuses on soil seed banks which are the most common and important in agricultural
systems, although aerial seed banks also exist. Aerial seed banks are those where the seeds remain on
the mother plant for some time after maturation allowing for more dispersal strategies. Some of these
strategies includes dispersal by weeds seeds clinging to the fur of animals (e.g. Arctium minus Bernh and
Xanthium strumarium L.) or relying on passage through the digestive tract as is the case for many fruit
bearing shrubs and trees, or shake off the mother plant as it is blown away from its point of origin by wind
(e.g., Kochiascoparia L.). Aerial seed banks tend to be of greater importance in pasture, orchard, or
natural settings than in agricultural fields (Gulden and Shirtliffe, 2009).
222 Importance and management for sustainable crop production
Soil seed banks are typically characterized by their longevity and are determined by how long an
individual seed may reside within it in a viable state. This longevity depends primarily on plant species.
Transient seed banks are those where seeds only survive for a short time in the seed bank (no more than
a couple of years) as is the case with Kochiascoparia (L.) and Taraxacumofficinale (Weber). Seed banks
of these species require almost annual renewal, while other species such as Amaranthusretroflexus (L.)
and Chenopodium album (L.) form a persistent seed bank with the ability to remain viable in the soil for
many decades. It is important to understand the seed bank characteristics of a species as these provide
clues to choose appropriate practices to manage the seed banks.
Purpose of seed bank
Weed seeds are an important component of the weed life cycle as they are the origin of future
populations, and are particularly important in annual and simple perennial species like
Taraxacumofficinale Weber which reproduce by seed only (Gulden and Shirtliffe, 2009). As a rule,
perennial species usually rely on seeds to establish new colonies some distance away from the mother
plant. Around the mother plant, colony expansion is the result of vegetative reproduction. Seed banks
serve many purposes. They allow species such as annual weeds to survive the harsh environmental
conditions of winter. They enhance the survival of a species by buffering against harsh environmental
conditions or highly effective control methods and allowing them to germinate over a period of many
years. This ability slows the genetic shift of a weed population exposed to intense selection pressures by
ensuring that all the seedlings that germinate in any one year are not all from similar genetic backgrounds
(Gulden and Shirtliffe, 2009).
Fate of weed seeds in the seed bank
Weed seeds can have numerous fates after they are dispersed into a field (Fig. 1). Of the many seeds in
the seed bank, very few will actually emerge and produce a plant. Most seeds will die, decompose or be
eaten before ever germinating. Of those that do germinate, some will die before a mature plant is
produced (Menalled, 2013). Seed predation is typically greatest when weed seeds remain on the surface
and there is sufficient residue cover for predators (i.e. no-till). Generalist predators such as common
ground beetles or crickets can reduce weed seed emergence by 5 to 15%(White et al., 2007). Larger
animals such as rodents and birds can also consume significant amounts of weed seeds.
Fig. 1. Fate of weed seeds. Inputs to the seed bank are shown with black arrows and losses with white arrows
(Source: Menalled, 2013).
Hossain and Begum 223
When buried and not available to predators, attack by pathogens is more common. Mortality of
Avenafatua (L.) seed increased as soil moisture content increased from 6 to 24% with maximum mortality
values reaching 55 and 88% after two years of the study (Mickelson and Grey, 2006). The attack of the A.
fatua seeds by soil pathogens was suspected to be the main reason for increase in seed mortality with
higher soil moisture contents. With Setariaviridis seeds less than 1% of seeds buried in bags were viable
after six years(Thomas et al., 1986).
Two other mechanisms of seed mortality in the seed bank are lethal germination and desiccation. Lethal
germination occurs when seeds germinate from a deep depth and seedlings exhaust their seed reserves
and die before reaching the soil surface. Many weed seeds such as Kochiascoparia (L.) can sense their
depth of burial to limit lethal germination. Seed desiccation is also another important mechanism where
extreme environmental conditions in summer and winter. Dry seeds by design are very resistant to
desiccation and can remain viable for up to 2000 years. However, desiccation tolerance is lost quickly
when seeds are subjected to frequent and short-term wetting and drying conditions before germination is
complete. The end result is higher seed mortality (Gulden and Shirtliffe, 2009).
Seed dormancy prevents germination during conditions that would otherwise be ideal for germination.
Most weed seeds are dormant at the time of maturity which is referred to as primary dormancy. However,
seeds can cycle in and out of a dormant state because of environmental conditions. This process is
referred to as secondary dormancy and regulates seasonal germination in weed seeds (Baskin and
Baskin, 1998). Secondary seed dormancy prevents germination at a time of year when the life cycle of a
plant could not be completed and this ensures that summer annual species germinate primarily in the
spring and winter annual weeds germinate primarily in the fall. This process is regulated by seasonal
changes in soil temperatures. For most summer annual weeds that germinate in the spring, the cold of
winter will break dormancy and allow the seed to germinate in the spring. On the other hand, winter
annual weeds such as stinkweed and shepherd’s purse require the heat of summer to break dormancy.
This allows them to germinate in the early fall and form a rosette before winter.
Types of seed dormancy
Seed dormancy is controlled by several mechanisms. An immature embryo at the time of seed maturation
will not allow germination. This is a form of primary dormancy and occurs in A. fatua (Gulden and
Shirtliffe, 2009). A period of ‘after ripening’ is required before seeds are able to germinate. Another
mechanism for seed dormancy is physical dormancy where a hard seed coat prevents uptake of water.
This is an important mechanism for extended persistence in the soil seed bank. Weed families with high
levels of seeds with impermeable coats include the pea family e.g., Abutilon thoephrasti (L.) and
members of the goosefoot family such as Chenopodium album (L.). Seeds from these species can readily
survive several decades in the soil seed bank (Radosevich et al., 1997). Finally, seed dormancy may also
be due to physiological changes. This is the mechanism for secondary or cyclical seed dormancy and this
mechanism is regulated by many factors (Baskin and Baskin, 1998).
Secondary seed dormancy is controlled by factors like temperature, light, oxygen, and certain bio-
chemicals. Light and temperature are capable of both inducing and breaking secondary seed dormancy
(Gulden et al., 2003) Light quality and temperature also convey information about the presence of other
plants and the burial depth of weed seeds. In small seeded species like A. retroflexus, a flash of white
light (as faint as full moon light) is often sufficient in breaking seed dormancy as the seed is close to the
surface. This is one mechanism by which day-time cultivation increases seed germination. In other
species such as A. fatua for example, high levels of white light prevent germination as this indicates that
the seed is not buried sufficiently deep for optimum seedling establishment. Light only penetrates a few
millimeters into the soil profile. In some small seeded species, the fluctuations in daily temperature which
decrease into the soil profile provide an indication of depth of burial. Temperature variations are
particularly important in small seeded weeds that can emerge successfully only from shallow depths. Low
oxygen concentrations are also indicative of burial depth and induce seed dormancy in many species. In
addition, there are also a number of chemicals that remove seed dormancy. Most notably, nitrate nitrogen
224 Importance and management for sustainable crop production
and some chemicals that are found in smoke. When these chemical signals are released by dead
vegetation and during a fire, they indicate niche availability. In the 1960s research was conducted that
attempted to regulate germination in the wild by adding nitrate-nitrogen fertilizer. The idea was that
nitrate-nitrogen added to the soil would cause wild oat seeds to germinate which could then be killed with
a tillage operation (Sexsmith and Piman, 1967). Ultimately this technique failed because of the large
amount of nitrate nitrogen fertilizer required and the inconsistency of the effect. The plant hormone
gibberellic acid also removes seed dormancy and this compound has been used to induce germination in
dormant volunteer canola (Brassica napusL.) seed in soil in the greenhouse with some success(Thornton
et al., 1998); however, the high cost of producing this compound make this method unpractical under field
Dormancy is a complex mechanism that controls when a seed will germinate. However, seed dormancy
characteristics and the persistence of the seed in the seed bank (Table 1) are not always related
(Thompson et al., 2003). One reason for this is that seed dormancy can only regulate germination when
the conditions necessary for germination are present. In many cases, however, ideal conditions do not
exist and seeds that are not dormant cannot germinate. Although seed dormancy is an important
mechanism for most weed species, there are important weed species such as Kochia and Dandelion that
essentially possess no seed dormancy.
Table 1. Longevity of different weed species in the seed bank (Source: Conn et al., 2006)
Weed species Maximum longevity (years)
Calamagrostiscanadensis (Michx.) Beauv. 8-14
Hordeumjubatum L. 7-8
Elytrigiarepens (L.) Nevski 4-6
Avenafatua L. 4-6
Dracocephalumparviflorum Nutt. > 20*
Stellaria media (L.) Vill. > 20
Galeopsistetrahit L 2-3
Chenopodium album L. > 20
Spergulaarvensis L. 18-20
Descurainiasophia (L.) Webb ex Prantl. 16
Polygonumpensylvanicum L. 14-18
P. aviculare L. 10-14
P. convolvulus L. 6-8
Matricariamatricarioides (Less.) C.L. Porter > 20
Potentillanorvegica L. 12-14
Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.) Medicus > 20
N.B.: * about 60% of the seed were still viable after 20 years.
The actual seed longevity in the soil depends on an interaction of many factors, including intrinsic
dormancy of the seed population, depth of seed burial, frequency of disturbance, environmental
conditions (light, moisture, temperature), and biological processes such as predation, allelopathy, and
microbial attack (Davis et al., 2005; Liebman et al., 2001). Understanding how management practices or
soil conditions can modify the residence time of viable seeds can help producers minimize future weed
problems. For example, seeds of 20 weed species that were mixed into the top 6 inches of soil persisted
longer in untilled soil than in soil tilled four times annually (Mohler, 2001a), which likely reflects greater
germination losses in the disturbed treatment.
Distribution of weed seed in the seed bank
Weed seeds disperse both horizontally and vertically in the soil profile. While the horizontal distribution of
weed seeds in the seed bank generally follows the direction of crop rows, type of tillage is the main factor
determining the vertical distribution of weed seeds within the soil profile. In plowed fields, the majority of
weed seeds are buried four to six inches below the surface (Cousens and Moss, 1990). Under reduced
tillage systems such as chisel plowing, approximately 80 to 90 percent of the weed seeds are distributed
in the top four inches. In no-till fields, the majority of weed seeds remain at or near the soil surface.
Clements et al. (1996) have shown that soil texture may influence weed seed distribution in the soil profile
under these different tillage systems (Fig. 2).
Hossain and Begum 225
Fig. 2. Vertical distribution of weed seeds in a loamy sand soil (top) and a silty loam soil (bottom)
(Source: Clements et al., 1996)
Understanding the impact of management practices on the vertical distribution of seeds is important
because it can help us predict weed emergence patterns. For example, in most soils small-seeded weeds
such as Kochiascoparia (L.), Cirsiumarvense (L.), and Chenopodium album (L.) germinate at very shallow
depths (less than 0.5 inch). Large seeded weeds such as Helianthus annus (L.) have more seed reserves
and may germinate from greater depths.
Evaluating the weed seed bank
One way to estimate a field's weed seed bank is to wait and see what weeds emerge during the first
season. However, knowing something about seed bank content before the season starts can help the
farmer prevent severe weed problems before they develop. Davis (2004) recommended the following
simple procedure for scouting the weed seed bank:
A little effort in understanding weed seed bank can give valuable information about what weeds to expect
in a given growing season, weed density, and when most weed germination will take place. To get a
weed preview, germinate of weeds is the best. For summer annual weeds, March–April is a good time to
sample weed seed banks. Using a soil probe or a garden trowel, 20 samples to a 2” depth in a ‘W’ pattern
need to be collected from the field. Soil should be placed in a dish, in a warm place (> 65 º F) and kept
moist. Within one to two weeks, weed seedlings will be emerged and need to be identified (Davis, 2004).
For a more representative sampling, sufficient soil samples should be collected to fill several dishes, or
seedling flat. The larger the sample, the more closely the observed weed emergence will reflect field
weed seed bank status.
Management of weed seed bank
Soil and crop management: Reducing the input of seeds into seed bank is the most obvious way to
reduce the weed seed bank. Any method that reduces the size and number of weeds producing seed will
also reduce the number of seeds “deposited” into the seed bank. Of course, the weed seed bank can be
managed by using other methods that increase the death of the seeds in it, or encourage germination
when the weeds can then be easily controlled. Although most agronomic practices have an indirect effect
on the weed seed bank, only a few key methods directly affect weed seed input, seed bank persistence
and germination from the seed bank.
Herbicides: Herbicides have, and continue to be, the most effective weed management tool of the 20th
century. Herbicides are very effective at reducing weed populations and at the same time the number of
seeds added to the soil seed bank (Hossain et al. 2014c). Weed seed bank densities tend to be greater in
organic management systems than in systems reliant on herbicides, although this is not always the case
as other factors such as crop rotation also strongly influence weed seed production. In production
systems that use herbicides as the principal tool to manage weeds, seed bank densities are typically
226 Importance and management for sustainable crop production
between 1000 and 4000 seeds m-2 (Blackshaw et al., 2004a; Clements et al., 1996). When herbicide
tolerant crops are used extensively in cropping systems, weed seed banks will be near the low end of this
range, however, despite lower weed seed bank densities in these systems, weed seedling emergence
still remains significant in following years. Pre-harvest applications of glyphosate can decrease seed
production and impact seed viability in late flowering weeds. However, the slow action of glyphosate
means that weeds must be managed well before the plant sheds its seed near maturity.
Crop rotation: Crop rotation is also an effective means of managing the weed seed bank. Introducing
perennial crops in annual cropping systems tends to deplete the soil seed bank of annual species over
time. This method is more effective on weed species which have low levels of longevity such as kochia
and many of the grassy weeds like wild oat and green foxtail. Likewise, crop competition is also important
for decreasing weed seeds being recruited to the seed bank. Studies near Saskatoon, SK conducted in
the late 1970s showed that seed bank populations were greatest in summer fallow (about 1600 seeds m-
2) versus wheat stubble (about 500 viable seeds m-2) (Archibold, 1981). Weed seed bank additions are
high in fallow fields in part due to incomplete weed control by tillage and the absence of a competitive
crop (Archibold and Hume, 1983).
Chaff collection: Chaff collection is an effective method for reducing inputs into the weed seed bank.
Weed seeds generally weigh less than crop seeds and therefore end up in the chaff fraction which is
typically spread evenly across the field. Even for large weed seeds such as wild oat, chaff collection can
prevent upwards of 90% of the weed seed numbers added to the seed bank during the harvest operation
(Shirtliffe and Entz, 2005).
Tillage: Tillage was the main method for managing weeds, until the introduction of herbicides. The
degree of soil inversion and depth of tillage, strongly affected the vertical distribution of weed seeds in the
soil seed bank. When using a moldboard plow, 37% of the viable weed seed bank was found in the top 5
cm of the soil profile and 74% under no-till(Clements et al., 1996). Using a chisel plow resulted in 61% of
the seed near the soil surface. Deep buried seeds that remain undisturbed can persist in the soil seed
bank for decades as they avoid some of the seed viability hazards previously described. Therefore, tillage
slows the rate of turnover of the seed bank. In practical terms this could impact the rate of development of
herbicide-resistant weed populations, with a slower shift in conventional tillage situations than under no-
till. However, experimental evidence of this is lacking. Some soil inversion and burial of weed seeds
occurs during the seeding operation in no-till. Since disc openers reduce the amount of soil disturbance
compared to hoe openers, one would therefore expect a reduction in seed burial. However, a study
conducted in Saskatchewan found that the seed bank persistence of volunteer canola was similar after
three years under conventional and no-till (Gulden et al., 2004). Canola seed could only have persisted
for three years if it was buried (Liebman et al., 2001); therefore, these results suggest that even a single
pass with a low disturbance disc opener resulted in some seed burial, even in the no-till system. There
are few studies that compare the degree of seed bank burial with different types of seed openers. A study
in Manitoba showed that average seedling emergence of all weed species studied was from a greater
depth in conventional-till than no-till management (Fenner and Thompson, 2005). In general, lower weed
populations were reported by farmers that practice no-till in western Canada, which is indicative of lower
weed seed banks (Blackshaw et al., 2008). In Ontario, weed seed banks were almost two times greater
under chisel plow management compared to no-till (duCroixSissons et al., 2000).
Tillage can promote weed seed germination by several mechanisms. Soil disturbance with tillage will
expose weed seeds to a flash of light that releases seeds from dormancy. Furthermore, soil disturbance
through tillage also results in nitrogen mineralization which can promote some seed germination. To
reduce the impact of tillage on weed seed germination, tillage in the dark or using a cultivator covered
with light impermeable material has been tried but with variable success because of the inherent
variability in weed seed populations for germination. This method depends on the actual placement of the
seed after tillage and other factors such as nitrogen mineralization which can promote germination
independent of light because of the presence of high nitrate levels (Mickelson and Grey, 2006).
Hossain and Begum 227
Surface accumulation of seeds under reduced tillage would increase predator access to seeds and
therefore could increase their removal rates. Lack of soil disturbance via tillage could also encourage
higher predator populations. No till fields increase the number, diversity, or activity of seed-consuming
fauna as compared to conventionally tilled fields (Blubaugh and Kaplan, 2015) may be due to increased
habitat (Baraibar et al., 2009) or decreased mortality rate (Shearin et al., 2007).
Mulching: The mulch of dead plant residue (often call “trash”) on the soil surface also impacts the seed
bank in no-till systems. Crop residues create micro-environments that provide cover for animals that feed
on them. In addition, residues have a moderating effect on temperature fluctuations in the soil, which in
turn can impact seed dormancy of many of the smaller seeded broadleaf weeds that use daily
temperature fluctuations to gauge burial depth. Crop residues of plant species such as rye (Secalecereale
L.), clover (Trifoliums pp. L.) and recently incorporated canola contain allelopathic chemicals which inhibit
seed germination (Moyer et al., 2000; Vera et al., 1987). The effectiveness of allelopathic chemicals
diminishes over time as the chemicals are leached form the crop residue and degrade due to soil
moisture, light and microbial activity. Large-seeded weed species tend to be less susceptible to
allelopathic compounds than small-seeded species. It is not clear whether this is due to the lower surface
area to volume ratio of larger seeds or whether it is due to reduced concentrations of allele-chemicals at
the deeper depths from which large seeded weed species tend to germinate.
Fertilization: Similar to crops, weeds also respond well to inorganic fertilizers fertilization (Blackshawet
al., 2003; Blackshawet al.,2004b). Over the long-term, weed seed banks of many species can be reduced
by up to 50% by correct timing and placement of nitrogen fertilizer with spring banding at time of seeding
being most effective6. Interestingly banding nitrogen fertilizer greatly reduced green foxtail and stinkweed
populations, especially under a no-tillage cropping system (O'Donovan et al., 1997). Fall-applied nitrogen
that is broadcast on the surface maximizes the competitive ability of weeds by allowing more access to
the fertilizer which enhances weed populations and the weed seed bank. Composting manures before
application reduces the viability of weed seeds, minimizing weed seed inputs into the seed bank
One of the most important, yet often neglected weed management strategies is to reduce the number of
weed seeds present in the field, and thereby limit potential weed populations during crop production. This
can be accomplished by managing the weed seed bank. There are many fates and processes that occur
in the weed seed bank, many of which are not very well understood. The sheer difficulty of monitoring a
process that occurs mostly underground has deterred weed scientists from gaining a full understanding of
the weed seed bank. Nevertheless, current knowledge about weed seed banks has shown some potential
management options. Reducing inputs to the seed bank is an important component of seed bank
management, while other strategies like using a no-till cropping system can be used to directly affect
germination, persistence and mortality of weed seeds. Managing weed seed banks would be an important
component of integrated weed management.
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