Weeds in the Garden

Living on the Earth, August 22, 1997: Weeds in the Garden
Weeds, weeds, weeds.  If we garden, there are weeds.  What do we do about them?

As Michael showed us through his well-tended fields (where about a dozen acres
of organic vegetables are grown on Food Bank Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts), he
emphasized the importance of controlling weeds.  

Michael grows vegetables and herbs for about 100 community shareholders, and for
the Western Massachusetts Food Bank, on land that has been farmed for centuries
and is famed for its fertile soil. 

On the other hand, gardeners Greg and Pat Williams (after experiencing a
once-in-a-100-years flood several years ago at their place in Gravel Switch,
Kentucky) wrote about the benefits of weeds in their wonderfully informative
gardening newsletter, "Hortideas".  They say that their garden has become
progressively weedier over the years. 

James Lovelock, an originator of the Gaia Hypothesis has written that there are
no rules for living on Earth, only consequences. 

In this culture, most of our information about garden aesthetics comes from
people who are trying to sell us herbicides, roto-tillers, magazines or some
other thing.  What's important to a large commercial grower may be irrelevant in
our home gardens. The information we really need comes from our personal
experience over the years.

Before leading us through his fields, Michael proudly showed us the equipment he
uses to cultivate his crops. Cultivation is one of the oldest methods of weed
control, and whether practiced with a hoe or a tractor, is a very effective
method.  Most of Michael's equipment is between 40 and 50 years old: small,
elegantly simple tractors designed for planting and cultivating vegetables in
the era before the widespread use of herbicides. He explained the various
attachments which allow him to turn up the weeds very close to each row of
vegetables.  He also talked of a modern advance called "flame weeding." Carrots
grow much more slowly than most weeds, and will not do well if shaded by them.
With careful timing and enough skill it's possible to use a propane flame to
kill weed seedlings just before the carrots emerge.  

At the Williamses in Kentucky, the Black Lick Creek flowed over their garden,
and ran three-feet deep through their barn, in response to six inches of rain in
just a few hours. They believe their garden lost very little soil primarily
because it was protected by weeds. That event caused them to reflect that over
the years their garden has become more weedy, in part because of their dislike
of weeding, but also because they realized that often weeds do little harm.
They write that although their yields per area are not the highest, their yields
per time spent are enormous.

If water or fertility are in short supply, weeds can compete seriously with
crops, but if they are plentiful, and the crops can get enough sunlight, weeds
may be okay. Onions and carrots are particularly dependent on plenty of sunlight
and must be kept weeded, especially when young, in order to produce good yields.

Pay attention to what happens in your garden, and get to know the weeds, their
uses, and their life cycles. Pulling unwanted weeds before they go to seed can
have positive long-term effects. 

We appreciate weeds such as lambs' quarters, purslane, dandelions, and sorrel
because they provide delicious and nutritious food without planning or effort.
Other weeds, like plantain or wild carrot are beautiful and provide valuable
food for birds and for the small predatory wasps which are so helpful for insect
control.  One fleabane plant, a weed with many small daisy-like flowers, has
been blooming non-stop for several months in a corner of our garden.

So with weeds, as with so many other things, there are no fixed rules. Pay
attention and use your intelligence and experience to create a garden which
protects soil and produces food and beauty. 

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491

Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays  Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid.  These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.