Nature doesn’t appreciate the bare earth method we call “weeding.” The soil we count on to grow our veggies and flowers isn’t just a blank medium for our gardening whims. It’s a fragile, complex, living system that’s home to bacteria, fungi, and other life forms busy beneath our feet.
Left alone, nature brings forth plants of all kinds that improve the soil’s ability to foster life. We call them weeds. They seem to spring up without reason other than to frustrate us. But nature has her reasons.
~Many of these plants boost the presence of mycorrhiza. This beneficial fungi massively improves a plant’s ability to use the soil’s water and nutrients while providing protection from certain pathogens. Mycorrhizas are found in more than 90 percent of plant families but its presence is inhibited by too much fertilizer and it can be destroyed by excessive digging, tilling, and soil compaction.
~Many of these plants help to break up heavy soil with strong root systems, aerating and improving drainage.
In places where the soil is lacking, the right plants to correct those particular deficiencies tend to spring up. In fact, botanists know that weeds are an indicator of soil properties such as pH and mineral levels. That’s nature’s wisdom at work.
Then we come in, gardeners and farmers, doing our darndest to get down to bare ground between rows of plants. Many of us know that bare ground is scalded by the sun, and topsoil is washed away by wind and rain but old habits die hard.
I want to understand the weeds that nature bestows on me. For example, I respect the fierce tenacity of thistles that can quickly grow taller than I am. And I can’t help but adore the beauty of those delicate flowers atop such a prickly stem. They’ve visited most fiercely in our front flower bed, one that was mounded up from subsoil left when our septic system was excavated. I know and nature knows the soil there isn’t very hospitable to life. That’s why thistles are there. I’ve augmented that bed with cow manure dragged from the back of our property, stacked it with layers of straw and mulch, and pulled out as many thistles as I can before my strength gives out. What’s interesting is thistles are dynamic accumulators that work to bring up deep nutrients and their long roots break up poor soil. What’s also interesting is that that fewer thistles appear in that bed every year, as if they’re completing a job started nearly 15 years ago. Other weeds are now taking their place, surely just as necessary.
But respect for weeds goes only so far. It’s not possible to grow peas, lettuce, and other delicate plants in a jungle of weeds. Besides, I am a
low energy lazy gardener. Once summer heat rolls in I’m more inclined to hide in the shade with a book than sweat with Puritan righteousness in the sun.
So I have lots of experience with weed control methods. (Other than chemical, I don’t go there.)
~Hoeing. I’m not good at hoeing, although that may have something to do with using an antique implement that probably hasn’t been sharpened for decades. My hoeing technique also probably leaves something to be desired. Finally, the whole hoeing experience is impaired by having three dogs out with me, dogs that like to dash after each other in wild canine exuberance putting them right in the way of my hoe.
~Weeding. I’m not good at pulling weeds either but that’s the method I use most often. As I pull weeds, I lay their still-green bodies between the rows as a natural mulch. I tend to sit on the ground as I hand weed, and I happen to like how close that puts me to the smell of growth and the sight of tiny insects and an overall greater awareness of what’s going on in the garden. The size of my various gardens makes it impossible to do this well unless I want to spend many many hours a week on my butt pulling weeds, which I do until the blazing heat hits. Then I do so fewer hours with greater grumpiness.
~Landscape fabric. We were given reams of this by a friend of a friend who used to run a greenhouse. It wasn’t easy to get between the rows and batten down with clips, but I covered it with straw and grass clipping and it looked great. I was thrilled. It worked well until I pulled it off at the end of the growing season. The soil looked awful, cracked and strange as if it had boiled under all that black fabric. Rather than being soft and friable it was hard. I wanted to beg the dirt’s forgiveness. I was also rather bitter, as this was the easiest thing we ever used. It also has to be pulled up every year or it’ll accumulate so much biomass on its surface that plants will simply grow on top of it.
~Newspapers and straw. I read about the newspaper and straw method years ago in Mother Earth News, and have been doing it on and off ever since. Basically you layer heavy, overlapping sheets of newspaper between the rows covered by straw or grass clippings. By the end of the growing season it’s largely biodegraded and is dirt by the next spring. I have a love/hate thing going with this method, probably because I’ve made all the mistakes possible. Too little newspaper, straw so flimsy that it doesn’t break into sections that firmly hold anything down. And the worst, trying to put down newspaper when there’s any breeze at all. This year I’m doing most of the garden this way. Again, making mistakes. This time I laid down quite a few rows and got the straw nicely set atop those papers but didn’t dampen it with rain barrel water because the sky threatened rain within minutes. Bad idea. That rain appeared only after heavy gusts of wind, meaning I was running around the yard trying to catch windborne newspaper and stomping my feet in Rumplestiltskin fits of frustration. [2014 update. Used heavy paper feedbags are even better than newspapers. Just cut open, spread out, cover with straw, and water. Be sure to avoid feedbags with plastic lining!]
~Jeans, yes jeans are this year’s innovation. I got into the pile jeans I’ve been saving to make a quilt (the kind perfect to keep in a car trunk for impromptu picnics). I slashed them apart, laid them in rows of emerging garlic plants while my kids laughed at crazy mom, then covered them with straw. I don’t know if they’ll biodegrade or if I’ll have to pull them up, but I’m thrilled with how well they’re staying put. [2014 update. Jeans work well and biodegrade in about two years, although the heavy seams are still here and there in places. Probably best to use between perennials.]
What do YOU do to live with and live without weeds?