Suzanne and I really like to weed our gardens by hand. We experience close-up what's happening with the soil and the crops and we discover who's living where. Weeding requires a kind of pleasant, mindless concentration. Our hands get to know the feel of the weed stems, and how hard to pull to get each one out. What great work as the sun dips behind the trees to the west! It's wonderful to be so intimate with the processes upon which our lives depend. The change in the look and health of a garden bed as the result of a few minutes of weeding is dramatic. Frequently vegetables and flowers seem to double in size once they're released from the competition of the plants that were crowding them. And the real rewards, of course, are in the eating.
First we locate the valuable or desired plants, the peas, garlic, lettuce or zinnias that we want to encourage. Then, gently, we pull out the other plants around them, which can now be called weeds because they are unwanted. After a rain, the soil is softened and most of the weeds come out easily with their roots attached. Now, they won't grow back. When we're working close to the vegetables we hope to eat, it's important to think about the root structure of the weeds we're removing, to pull the weeds so their roots (the long horizontal stolen of quack grass or the fibrous root mat of crabgrass, for example) can be extracted without bringing out that tiny onion or carrot, too. With just a small amount of attentive weeding, we learn a lot about the plants that we're pulling out. Removing this competition helps the vegetables we want get the water and nutrients that they need.
Of course, we do all we can to limit the number of weeds which grow. Weeds thrive on bare soil, so the most important weed control method is to keep the ground covered, with the crop we are growing, with a mulch of straw, hay, leaves or other organic matter, or with a cover crop like rye. We plant lettuce, turnips, beets and greens closely together and thin as they grow so that the ground is covered as much as possible. If we mulch these leafy plants, we get a lot of slugs, so we save the mulch for large plants like tomatoes, potatoes and broccoli.
We've found that a cover crop of winter rye is very useful. This grain, used for rye bread, is planted in the fall, grows very densely before winter and starts growing again early in the spring, so it prevents the growth of most weeds. At planting time the rye is turned under. This process adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil. When we plant potatoes in April, we shovel under the rye in the row only, leaving what's between the rows to cut later for mulch. Once it flowers in late May or June, if the rye is cut, it won't grow again. In June, when we set out our tomato plants, we cut the rye, by now over four feet tall, rake the stems into the paths, turn under a shovel-width row for the tomatoes and leave the rye stems and stubble as mulch between the rows. By the time the rye is flowering, its stalks are stiff and tough. They decompose very slowly which makes them especially valuable for building long-lasting, stable humus.
As the garden soil improves over time, weeds become easier to manage and to pull out. Some of our "weeds" are actually useful and edible, too. For example, lamb's quarters and purslane, commonly found in good garden soil, are very delicious and even more nutritious than most of the vegetables we grow intentionally. Nitrogen-fixing clovers (white Dutch and mammoth red) can be left around larger vegetables like corn, tomatoes or broccoli. They're beautiful, they can be cut to produce a great mulch, and when dried, the red clover flowers make a delicious and healthful tea.
As we weed, we learn which ones are problems and which ones aren't. Weed identification and appreciation books such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, or Weeds: Guardians of the Soil by Joseph Cocannouer are very helpful in seeing the good side of weeds.
There's a whole world of wonder, knowledge, usefulness and beauty in the plants that grow by themselves, which we have the nerve to call weeds.
Get intimate with an ecosystem soon. Enjoy weeding your garden.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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