Weeds in the Garden

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 22, 1997

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

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.