Suzanne and I really enjoy weeding our gardens by hand. We experience close-up what's happening with the soil and the crops and we find out 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 can be 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 we gently 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 entire root system attached. Now, they can'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. Pulling out the long horizontal stolens of quack grass or the fibrous root mat of crabgrass without also disturbing the tiny onions or carrots can be challenging. Removing the competition helps vegetables get the water and nutrients that they need.
Of course, we do all we can to limit the number of weeds which grow in the first place. Weeds thrive on bare soil, so the most important weed control method is to keep the ground covered: with a crop, 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 them as they grow so that the ground is covered as much as possible. Mulching these leafy plants can encourage lots of slugs, so we save the mulch for larger plants like tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli and garlic, of course.
Planting a cover crop of winter rye is extremely useful. This grain, used for rye bread and thatched roofs, is sown in the fall, grows very densely before winter and starts growing again early in the spring. It discourages the growth of most weeds. At planting time, young rye can be 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. As we set out our tomato plants, we cut the rye (which is 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 flowers, its stalks are stiff and tough. They decompose very slowly and are therefore especially valuable for building long-lasting, stable humus.
As garden soil improves over time, weeds are easier to manage and to pull out. Some of our weeds are actually useful and edible. Lamb's quarters and purslane are good examples. Both are commonly found in fertile soil, are very delicious and are 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, red clover flowers make a delicious, healthy tea.
As we weed, we learn which plants are problems and which ones aren't. Weed identification and appreciation books such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, orWeeds: Guardians of the Soil by Joseph Cocannouer are very helpful in seeing the positive side of weeds.
Get intimate with an ecosystem soon. Discover the pleasure of weeding your garden.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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