A weed is but an unloved flower.-Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Well, Ella, that depends. But it brings up an important aspect of our discussion:
What is a weed?
Oxford English Dictionary defines a weed as “A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”
I would argue that it does not have to be a wild cultivar. It can be any plant that isn’t where you want it.
Our zinnia, basil, mustard and rudbeckia have all self-seeded the last several years and had to be removed from areas where they were choking crops
We have strawberries and celery coming up in the yard.
I think these useful weeds, that do not need to be eradicated, are a different category than, say, the fire grass that burns our feet, the creeping grass that chokes our veggies and is so hard to remove or the ivy that is trying to take over.
Some wild weeds are edible, like wild amaranth (pig weed), and some are also medicinal, like purslane.
Our area is covered in wild blueberries and blackberries that we forage every year.
So, what do we do about the troublesome weeds that are threatening our gardens and crops?
Removing them by hand is miserable, awful work and not possible on a larger scale but it is sometimes an option. We bend down and pull certain things (like ivy) every time we see it.
One step up from pulling weeds is hoeing them. There are several kinds of hoes. If I want to move dirt while I weed, like when I am mounding it around rows of potatoes, a standard hoe is great but in areas where I don’t want to disturb the soil as much, a stirrup hoe is the way to go. Once you get used to using one, I suspect you’ll fall in love.
In several of our walkways, I use a weed eater/edger and I cut to the ground. It is loud and temporary but fast.
Another mechanical method is to plant your rows far enough apart that you can till between them. We have tilled many weeds into the soil but make sure you don’t do it once they have gone to seed or you are just planting more. You should just trust me on this one.
The other problem with tilling is that it kicks up seeds so it perpetuates your problem in the long run. If you till deep, you risk destroying your soil. Always turn only the surface. The stuff that lives down there does so because it thrives there, not on the surface, exposed to light, air etc.
Suppression is my favorite method of weed control. This just means putting something down that the weeds can’t easily penetrate. We have several methods on our farm. We have erosion fencing from the trash at a construction site laying in some walkways. It is nice and thick and lasts longer than the weed barrier material you can buy at the store in the intense sun where we live. If you can’t find a heavier material, the weed cloth from a garden store or farm supply is much better than nothing.
There are several mulches that work well against weeds. Put 6 to 8 layers of newsprint under them for best results. Put down at least 6 inches for any sustained effectiveness and don’t use chipped treated lumber in areas where you may want to plant in the future. The ideal chip is hardwood because as it breaks down, you can dig down into it to plant in the fertile soil it creates. Just add more to the top commensurate to the amount that has broken down to maintain a depth that will suppress future weeds.
Leaves tend to harbor detrimental insects and allow water to wick from the area so if you are going to use leaves, put them in areas where you don’t need water to penetrate and in areas where you are less concerned about insects who lay in litter. Or send them through a chipper or shredder first.
Straw is seldom without seeds, at least where we live. It can be used but prepare for the emergence of wheat. It also has a growth inhibiting effect if it is used long term. Again, one season of thick straw cover is better than nothing.
Smother crops are a good way to choke out weeds, especially in larger areas and have the added benefit of acting as a green manure and thus increasing the organic matter (OM) in your soil. There are several varieties. Remembering that nature doesn’t allow bare spots for long, you would ideally get a jump on the weeds and plant your smother crop in early spring, before the weeds have gotten out of hand. In the real world, we are using buckwheat after the digging of our red and purple potatoes so we are hoeing and raking out residual plants before we sow. Once your seed is properly sown, based on the crop you have chosen for the season and location, treat it like other desired plants by doing things like watering it or adding wood ash as needed. Once it is up, thick and healthy, cut it before it makes seed and either leave it as ground cover or turn it into your soil. Repeat as necessary.
Sometimes, getting rid of a weed means changing the conditions allowing it to thrive. In our area we have a weed called dollar weed. It looks like a small water lily. It took over an area of our garden. We researched and tried every remedy that was suggested, to no avail. The poisons from the store are reportedly useless but that isn’t our path, anyway. We are finding the key to the eradication of dollar weed is to make the area unfriendly to it. Dollar weed requires very wet ground. The area it has taken over is the low area with poor drainage. It needs to be raised and drained.
Animals can be used as a biological weed control in many instances. For ages, goats have been used to graze overrun pastures. Absent a rent-a-ruminant business in our area, we are sticking to using our chickens for weed control. If you have seen what chickens pastured in a small space can do to make it bare, you understand the basics. The key to making the chicken-as-weed eater program successful is building chicken tractors that fit the job. Remembering to build in some shade and a convenient way to water your birds, make a chicken tractor that fits your garden beds, rows or trouble areas. Then bring in the troops after each crop cycle. The chicken manure is a bonus.
There are sprays and things you can apply to weeds. If you are trying to clean up a walkway, then it might sense to dump a lot of vinegar or salt on the ground. Just remember that what you apply to the weed, you apply to the soil and everything in it that makes it valuable.
We use almost every method we know on some area or another around the farm. The biodiversity and experimental nature of our little farm requires it.
Chew on this:
For more about useful weeds, wild cultivars and foraging, consider these resources:
Eat the Weeds is a great resource for those in the south eastern US.
Grow in Peace Farm makes the case for using some of our weeds.
Happy eating, Katy