Tired of weeds?
Weeding is never-ending. Like mowing the grass and washing the dishes! There are more rewarding things we can do with our time.
And it’s expensive if you need to employ people or use machinery to do the job.
One vegetable grower I spoke to recently, in England, estimated his weeding costs to be between £500 – £1,000 per hectare!
There is a better option – using instead of removing weeds.
Hold on, wait a moment… before you click somewhere else – using weeds is not such a ridiculous idea.
Look at what weeds can do for you –
- Produce mulch right where you need it
- Supply organic matter and root exudates
- Provide ecological services – ecological support species
- Increase plant diversity
- Grow roots helping de-compact soil
- Provide food and habitat for insects, birds and other beneficial species
- Provide a living ground cover reducing runoff and erosion
- Produce shade reducing water loss from evaporation
- Increase water infiltration into the soil
- Reduce temperate fluctuations in soil
Using weeds makes sense. It’s eco-logical!
Many of the annoying characteristics of weeds are actually assets.
Many ‘weeds’ are specialists in colonising and repairing degraded soil.
They are ready, waiting, and keen to help us… They produce masses of seed with excellent seed dispersal mechanisms and seed which can remain viable in the soil for years. They grow fast, protect soil, reduce temperature extremes and water loss through evaporation.
Weeds supply organic matter and root exudates.
When soil organisms get a regular, generous and varied diet of organic matter and root exudates, [i] they work 24/7 building soil structure, recycling nutrients, and making nutrients available to plants when and where they are needed.[ii]
Weeds supply free ecological support services.
Most weeds are ecological support plants. Some are legumes that have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. Some provide generous supplies of pollen and nectar for the predators and parasites of your insect pests. Others grow large leafy solar panels and use this solar energy to manufacture extra plant biomass and root exudates.
How many times have you tried to pull a weed out of the ground, and find you can’t because it has deep roots? These weeds help decompact your soil and bring nutrients up to the surface.
Using weeds to supply targeted ecological services, we add functional biodiversity to our farm and garden.[iii]
Butterfly feeding on a Thistle
Weeds are not the only plants providing these benefits.
Other plants can do the job as well. But there are good reasons for using weeds:
- Cheap seed!
- Adapted to your growing conditions – otherwise, they wouldn’t be growing!
- Save time researching and trialling suitable plants to grow
- Grow without help or intervention from you
Ideas for using weeds
Around the world, it is becoming increasingly common for commercial producers and back yard gardeners to grow mixtures of crops, cover crops between cropping cycles, and to interplant crops with ecological support plants (companion cropping).
Some people are now even experimenting with using weeds!
Weeds are also a useful for agroforestry, food forests and other multi-layered food systems. In Sri Lanka, tea farmers get higher yields and the bonus of edible weeds by using weeds instead of removing weeds![iv]
Lettuce growing with weeds on a farm producing 50,000 lettuce/weekv
Jumping the obstacles…
Does working with weeds sound too easy? There may be times when you need to remove some weeds which could:
– Overshadow your crop
– Competitively exclude useful companion plants
– Quickly produce seed and contaminate your next crop
If you hand-weed this can be time-consuming. But removing a few undesirable plants is easier than removing the whole lot! If you weed mechanically, the timing of your weeding and space between rows become crucial.
There may be times when encouraging weeds isn’t a good idea.
Particularly, if you end up growing plants that:
– Are difficult to control. For example, Field Horsetail (Equisetium arvense) and Black grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) in Europe, Paterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) and Sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia) in Australia. Even some vigorous and creeping grasses.
– You are required to control by law.
– Invade natural areas – our nature reserves, waterways and National Parks need all the help they can get!
However, don’t always be quick to judge
Look first at the ecological services provided by your weeds.
On my farm in Australia, I get masses of Sicklepod seedlings sprouting where there is bare ground. They are such a perceived problem that friends advised me not to buy the land. But I was lucky to have Hugh Lovel, a soil scientist visit the property and advise me otherwise.
“Look at the pasture grasses growing around that patch of Sicklepod and tell me what you see,” he said. The benefits were clear. The grasses were greener and more vigorous around the Sicklepod patch. “Sicklepod isn’t competing with your grasses. It’s improving your pasture with its deep roots and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.”
It was a game-changing moment for me. Never again would I be so ready to label plants weeds!
Sometimes the hardest obstacle is change itself
Our fear that the change we make might not work. “What will the neighbours think!”
Some risk is inevitable. We can never be 100% certain how things will turn out. Start small and try out different options first. Keep in mind you’ll naturally get fewer weeds as you use your ingenuity to work with Nature repairing your soil.
You’ll grow nutritious food in ways that are not in conflict with caring for our environment. And benefit from Nature’s expertise in developing ecosystems that are self-maintaining and highly productive – using the energy and resources they have available. Ecosystems that quickly bounce back from extreme weather events.
Everything we want for our gardens and farms!