Getting rid of weeds is like mowing the lawn and washing the dishes – it’s never-ending! There are more rewarding things to do with our time! That’s why the practical solution to weeds is to use them instead of removing them.

Hold on, wait a moment… before you click elsewhere… this is not such a ridiculous idea!

Weeds are usually indicators of degraded soil. Weeds can grow in these conditions because they are the experts at regenerating soil. Given a chance, they will enthusiastically help us improve our soil! [1]

Weeding veg comp

Using Weeds to Improve your Soil

Weeds produce masses of seed with excellent seed dispersal mechanisms. Their seed generally remains viable in our soil for years. Ready, waiting for the right conditions to germinate. They grow fast, protect soil from temperature extremes and water loss through evaporation, and produce a living ground cover, reducing compaction, runoff, and erosion.

Many weeds are Ecological Support Plants. As such, we can use them to help us solve specific resource issues. For example, leguminous weeds increase nitrogen availability for other plants. Many weeds provide generous supplies of pollen and nectar for the predators and parasites of our insect pests, the bees and other insects pollinating our crops.[2] Deep-rooted weeds – the ones that are hard to pull out of the ground! – help to reduce soil compaction and bring up nutrients most plants can’t reach.

All good reasons for not getting rid of weeds.why using weeds is a practical solution to weeds

Butterfly feeding on a Thistle (© Richard Szczerba)

But do you know the crucial contribution made by weeds?

Weeds feed soil organisms. They give them the resources to build healthy soil.[2]

When soil organisms get a regular, generous, and diverse diet of leaf litter and other organic waste materials from plants, and root exudates (the sugars and proteins plants release from their roots), they get our soil ecosystems functioning again. [3][4] Soil organisms will work 24/7 maintaining the soil infrastructure and recycling nutrients for plants to reuse.[2]

Can’t other plants do the job?

Weeds are obviously not the only plants to use. We can recruit others to help us. But when they are difficult to grow in the degraded soil conditions, why not use the weeds volunteering their services?

With the weeds feeding your soil root exudates, you periodically cutting them to supply mulch, or preferably getting them grazed, the health of your soil will improve. You’ll naturally get fewer weeds, and it will become easier to get other plants established.

Stories from Farms and Gardens

I’d like to show you heaps of examples. But as this practical solution is currently considered remarkably radical, you’re joining a small group of pioneers using this eco-logical approach.

Property size doesn’t matter. I am experimenting in my veggie garden, but one of the biggest vegetable producers in England, producing 50,000 lettuce/week, skillfully uses weeds in their lettuce and celery production.[6] Another commercial producer, I spoke to recently, is starting trials having estimated her weed removal cost to be between $1,000– $2,000 per hectare.

Showing a practical solution to weeds in lettuce

 Lettuce growing with weeds at G’s Growers Ltd

At a recent workshop, we saw what weeds can do in a citrus orchard. Where the rows hadn’t been managed for several years, the soil was healthier in comparison to those that had been mowed and manicured. In Sri Lanka, tea farmers get higher yields and harvest some of the weeds as leafy greens.[5]

Getting Practical

In some situations encouraging weeds may not be a good idea. For example, when weeds:

  1. Rapidly grow over the top of your crop
  2. Competitively exclude ecological support plants that would otherwise grow
  3. Produce seed early in the cropping cycle contaminating your next crop
  4. Invade natural areas – our nature reserves, waterways and national parks need all the help they can get!
  5. Quickly get out of 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.

But don’t be too quick to judge.

Look closely at what the weed is doing and how its behaviour changes over time.

On my farm in Australia, I get masses of Sicklepod seedlings sprouting whenever there is bare ground. They are such a perceived problem, 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 and tell me what you see.” The benefits were clear. The grass was 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 call plants weeds!

So remember, when you get ready to go out weeding again… that sometimes the most challenging obstacle to doing something differently is our fear of change. “What will the neighbours think!”

We can never be 100% certain how things will turn out. Start small.

Get Support with using this Eco-logical Approach

Suggested articles –

  1. What is Healthy Soil?
  2. How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically
  3. What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening

Watch the videos collated in the ‘Fix your Nutrient Cycle’ on the Learning from Nature YouTube Channel.

Or alternatively, develop practical solutions for your farm with this resource. And for your garden with this resource.

References

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil?, Learning from Nature

[2] Levy, S., 2011, The pollinator crisis: What’s best for bees. Nature 479, 164–165 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/479164a

[3] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, How to Build Healthy Soil Learning from Nature

[4] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Ecological Farming Handbook, Learning from Nature

[5] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Ecological Gardening Handbook, Learning from Nature

[6] G’s Growers Ltd

[7] Sri Lankan Tea Farmers Fight Deforestation & Climate Change, Rainforest Alliance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR7OS04RbEg&list=PLhxgy6oQa8vNhhi8jUaUOX8Zueec-LVHm&index=9)

Featured image – “Oil painting, Hoeing the Fields (pitting potatoes), by William Marshall Brown, c1911” by east_lothian_museums is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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