Weeding is like mowing the lawn and washing the dishes – it’s never-ending. There’re more rewarding things we can do with our time… and the weeds! That’s why a practical solution to weeds is using instead of removing them.
…Hold on, wait a moment… before you click somewhere else – it is not such a ridiculous idea.
Weeds are Experts at Regenerating Soil
- Weeds are ready, waiting, and enthusiastic about helping us get our soil ecosystem working better. They produce masses of seed with excellent seed dispersal mechanisms, and the seed generally remains viable in our soil for years.
- Weeds grow fast, protect soil, reduce temperature extremes and water loss through evaporation.
- Weeds produce a living ground cover and mulch, reducing soil 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, many weeds are legumes. Others provide generous supplies of pollen and nectar for the predators and parasites of insect pests. Deep-rooted weeds – the ones that are hard to pull out of the ground – are helping to reduce soil compaction and bring up nutrients from deep in our soil.
But do you know their key contribution?
Weeds (like other plants) feed our soil organisms. When soil organisms get a regular, generous and varied diet of leaf litter, dead roots and root exudates (the sugars and proteins plants release from their roots), they can then work 24/7 building soil structure and recycling nutrients for plants to reuse.[i]
Butterfly feeding on a Thistle (© Richard Szczerba)
We saw what weeds can do in a citrus orchard. The soil was healthier in rows that hadn’t been sprayed with herbicide and mowed for several years in comparison to the managed rows.
In Sri Lanka, tea farmers get higher yields and the bonus of edible weeds by using weeds instead of removing weeds![ii] One commercial vegetable producer, I spoke to recently estimated her weed removal cost to be between $1000– $2,000 per hectare. That’s why one of the biggest vegetable producers in England skillfully use weeds to regenerate soil in their lettuce and celery production.[iii]
Lettuce growing with weeds on a farm producing 50,000 lettuce/week.
Why use Weeds when other plants can do the job?
Weeds are not the only plants we can use to help us regenerate our soil. Other plants can do the job as well. But there are good reasons why this approach is a practical solution to weeds – the seed is cheap, and the plants are adapted to our growing conditions – otherwise, they wouldn’t grow so well! And you’ll naturally get fewer weeds as they help you regenerate your soil.
Having said that, encouraging weeds may not always be a good idea. For example, when weeds:
- Overshadow your crop
- Competitively exclude pasture grasses and the ecological support (companion) plants you’ve planted
- Quickly produce seed and contaminate your next crop
- Invade natural areas – our nature reserves, waterways and National Parks need all the help they can get!
- 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 is happening and research what ecological services your weeds supply.
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 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!
Jumping the obstacles…
When you get ready to go out weeding again… remember that sometimes the most challenging obstacle to doing something differently is our fear that the change we make might not work. “What will the neighbours think!”
We can never be 100% certain how things will turn out. Start small, and get so additional advice with using this eco-logical approach from our Ecological Farming and Gardening Handbooks and guide to regenerating soil – Feed your Plants without Fertilisers.
[i] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Ecological Farming Handbook, Learning from Nature
[ii] Sri Lankan Tea Farmers Fight Deforestation & Climate Change, Rainforest Alliance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR7OS04RbEg&list=PLhxgy6oQa8vNhhi8jUaUOX8Zueec-LVHm&index=9)
[iii] G’s Growers Ltd (https://www.gs-fresh.com)