Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting intimate with my weeds

I plant weeds sometimes. I just feel I should admit this upfront, and come out with it and accept your outrage. You see, my property isn't exactly untouched - it was a sod farm at one point (although most of the actual sod harvesting was done across the road on a field that is not mine), which means that for about decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, people poured incredibly toxic chemicals on the ground to keep the grass uniform and then dug up the topsoil and sold it rich people who couldn't wait long enough for grass to grow.

Before that it was a dairy farm, cleared as far as the eye can see - there were a few hedgerows left, but most of the land 50 years ago was empty - I know this because one of my neighbors grew up here, went to the one room schoolhouse that was around the corner, and grew up fishing in the pond across the road. He remember when my 19 acres of woods was 19 acres of pasture and cows.

The decline of Northeastern farming has done my land some good. A few people with horses owned the land, and basically their horses manured my pastures and otherwise left them alone. Much of the land was left to grow up into third and fourth growth forest, and the hardwoods are just starting to succeed into the woods. In a couple of decades, we'll have a nice little sugar bush, I suspect.

The previous owners were serious lawn people, and boy did the property have a buttload of it. We, on the other hand, are not serious lawn people. My interest in standard grasses ends if they cannot be eaten by something. We mow a few small patches for the kids to play on with a manual push mower, and scythe, ignore or pasture animals on the rest. I look forward to the annual bloom of golden dandelions in my lawn, and can't imagine why people pull them out. They stand up fine to traffic (my kids run on them all the time), are brightly colored, nutritious, make good rabbit feed, good people feed and give the kids puffballs to blow. What's not to love?

I like to think that we've done our property some good too - that allowing trees to grow up (and planting them) along the margin of the creek is holding back soil that was being lost to erosion in the previous all-lawn policy. We've enriched large patches with composted manures and soil amendments for growing, and more of it is daily enriched by our goats and chickens, who roam mostly unfettered, leaving their manures behind. And I see this improvement in a number of ways - among them through the shift in weeds that grow here. As the soils heal and grow, some of those that do best in disturbed and disrupted sites are beginning to fade away.

I'm fond of a surprising number of weeds - some of them I like so much that I actually planted them, when I discovered I didn't have any. Neither chickweed nor stinging nettle were naturally occurring on my property. I have planted both of them quite intentionally, and I have no regrets. We eat plenty of nettles and cut and compost the rest, so they aren't a problem for me. The same is true with the chickweed, which besides being good chicken food is fabulous human feed as well. I've planted a larger leaved purslane for my CSA salads, and am delighted when it reappears - yum!

Some plants I put in in ignorance of their weedy tendencies. After five years of weeding Matt's Wild Cherry tomato seedlings out of every corner, I think I've finally gotten rid of them, but for years volunteer currant tomato seedlings were one of my biggest pests. Most never got to fruiting in my climate, but boy did they grow fast. German chamomile is another plant I'll never get rid of - but it is a friendly little thing and I don't really mind it. Milk thistle is big and spiky, but it is a wanted plant in my garden - although maybe not quite wanted in the numbers that they arrive. Burdock certainly isn't wanted in the quantities that I inevitably end up with, but the more we enjoy eating it, the less it bothers me. The goats like the leaves too.

Over the years, I've planted some weeds, seen others emerge new from the wind or wild creatures. I've fought them with various mulches and strategies, ignored them (sometimes this worked, sometimes it was a mistake) but the thing that has worked best for me has been simply to learn about my weeds - the more I understand them - why they grow where they do, how they grow, what they need and want and tell me about my place, the better I am at dealing with them. It doesn't mean I've come to love every thistle, and there are a few I purely hate, but for the most part, I'm learning to work with my weeds - and I think any new gardener may underestimate the need to spend some time learning about your pesty plants.

Moreover, I see that as my soils improve and I make better use of my property, the weeds change. Weeds are, of course first and foremost, pest plants, but they are also educational - weeds can tell you a great deal about how your soil has been used, and what mistakes you are making.

Most of the major pest weeds, for example, are products of human disturbance. They are the things that do well in crappy soil where the topsoil has been ripped off, they are things that don't mind poor fertility and unbalanced soils. They are the things that disperse well and tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. In this regard, they are of great interest - because those very qualities are potentially useful to us. On a planet where human disturbance is far more the norm than not, these plants have very important characteristics - they work with us.

And yes, that has negative consequences as well - watching garlic mustard take over my forest floor sucks. Yes, we eat it. I've even been known to bundle it up and put it in my CSA baskets when I had them. But we can only eat so much garlic mustard ;-). On the other hand, most of the forests that are being invaded are the kind of forest I have - not old growth natural forests, home to complex ecologies, but forests that are themselves in the process of complex succession. As permaculturist Dave Jacke puts it:

If you understand succession ecology, you will understand that there's no way a plant or animal alone can be responsible for the way it behaves. Invasion is only possible in the context of a certain kind of ecosystem situation. The first cause of succession is the availability of a site or niche. If there's no site or niche available, no invasion can occur.... If invasion is not succession then what the hell is it? [italics mine]


The main thing is that the paradigm that we're using to describe invasive species has many faulty aspects. The thinking is being muddled by framing the issues incorrectly. If we don't see invasion as part of succession ecology then we are on the wrong track, folks. Because most plants that are considered invasive are disturbance adapted species.

Garlic mustard, purple loostrife and other "invasives" aren't native here, and they do put at risk our woodland plants. But many of them are aggressive natives, rather than delicate colonies of the vulnerable - I have a lot fewer lady's slippers than I do poison ivy plants. Placing all the responsibility for this kind of succession on the weed itself and its "invasive" properties removes responsibility from human beings - we are simply fighting off mighty invaders. In fact, the history of my woods is one that predisposed them to this "invasion" - it is a history of human mistreatment, less than of cruel invasion.

Whatever the outcome of the debate of how to view weedy species vs. natives, as someone whose primary interest is in making full use of the plants that grow on my property for food, medicine, fiber, animal forage or other purposes, I tend to think the central issue with many weeds is that they are opportunistic plants that *are not fully utilitized* - that is, if we were working as hard to make biodiesel out of kudzu as we are out of corn, there wouldn't be such a great kudzu problem in the US. The same is true if we were eating or making other full use of our weeds - indeed, species that gain attention for food or medicinal value often rapidly become endangered. While I'd hate to see the very last Japanese Knotweed plant on earth disappear, I think we're sufficiently far away from that that I can wait my worry on that subject for a bit.

In Robin Wheeler's excellent book _Food Security for the Faint of Heart_, she writes about the ways that bamboo is kept from being a weedy pest in Northern Thailand:

"Like most people visiting Asia, I have experienced the constant dripping of a rain of epiphanies during my stays. One of these occurred on a trip to Northern Thailand, as I was standing on the edge of a new friend's yard. I admired the grove of towering bamboo that edged her garden boundary, in a row so straight I could have marked it off with a piece of thread, with not a single trace of bamboo growing out into the road.

'How do you do that?' I asked her. 'How do you keep the bamboo from growing all over the place, outside of your yard?'

'Well, that's easy,' she replied. 'Everyone knows how good bamboo shoots are in their dinner. The minute one shows its head outside of my garden, someone takes it home.'

'Oh,' I said, 'In Canada we hack down the bamboo and throw it in the bushes and buy bamboo shoots in a can at the store.'

But that is what North America is all about. We have been trained that if it is right in front of our face (e.g. free, accessible) it is somehow inferior, and that the only really good stuff is at the store. The more abundantly and freely something grows, the more reviled it should be." (Wheeler, 95)

Eating your weeds isn't a magic bullet, but it does sometimes puzzle me when I see people walking past a large stand of lambs quarters to go and purchase spinach at $3 bunch. There are certainly places that I wouldn't eat my weeds - places too close to roadsides or in sprayed areas, or where too many household pets use them as a toilet. But the world is so full of a number of weeds in fairly safe areas that I think we could all be, if not as happy as kings, at least rich in highly nutritious greens.

The single biggest pest in my garden beds is ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) - a member of the mint family, it is a royal pain in my ass. It loves my moist conditions, and acts, well, like a mint. It is actually a rather pretty weed, with purple flowers, and it smells good. It is a minor medicinal, and I do dry some of it for tea, but I have it in such wild excess that I spend much of my time tossing it over the fence for the goats or composting it. It is perfectly happy to come up in the middle of mulch, and through any crack, and while it isn't hard to remove, it comes back near-instantly. On the other hand, pulling up fistfulls of ground ivy won't kill anyone, and the more I raise up my beds, the less I have to fight them - the dryer soils simply aren't as hospitable. I keep hoping to discover a really good use for ground ivy, but haven't yet.

The other major pest in my garden is Bull Thistle, which I really don't like - if you've ever sat on a small one while you weeded you'll know why. On the other hand, the bull thistles are totally my fault. Once upon a time, I didn't bother to patrol the weedy areas on the other side of my garden fence - not out of any reason, but because out of sight, out of mind. At some point about 2005, I let some bull thistles go to seed, and have been fighting them ever since. These guys are quite literally a pain in my ass, hands and knees, since I most often spot the small ones when I land on one.

But minor loosening of my soil by broadfork reduces the bull thistles, which don't like tillage, and if I get them young, they pop right out. Time and attention are doing their jobs - the thistles are becoming manageable. And if I do my job, and don't let them go to seed near my garden again, they'll go away.

Wild grapes and oriental bittersweet are pests, but manageable ones - most of the trees they are climbing are trees that will be gone in the natural succession of things in the next decade or so - when they attack something I want to keep in my forest, I hack them down. Otherwise, we make wreaths to give away of bittersweet and wild grape juice and jelly.

In difficult times, the very weediness of these species may well be essential to us - burdock and cattails for example, both technically weeds, both tasty roots and at fairly high densities an acre. Would I rather eat carrots and parsnips? Absolutely - but make times difficult enough and I'll be delighted to chow down on Gobo (burdock) soup, stew and patties - in fact, actually, I like it now.

An old Scandinavian proverb refers to wild plants and untamed areas as "the mantle of the poor." It was no accident, for example, that Danish farmers permitted and even sowed wild brome grasses in their fields with their wheat - the Brome seeds were a pest in good years, cutting into the wheat harvest, but in years of bad harvest, the brome grasses persisted, providing edible seeds to compensate for lost wheat harvest - and the practice endured into the 20th century.

Over the years I've experimented with a lot of uses for weedy plants - drying nettles for chicken feed, making diapers out of cattail fluff (native practice that I apparently haven't mastered, because pee-soaked cattail fluff is hard to get off little behinds), making willow hurdles and baskets (I'm not very good at it, but it does work) as wet-loving willow is our biggest pest tree. I've eaten nearly every edible weed you can think of, made teas and tinctures out of them, even tried spinning fiber from thistles and nettles (both of them actually fairly promising).

As someone who also relies on cultivated crops, I've tried every strategy you can imagine for preventing and killing weeds - I used a borrowed flame weeder once, and decided it was too big a pain. I've mulched (which deals with some of them), hoed, hand weeded, used landscape fabric (the weeds just grow on top of it and it looks ugly), tilled, not tilled, solarized, mowed, cover cropped and underplanted. I've found that the best strategies for me are a combination of just accepting that weeding is part of life and also choosing my weeds - either creating conditions that are hospitable only to weeds I can deal with or actually planting weeds to fill ecological niches that I know are going to get filled anyway. Now I plant sweet alyssum under my squashes, white clover in my pathways and bee balm in the occasional soggy spot which otherwise will be filled with wet loving ground ivy. Looks pretty and suits my need to manage.

I haven't solved all my weed problems, and I'm still looking for better solutions for some of them - I'm trying lightly salting my ground around the asparagus, which has shallow roots that make early had weeding difficult but like rich soil that is too hospitable to too many weeds. The goats are making firm inroads into the multiflora roses and the willow trees, but they aren't a magic bullet.

But I've also learned to be grateful to my weeds and appreciate them - to think about how I may someday be grateful for food plants that grow without my intervention. I appreciate their beauty - I really do look forward to the annual gilding of my acres with dandelions, to the harvest of wild grapes and decorative bittersweet. I watch each spring to see the colonies of hawkweed and wild raspberries expand.

My answer to the most intractable of my weed problems is knowledge - to try and get to know them. What plant family do they come from? What conditions do they like? What can they tell me about what my soil needs? What can I use them for - if nothing else, caught before they go to seed, they can enrich next year's soil. On a dry day, I can mulch my whole ground with lambsquarters pulled up and laid down to suppress further weeds.

It would be a flight of sentiment to claim that all weeds are useful and valuable - they aren't. Poisonous water hemlock, for example, is a serious pest, and one that worries me since my autistic eldest mouths things. We try and keep it away from our farm. But I find myself considering which weedy seeds might make substitutes for grain crops, and looking at the reality - humans are a weedy species. We too like disturbance, crop up in prolific numbers and invade new habitats without regard for the natives. We humans, then, must look on those species of plant and animal that accompany and work with us with something other than perfect hostility - if the worst case scenarios come true, it may be that the plants of our future are mostly those that have already learned to live with and around humans best.

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