Monday, June 17, 2013

Putting Weeds to Work

I was always told to eliminate weeds. Pull them out, throw them away. I spray them dead. But after decades of battling them (and often losing), I've come to see weeds as a benefit. For real! Crazy, no?

Before I read Ruth Stout's gardening book, I aggressively battled weeds with all sorts of hoes, cultivators, and tillers. Every weekend I was out there chopping weeds. The garden looked good March thru June. July got real iffy. By August the weeds began to win. By September the battle was lost. It happened every year. Some years the battle was lost by mid-July. I only had one day a week to use for battling weeds back then, so maybe if I had had  more time the outcome would have been better. But I suspect not.

A pile of weeds ready for grinding up
Then because of Ruth Stout, I started using mulches. Things dramatically improved. Less weed problems in the areas I was able to get a thick mulch onto. 
Weeds make a nice mulch when ground up.

When I started this farm here in Hawaii, I was in desperate need of compost and mulch. Back in NJ one could always get the town or utilities to drop off truckloads of trees chippings. Landscapers were happy to dump their truckload of grass clippings. In autumn bags and bags of leaves were free for the taking. Stable operators were glad to have people come cart their manure and wood shavings piles away. The local sawmill dumped sawdust by the cart load by the roadway for people to take.  But here, things are different. No free green waste in abundance. (For a while the county dumped free green waste mulch in Waiohinu, but alas, no more.) Therefore the number one use for weeds for me is as green waste to be collected and chopped into mulch. 

Weeds seldom overcome the garden because of  the mulching. But along the driveway, around the rock wall, in the pastures and woods, and on the rocky areas weeds constantly regrow. This means that I have a nice source of green material that I can harvest whenever I need it. To me it is a crop, not a bane. I guess it's just a mental adjustment. Funny thing now is that during times of drought, I'm wishing that the weeds would grow! 

# 2 use for weeds: compost ingredient. No way, you're gonna say! Weed seeds! Well, if I properly manage the composting, weed seeds don't survive. I monitor the temperature of the piles and attempt to get them to a minimum of 165 with each turning. That seems to be sufficient. I simply don't have weeds sprouting out of my compost. If I see it happening, I know I did something very, very wrong. If I don't get the pile hot enough, then weed seeds will survive. The tricky part is getting the cooler outside sections turned over into the center so that material can also heat up. 

Certain weeds work out as animal fodder. The horse, sheep, and goat seek out certain plants that I call weeds. I watch the critters to see which ones they like. Those I allow to stay in the pastures in order to give the livestock variety. I don't know the names of most of those weeds, but I can identify them by sight. I've even purposely sown some of those weeds into the pastures, especially plantains. 

Some plants that are called weeds are edible. I've transplanted nasturtiums and purslane into the garden. I found them growing as weeds. Plantain is also edible, but I haven't tried it. 

Weeds in the garden can be very useful, so I don't try to eliminate them all. So the garden looks a little weedy. Who cares. The weeds I allow to remain serve a purpose as long as they don't over populate. Some serve as a trap crop for insect pests. For example, whitefly seems to infest nasturtiums long before they move to other crops. So the nasturtiums alert me to the problem so that I can take action. Usually just plucking the infested nasturtium plants is enough to knock the whitefly population way back.  Other weeds are very susceptible to mildew, alerting me to take action with the vegetable crops. Weeds can also tell me a little about the condition of the soil. If the new weed seedlings look lush,  things are most likely ok. But if they are spindly or off color, then I need to test the soil and make adjustments. I know that certain weeds thrive in spite of poor soil, but that isn't an issue. My garden soil is improved, so it just needs to be tweaked. 

1 comment:

  1. I tend to think of weeds as being plants in the place, or plants we haven't found a good use for [not good grammar, tho].
    If you can put the weeds into the compost pile before they have formed seeds, there's no worry about spreading seeds. I think it's harder to get the compost hot enough to kill plant pathogens, but just about everything can be used. You may want to burn tomato vines, according to some folks.