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Gardening and weeds

 
steward
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Join me, and let’s think together. Like really think about gardening, perhaps in a new way we’re not used to. I’ve been gardening for 25 years or so now, and I, like most others I imagine, believe that our fruits, herbs and vegetables ought to be the only thing growing in a garden, and other things that we think don’t belong are weeds, and a lot of labor goes into removing and preventing weeds. Techniques as simple as using ones hands to pull weeds and grasses, to using deep mulch, to smothering with things like cardboard and mulch, etc. are regularly used. But where does this idea come from? I’m not sure really. It seems to me that at some point in history gardeners decided that only the fruits, herbs, and vegetables that they lovingly tend are the only plants that belong in a garden, and all others are removed. But why? Is it for appearance? I get it, I like things to be neat and tidy. But if we look at nature for examples, many different plants of many different species grow happily right next to each other, sharing the minerals and water, and all survive and even thrive. There is beauty in the whole complexity.

So, what if we don’t remove weeds. Will food stuffs still grow in a garden? I think so. Might it appear chaotic? Maybe, depends on who is asked I suppose. Could it be more difficult to harvest? Likely yes I think. Will the “weeds” hog all the soil minerals? Doubtful, I think, as the mineral needs of growing plants are minuscule. Competition for sunlight? Ok, I get that, and wouldn’t want tropicals towering over my garden shading everything, but for the scope of this discussion, let’s stick with things that generally stay low to the ground, perhaps under 3 feet tall. Could they drink all the water? Well, I believe there’s too many variables at play here, from the soil types, it’s organic matter content and water holding capacity, the amount of rain or irrigation a garden gets, and whether or not it’s mulched to slow soil moisture loss through evaporation and prevent the soil from baking dry in direct sunlight. So, can we grow abundant gardens right alongside the undesired plants we’ve been removing for years? I think so.

These musings stem from my recent observation of my weedy garden. I should note this garden is a first year garden in some poor soil that I’m in the process of improving through biomass like wood chips and regular applications of compost teas for example. I have grasses thriving in my garden, the spreading kind like bermuda grass, some foxtail grass, some johnson grass, etc. There are other volunteers like nightshade, curly dock, locust tree seedlings, virginia buttonweed, among others. At first, I steadily removed grasses and volunteer sprouts that I didn’t plant. Then farm life got busy this summer and I watched the grasses and other forms of plant life get settled and comfortable in my garden. Now in September as the warm season is closing and the days get shorter, I had this thought: Why can’t I just let the grasses and other things grow alongside my veggies? Well, I can, but are there unforeseen impacts that have not just a negative affect on my vegetables and herbs, but a downright detrimental affect? Could the competition possibly have some unknown positive impact on my veggies, such as having a response to grow a little taller and bigger to outcompete the grasses and other growths? Could they establish some mutual, shared connection that is beneficial for each plant through roots in the soil via a network of mycorrhizal fungi? I grew some great watermelons and muskmelons, some fair tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. All my root crops did poorly, with the potatoes and onions even dying out, which I believe has more to do with the soil than neighboring plants. One thing I have learned in reading books on soil life is nature uses diversity in plant life to remediate soils, and not just for healing soils but the plant diversity is everywhere in healthy soils as well. The more different things growing means the more roots growing to different layers of the soil, which in turn also means more and different kinds of root exudates and sugars being delivered into the soil to feed, nurture and establish relationships with soil microbial life which then grow in population and in turn build healthier soil and grow healthier plants and trees.

I’m now thinking that the primary reason I was removing “weeds” is appearance. Most of us have all grown up seeing beautiful, orderly, weed free gardens in pictures, on tv, and now the internet. Our minds, I think, have been domesticated to think that this is the way it’s done. Most of us see it in real life regularly as well such as office buildings, gas stations and shopping centers for example, where they often have neat and tidy landscaping free of volunteer plants. The “weed freeness” culture appears to be everywhere. My wife and I keep our house neat and tidy, everything in its place, and I appreciate, understand, and in this case, need cleanliness and order. But when I observe nature, how it works, how it abhors a vacuum and where neat rows and monocultures don’t exist, it got me thinking. A weed free garden certainly may look nice, but is it necessary? Do any permies grow a “survival of the fittest” or chaos type garden?

 
pollinator
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James Freyr wrote:Do any permies grow a “survival of the fittest” or chaos type garden?



Well, I certainly have a "chaos type" garden! I've been focusing on building soil and have pretty much just tossed seeds out all over the place to see what made it. It's been so wet this year, nothing I've planted has really done well, but I've been surprised to see various pollinator-friendly types of plants come up both wild and from seed. I think my soil is so poor, still, and the weather here in North Georgia so weird, that I've lowered my expectations. But I'm getting biomass. My main weeding effort has been to pull up sweetgum and pine seedlings trying to restablish from the ones we had to cut down because of disease.

The one weedy type thing I have going for me is Potentilla indica, Indian strawberry: https://tinyurl.com/ovpnb84 I've been pulling up plugs of it with a step-on bulb planter and replanting them in the middle of pathways I've cleared, hoping it'll take over and knock back the poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild muscadines that try to encroach. A gardening friend warned me that I would be very sorry I'm doing this, because in our area this can be invasive; but better something I can use for tea and help feed the birds than poison ivy! https://tinyurl.com/ovpnb84

Anyway, I like your thought that the competition of weeds might actually help make for stronger plants overall. Would like to hear from those who have proven this to be true.

 
gardener
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I've been growing food like this for the last two years and it is so freeing to me and saves so much time and energy! This year all of my food was grown like this, and I loved it.

It took me a while also to embrace the wild plants, and people close to me really disliked it at first, but after I discussed it with them and they've seen the results, they are starting to like the look of it also. Like you mentioned, I think we are just so conditioned to thinking that it has to be "tidy" to be beautiful and productive, it is a huge hurdle to get over.

Now when I see the wild plants coming up, I see so much beauty in the huge diversity of plants. I believe that this increase in flora has catalyzed a huge increase in the beneficial fauna on my property. Beneficial insects of all shapes and sizes are now constantly out and about helping to keep the pest populations in check. Japanese beetles used to love eating on my grapes and cherry leaves and other plants, and last year there were literally hundreds of them. The last one that I saw this year was in the clutches of a robber fly.

The plants seem to love the polyculture also. Sowing the edibles really thickly and having them close together can help them get a head start on other plants. My plants have grown so fast this year and looked more healthy this year than any other year before. If a wild plant is starting to get a little too big, it can be quickly cut back or even just pushed down which is my preference, so the edible plant can have a chance to catch up, and then they can still grow together. They seem to benefit from each other and help shade the soil to reduce evaporation, and the fungi seem to thrive below them, further increasing soil fertility and nutrient uptake!

I have so much more free time growing them in this way too, and I can enjoy it so much more!
 
pollinator
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I'm going to come in on the other side, I weeded pretty well up until June and then the strawberries kicked in and then the peas etc etc and the weeds got ahead of me, now we're talking about couch grass, creeping thistle, chickweed, creeping buttercup and Fat hen not trees or willow herb or anything really tall. there's plenty of other things in there to, field poppies, milk and sow thistles the occasional nettle, fumitary etc etc. Rows where I have half kept on top of weeding are ok, the crop survived (mostly) where I didn't get on top of it the crop is in some cases 100% lost.

Cabbages are half the size they should be in bad rows, onions were a total loss on the bed that didn't get weeded and a noticeable difference in size on the bed that got weeded half way down. Leeks were totally swallowed by weeds, and two rows of potatoes were badly stunted and producing 1/3 of the amount the more weeded rows produced. Slug pressure was much much higher in areas with weeds than clear areas, and areas that were not weeded last year have a lot more wire worm in than areas that were weeded (click beetles like to lay eggs on grass areas and a large % of the weeds are grass)

Things that don't seem to care are courgette plants (winter squashes are not managing the competition) peas, beans and popcorn. tomatoes themselves do not seem to care but they all get blight because of the reduced airflow and increased dampness, my outdoor tomatoes were scattered all over the place one in the peas, one in the onions a couple in the lettuces, they all get blight and slugs! (indoor ones are still going fine)

Couch grass ruins onions, potatoes and other root crops by growing THROUGH them, it's incredibly annoying to dig up a lovely potato and find a strand of couchgrass right through it making it useless for anything but eating now after cutting half of it off.

I have huge issues with certain pests, noticeably voles, watervoles and slugs. All of these are much worse around the edges of the garden next to the 100% wild areas, losses on the strawberry row closest to the wild flower grass and scrub approaches 80% two rows further in it's 5% These areas have been wild for over 30 years they are as nature intended for our area with a huge mix of plants, we have lizards, hedgehogs, ground beetles and toads in abundance, masses of birds (who try to eat every single berry before you get a chance to even sneeze at them) and the pests are also quite happy. The main issue this year was the winter, or rather the lack of it, we only got below freezing for 1 week so weeds and pests continued to grow and breed all the time.

I would guess that weeds cost me around 20% of the crop this year, some crops were not or hardly affected and some were a total loss.  If I didn't weed at all it would be closer to 100% loss. In my climate weeds start growing around early May (last frost 1st June) and stop in November (first frost 1st October) as we have cool wet summers they never stop growing or germinating.
 
pollinator
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I focus on getting rid of certain weeds--the perennial grasses have got to go, and if I find bindweed or goatshead it's GONE. No quarter.

Other than that they can pretty much do their own thing.

I keep my own seeds, and those that survive more than a year or two tend to handle the "wild" aspect much more easily. I let the onions reseed, leave potatoes in the ground and let them do their own thing as well. Rather than "weeding" in a traditional sense, I have tried to seed the garden areas with other plants that fill the same niche--grains instead of wild grasses, lettuces and other greens, that kind of thing.

Of course, I fight a running battle with those in the household who feel that a "weedy" garden is anathema and regularly pull up my seed plants...
 
pollinator
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I weed. For the same reasons Skandi mentioned.  If I allow the wild plants to overcome my vegetable beds I get less produce, smaller produce or no produce.



 
pollinator
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I have a garden that has been organized chaos since last winter. Once the veggies (mostly beans) were growing I let the weeds (mostly Spanish needle) grow too. I cut back the weeds to veggie leaf height every few weeks to keep them from shading to much. They shade the soil wonderfully and keep it moist without watering. It looks like a complete overgrown mess to outsiders but I view it as a very low maintenance garden with a vigorous culling program. The primary objective is to get it to go wild without much work and produce good seeds, both of which it does well for suitable crops. In this case: beans, peas, maypop, amaranth and wild greens. Note: limited sunlight and few soil amendments. Hugelculture.
 
gardener
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Great topic James Freyr,. I wonder the same thing, could it be beneficial to let weeds grow?..
I like to keep the beds in my garden weed free too, ideally i'd like to grow the beds very full of production plants and then eat/remove the smaller ones while saving the bigger ones to harvest seeds from them.
I have a production garden for mostly annuals which is quite recent, some beds are two years old, some three. They consist of aged cow manure that was just sitting in a field. Heavy seed load of lambs quarters and some nightshade berry carrying plant. During the third year of extreme drought while my annual crops and i gave up, i decided to let the weeds grow, with the idea to just cull the weeds before they get a chance to seed. Mulch them..
They're so strong! No watering needed, blazing sun. They must have some great mychorrhizal fungi connection on the go that brings water from deeper layers up, in exchange for sugars. And like mentioned above, they shade the soil.
I've been promoting the growth of white dutch Clover for some time now. As they have been known to fix nitrogen and they cover the mulched paths in between the beds, keeping the mulch moist, speeding up soil building. They have covered some of the beds, because i have let them do that over summer. Now i have taken it out, replanting it elsewhere. So the beds have functioned a s a white clover nursery.
Now that the rains have returned i have freed my beds of weeds again, and have seeded for winter crops. Ground cover like miners lettuce and lamb's lettuce.
Skandi Rogers and Steve Thorn have opposing experiences, if i may be so free to categorize the two, as far as i know, Skandi has more of a production garden while Steve leans more towards fruit/forest gardening. That might explain something.Correct me if i'm wrong!
Something else i observed in my production was that yarrow which i have been fighting quite some time now has a very good influence on the trees i have planted last fall. Out of twelve trees, 4 had yarrow growing around the stem, they thrived! All the others had reduced growth and leaves where brownish. I have taken yarrow seeds and am spreading it around all the young trees now.

 
master gardener
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The need for weeding appears to vary greatly  as to what it is I am trying to grow. To shorten the list, onions, carrots, and asparagus benefit from weeding . Potatoes, tomatoes, and okra show no improvement.
 
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Check the work of Michael "Skeeter" Pilarski. Skeeter does "closed canopy gardening". As an outsider, I can't see any sort of paths in his gardens- but he can. He can also identify everything that grows in his gardens-. And some few things he will take out, but mostly it's about all the photosynthesis possible.
Gardening without weeding absolutely works - but don't expect it to work with all your standard selections of annual vegetables, they won't all make it.
People talk about weeds competing for resources, but I believe it can be proven that sunlight is really the only resource plants compete for. Some plants are allelopathic and that's a potential problem.
Recognize the weeds that are vegetables and take advantage of them ;)
 
gardener
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James,

I love this thread!

So I am a lazy gardener.  I like to get my raised garden beds nicely set up, full of freshly decomposed wood chips, plant my crops and sit back and wait.  I try to include some compostable weed barrier such as newspaper or cardboard to suppress most of the weeds, but some always get through.  I really don't do much weeding.  Really I just sit back and wait for the plants to grow.

This does not affect my harvests in a meaningful way.  The garden still grows, the potatoes and tomatoes still get harvested.  Sure, weeds also grow and it does get a bit untidy, but what of it?  The weeds I have just don't affect my plant growth so I don't care that much about them.  Besides, I can usually utilize the weeds as some form of compost.

Great concept James, and a great thread.

Eric
 
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My garden tends to be very, very weedy. My potatoes didn't seem to care. The tomatoes were stunted, and more died out or never flowered than would have if there hadn't been weeds. My squash and melons are only about 1/20th as productive as they could be.

I think if I could keep the weeds shorter than 6 inches, they wouldn't be a problem. The trouble is really the fact that they're shading out everything. Parts of the garden where I was able to keep the weeds down for the first month, are doing much better than the rest, because the vegetables were able to get a head start.

I'm hoping to find a short, creeping, tenacious plant that I could use to keep the taller weeds out. Bonus if it has some use other than as a cover crop.
 
Lauren Ritz
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:My garden tends to be very, very weedy. My potatoes didn't seem to care. The tomatoes were stunted, and more died out or never flowered than would have if there hadn't been weeds. My squash and melons are only about 1/20th as productive as they could be.

I think if I could keep the weeds shorter than 6 inches, they wouldn't be a problem. The trouble is really the fact that they're shading out everything. Parts of the garden where I was able to keep the weeds down for the first month, are doing much better than the rest, because the vegetables were able to get a head start.

I'm hoping to find a short, creeping, tenacious plant that I could use to keep the taller weeds out. Bonus if it has some use other than as a cover crop.

I use sweet potatoes.
 
pollinator
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Well like a lot of things it depends. On a lot of things, most important I think is what kind of weeds are we talking about? Johnson grass, thistles or burdock are not allowed in my garden although I allow them on the property and harvest (when not in seed) for mulch. Most grasses especially large perennials types are not allowed. Grass as a rule I think is about the worst weed there can be in the garden.

My favorite weeds are probably purslane  and creeping charlie, both low growing ground covers that are easy to control and the purslane has other uses too. In my garden Creeping Charlie sometimes completely covers some areas in the winter and I just rake it off the next spring and plant. It doesn't grow as vigorously in warm weather and the veggies easily out compete it.   Some other favored (weeds) or at least they act like them are dill, marigolds, walking onions, garlic, sunflowers, poppies, asters, wild beans, radishes, turnips, mustard and current tomatoes.

Vegetables are grown generally in rows in beds but lots of things are just mixed together. Right now for example late planted pole beans are growing on spent corn stalks and recently planted peas are starting to climb the now declining tomato plants.

I do have paths, that I keep mostly clear but at a glance they're not apparent.  I garden no-till and (assisted) survival of the fittest but I have a second garden that is pretty much totally survival of the fittest.

There, in that back garden I do minimal prep, plant and step back. One of my now favorite tomatoes, several beans and some other things originated from the few seeds that were produced back there. This spring I pulled and raked off the creeping charlie, scratched up a spot with the hoe and broadcast planted corn. Plants got not even three feet tall and I didn't realize they were even there in the weed patch till I saw the tassels. Now I'm shocked to see about a dozen little ears of corn maturing. Not much considering I sowed probably a 1000 seeds but I'm happy. I've also harvested some very small but very tasty watermelons, they had actually escaped the weeds somewhat by climbing the back fence in to the trees, a vine has to do what a vine has to do I reckon.  

 
James Freyr
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Over the winter I decided that I can't do it. A weedy, somewhat chaotic, lazy type garden isn't in my heart and doesn't make me happy. I need structure and order in my life, including my garden, it's just the way I'm made. I spent an hour or two, once or twice, sometimes three times a week and sometimes skipping a week or two, from December until now pulling Bermuda grass and a few other weedy dormant things. I still have a little ways to go, but I've got about 80% of the garden cleaned up. This morning I noticed a hundred thousand or so tiny little sprouts from whatever kind of wind-blown seeds and other things that grew in the garden and set seed last year, so it was easy to lightly rake the wood chips uplifting and turning over most of those sprouts. I'll likely have to do it again several more times this April and into May, but it hardly took 45 minutes. I figure it's stop whatever I'm doing and rake the sprouting weeds now while they're teeny tiny, or do other things and then pull all the weeds by hand next month when they're more rooted and won't lift out with light raking. Seeing the garden now has me super excited about this season ahead and I'm itching to get my already started plants in and direct sow some warm weather seeds!
 
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James, I am having a terrible time with the weeds (and ants!)

Maybe since the weeds are edible or medicinal, it would be good to try eating them or using them.

Bull thistle, sow thistle, sticky willy (cleaver), and plantain.  I don't mind the plantain. And then there is the burr clover that I gave up trying to stop it from taking over.

I am trying hard to keep them from going to seed as that is about all I can do.

Some with sticky seeds I have not identified, yet.

Do you think the weeds are trying to send me a message?
 
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