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Weeds, or Polyculture?

 
pollinator
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In his presentation "Keys to a Healthy Soil" Gabe Brown discusses his success with growing many kinds of plants together in polycultures, basically the more kinds of plants he includes, the better all the plants grow.  My question is - if plants do better growing with many different kinds of plants, why are people so down on weeds, which are just different kinds of plants?  If different plants help each other grow, why wouldn't weeds help crops grow, instead of harming the crops?

 
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I blame it on accountants.  There are many so-called farmers, who are in actuality "plant accountants" -- they count the seeds, count the tractor passes, count the nitrogen and phosphorus, count the irrigation water, so that in the end they can count the harvest and count the dollars.  What they can't count --weeds-- they don't want.  Since it is not an input they can balance the books with, they want them out.  So they create another column in their ledger labeled "herbicide costs".  

The more I read about weeds, the more respect I have for them.  I would be interested in looking at a site called weedies.com, but I am afraid the place might be full of stoners.  
 
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Yield. The difference between a weed and a crop is gaining a yield from the plant.
So a poly culture of corn beans and squash becomes a weedy cornfield if you gain no yield from the beans and the squash.
This has a lot to do with perception,as corn is subsidized and commoditized in a way that squash hand beans are not, creating sting incentives to maximize it's production to the exclusion of any other plant in that field.

Growing for consumption,few of us would choose an all corn field over a three sisters field, if no other reason than to avoid culinary boredom.
 
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My guesses as to what common folk would say

They compete for nutrients and water

Harvesting is harder

They shade out money crops.

 
Tyler Ludens
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wayne fajkus wrote:

They compete for nutrients and water



This has not been Gabe Brown's experience, as far as I can tell.  In his tests, the plants, apparently,  did not compete with each other, they aided each other.
 
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I have seen research aimed at restoration work that indicates the same thing that the video highlights for farmers. But at the same time there are some plants that can be very detrimental to restoration plantings. A lot of my work is dealing with these few problem plants. But there are many many more plants around my restoration plantings that I did not plant but I don't try to remove because they don't cause any problems and help create a more rich habitat just by being there. Shifting back to a garden situation I think it is very similar - most weeds are minor and don't really cause any issues and could be benifecial but there might be those couple species that will cause a problem. Though the nice thing about polyculture is that those few problem plants are less likely to be an issue.

In my gardens weeds are only removed when they cause a problem that is obvious. Otherwise I just let them be. Though when my new little seedlings are coming up I can be a lot more picky about which weeds get to stay and which go. But those same weeds may be fine once my plants grow a bit.
 
Tyler Ludens
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There are some problem "weeds" in my opinion.  Here in my locale, Johnson Grass does not play well with others, and I do not want Poison Hemlock in my garden either!

 
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if you think weeds are good grow them alongside your onions. onions will not compete and they will be hard to find when its time to harvest.
 
pollinator
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I think there are good weeds and bad weeds and where I live, weed management is a must, or you will harvest nothing.

My hands are currently raw and blistered from removing invasive grass with nasty roots like steal wire.  It chokes out everything, even other weeds.  In places where I have been consistent in removing the invasive roots, more benign weeds have moved in.  And in my vegetable garden, many of my veggies have become self-seeding "weeds".  (My dinner last night was made entirely of weeds I removed while clearing space to plant cucumbers.)

In short my weeds are too aggressive.  I have to pull them a couple times to give my desired plants a fighting chance.  Otherwise I get stunted, lousy vegetables, contrary to Gabe Brown's experience.  

But I don't hate the weeds, especially the more benign variety.  I always say I am not weeding.  I am harvesting rabbit food, chicken greens, goat fodder, poultry bedding or mulch!  Those weeds keep the whole system running.
 
Tyler Ludens
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robert  e morgan wrote:if you think weeds are good grow them alongside your onions. onions will not compete and they will be hard to find when its time to harvest.



How do you feel about growing companion plants with onions?  How do companion plants differ from "weeds"?

 
Tyler Ludens
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Maureen Atsali wrote:
My hands are currently raw and blistered from removing invasive grass with nasty roots like steal wire.  It chokes out everything, even other weeds.



I think grass is going to be a real problem in my Gabe Brown-inspired 30 Vegetables garden.  Half of the garden is already almost overtaken by grass.  Though he's also in a prairie region, I rather doubt that Gabe included prairie grasses in his vegetable polycultures!
 
John Elliott
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Tyler Ludens wrote:There are some problem "weeds" in my opinion.  Here in my locale, Johnson Grass does not play well with others, and I do not want Poison Hemlock in my garden either!



Johnson grass is not that bad, and it makes good forage IF you are careful with it.  Yes, if you feed it fresh, there can be a cyanide problem.  So to avoid that, you can do a couple of things: (1) cut it for silage, and the lactic acid fermentation will cure the cyanide problem or (2) dry it to hay, which also takes care of the cyanide.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm talking about Johnson Grass in my garden, not Johnson Grass in a pasture or hay field.

 
Maureen Atsali
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I think the difference between a companion plant and a weed is whether the weed plant is harmful to the desired plant, or neutral, or beneficial.  

In the case of Gabe Brown, he used a seed drilling machine in mulch.  I think his polycultures got a head start on weeds.  He also did not have a vested interest in any particular veggie in his poly culture performing well.  So if half the seed varieties were smothered by stronger more resilient plants, it made no difference.  If he was trying to sell his carrots, he might be a little careful what plants went into the polyculrure, so they would be complimentary, not competitive.  I think the problem with what most people consider weeds is that they out compete the desired plant, yet offer no benefit or value.  

But now I've got a mess of weeds in my veggie garden that do have value.  Amaranth, Jews mallow, and sunhemp are all over the place.  They are making the chore of removing the noxious weeds a real hassle, as I try to leave the edibles in place.  I have not noticed any difference in my desired crops with these weeds, except that they may be helping to keep the soil cooler in this rather dry and intense weather.  I don't see any negative impact.

Makes it look wild and untidy!

My mom used to have a sticker which said, "a weed is a just a flower out of place".
 
pollinator
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I stand with those who say a weed is a plant that doesn't play well with others. As ecologists, we need to ask not what a plant is, but what it's doing in the ecosystem. If it's physically choking other plants (like bindweed), smothering them (like bermuda grass), crowding the root zone with durable, woody roots (like trumpet vine), or making people sick (like ragweed, poison ivy, etc.), that is a detriment if not an outright threat to our efforts to build a functioning ecosystem. If the same plant is not doing those things in your particular locale, then that's great. But please don't try to tell other gardeners in other locales that those plants aren't causing problems for them.

That said, I believe it was Ruth Stout who said, "A handful of weeds is a nuisance. A wheelbarrow full is a resource."
 
Tyler Ludens
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Maureen Atsali wrote:
But now I've got a mess of weeds in my veggie garden that do have value.



This is my ultimate goal, to have a lot of useful "weeds" serving as companions to my planted vegetables.
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:How do you feel about growing companion plants with onions?  How do companion plants differ from "weeds"?



I would imagine spacing and density have a lot to do with it.  Onions and carrots, for example, grown in alternating rows in a bed, will be good companions, so I read, but presumably only if they're spaced appropriately and not right on top of each other.  Let weeds come up covering an entire onion bed, and the results will not be so good.

Seems that the old definition of "weed"--a plant where it isn't wanted--holds true here.  If the weed is right on top of the onions, crowding them out, it is a weed.  If it is spaced such that the onion has room to grow, then it is no longer where it isn't (necessarily) wanted, and is thus perhaps no longer a weed.

To perhaps bring it full circle, I think it'd be true that onions and carrots, if planted too closely, would cease to be good companions but would instead be mutually weedy!  Again, not the plant, but the context.
 
wayne fajkus
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Here's an asparagus. It's doing as well as in the area I keep weeded.
20170406_185236-700x394.jpg
[Thumbnail for 20170406_185236-700x394.jpg]
 
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I believe that weeds can certainly help your plants grow. They fit well into my garden allowing me to be lazy and frugal. In my garden weeds are a living mulch protecting and shading the soil. As they grow, they are nutrient accumulators (many plants on the lists of Dynamic Accumulators are "weeds"). When I cut them they become surface mulch helping to hold in moisture and keeping other weeds from growing too closely and crowding my vegetable plants. The surface mulch is turning into compost, being acted upon by nature's hierarchy of decomposers where once broken down into humus and minerals the nutrients that are in their leaves and stems will soon become available to feed plants and my other wanted weeds. Having left their roots in the ground many weeds species can be cut multiple times to provide me free mulch. (I love that "f - word". Free.) The roots of weeds can also be tied into the mycorrhizal fungi network helping to share water and nutrients. The roots help to aerate the soil and increase soil organic matter. The height of your chop n drop weeds are under your control, so they don't have to become an untidy mangled mess (although, my definition of untidy differs from that of my husband's). Their flowers attract insects and butterflies to your garden and if allowed to reseed, will provide a steady supply of mulch.

I agree with Tyler on the Johnson grass, I usually pull the grass clumps and leave them rootside up to dry out. I have, on the other hand, collected lamb's quarters, clover and plantain from other areas to bring into my garden.

As far as Gabe Brown's techniques, it's been awhile since I have seen his videos. (My internet connection won't let me access that today.) I think the premise was something like no till, lots of diversity of plants, a constant cover (I'm sure this included weeds, especially early on in his transition from conventional methods), roots in the ground at all times (as living roots for as long as possible during the year), trampled by grazing animals who deposit manure, help break down the mulch layer on the soil surface and increase its contact with the soil.

Very similar to Fukuoka, except his clover/barley/rye/rice (and of course some weeds) were all controlled by his precise planting times. His desired cover crop was sown amongst the existing crop, and already established prior to harvest time; therefore, beating the timing of nature's cover (aka weeds). Flooding his rice fields and the spreading of the straw back onto the fields all were done in perfect timing to stay in control. Again no tilling, constant cover, roots stay in ground. In his case, the trampling was done by the harvesters. His technique also did not include quite the diversity of plants as Brown's did.

The natural succession in the restoration of bare land has many smaller, fast growing annual weeds in the beginning; then they are replaced by larger mostly perennial weeds and bushes who will be progressively shading out the smaller weeds and since the land is not being tilled the smaller seeds are being covered by the mulch of naturally cycled plant material, essentially being smothered and light deprived. I'm sure Gabe had many weeds before his chosen seeds prevailed.

In order for us to plant the smaller seeds of many of our garden annuals, it is necessary to pull back the mulch covering to allow better seed to soil contact. Their position in relation to larger plants must be considered, as to not be shaded out and provide the best growing conditions.

A weedy garden is a good thing, in my opinion, but only if you put the weeds to good use. They can either enhance the yield of producing crops or stifle it. Just my two pennies there.

 
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Ben Stallings wrote: smothering them (like bermuda grass), ...



My "weed" is quack grass, and it is impossible to have other plants co-exist with it.  I'm fine with plants (weeds) that don't take over and kill everything else, and I largely leave them be. With something like quack, it's a never-ending battle.
 
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robert  e morgan wrote:if you think weeds are good grow them alongside your onions. onions will not compete and they will be hard to find when its time to harvest.


I planted a potato patch. I planted onions with the potatoes. Then I didn’t weed. The place looked like a mess. There was burdock and wormwood, and a giant lupine plant, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. We got lots of potatoes, and the onions grew fine. In retrospect, if I had put in a tiny bit of work and did one chop n’ drop session, the onions could have gotten bigger, but the harvest was great, as it was.
 
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I suspect it also has to do with the size of the farm. Where smaller hand harvested crops might work in a poly culture format, huge corporate farms are planted single crops per field to accommodate the equipment they use to harvest the crop.

Many poly crops do not ripen for harvest at the same time and require different harvesting equipment or at least cutting heads.
 
Shelley Senkbeil
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We have lots of bird planted asparagus along our horse pasture fence lines. Every so often after the spring growing season is done I’ll dig up a few plants after they’ve gone to seed and place them in an area where I want them to grow. I’ve also planted mail order varieties in those areas as well and they seem to encourage racing other to produce better.
 
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I don't have a list of them handy, but some plants exude chemicals that suppress others. (That may be the case with the aforementioned Johnson Grass.)
 
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For me I like to weed out plants that visually look like they're competing with a nearby crop, plants that are going to seed soon, or any grasses, from the garden beds.

If a lambsquarters is growing up by an onion, yeah gonna pull it out or the onion will get out competed easily. If it's growing by a kale that's 2 or 3 times bigger, that lambs quarter plant will not harm the kale in my opinion.

All plant roots will make the soil around them a little bit nicer, more wet, fertile, alive. So if you have a weed growing where it's not currently hurting any of your plants, you might as well leave it for later, as a mini cover crop
 
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No weed can help your crop, once it helps it is no longer a weed, it is a live mulch or a cover crop.
A weed is always bad & must be removed, because it never helps & always harms your crop, it is invasive & very hard to control or remove.
 
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My favourite definition of a weed is that it is merely a plant out of place.  Any plant can be a weed…it’s completely subjective.  
 
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I think we do not only have to look at the 'weeds' and do we let them grow or don't we ... In my opinion it's important to consider how we do the 'weeding' (how we remove unwanted plants between our crops).
Often weeding is done with a hoe (it cuts through the roots, a little under the soil), or the 'weeds' are pulled out. Those methods loosen the upper layer of the soil, and probably many micro-organisms are killed.
I think it is better to cut the 'weeds' a little above the soil surface. In that way we do not do any harm to the soil and the micro-organisms. And the surface will remain covered, so new pioneer plants will not appear as fast as they do in loosened soil. The soil will remain covered, so the moisture will stay there longer. This is even more the case if we 'chop and drop': cut the 'weeds' and let them fall down on the soil surface, as a mulch.
So that is what I do.

 
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All my weeds can grow anywhere they want, just so long as I don't have to walk where they choose to grow.  Then they get smothered or pulled. I don't trust chop and drop to not return.
 
Joe Grand
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"I think it is better to cut the 'weeds' a little above the soil surface."
That will not kill half the weeds on my 10 acre, wild dew berry, European wild garlic or Allium vineale, Horse nettle or Solanum carolinense, Coastal Bermudagrass.
They love my rich, loose soil & abundant water, the only non chemical way of killing them is to smother them with clear or black plastic sheeting, soil solarization.
I have been told Ambush chemicals will kill them, but I do not want to do that. My neighbor used Roundup on his plot, it only killed the above ground plants & the annuals.
In a few weeks the above perennials weeds came back like he had fertilized them. So mowing/cutting the annual weeds may work, but not the perennial.
This is why I am looking at use more wood chips.
 
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The woodchips in my garden beds plus the logs with bark that are the beds' wall have made the earwig and pillbug popultions explode. So I can't start (or even transplant) beans  there - pill bugs LOVE bean sprouts! And the leaves of many veggies get skeletonized. But I still used woodchips for long-term land recovery.
 
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After watching the video found in the original post, YouTube suggested this one.
It's a great summary.
and only 25% as long.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfTZ0rnowcc

 
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I have had many discussions with various folks on the topic of weeds, and I think there is another factor which comes into play. Namely size.

If you are talking about a farm with many acres to plant (and perhaps enough labor to hand harvest thru a mixed beds of vegies and weeds), then that is great. The extra living roots will help feed the soil and your vegies over time, although some will not grow as big as they would have with conventional bed/weed management, you can make up for that by more area planted.

If however your planting space is limited (a small backyard garden, etc), then you either have to be careful about choosing appropriate companion plants for each of your crops, or keep the beds weed free (or perhaps some combo, it's not entirely either or). If you don't your yields will suffer. You may not build your soil as quickly as someone who can allow many plants to mingle together in their beds, but at least you will be doing everything you can to maximize your yields with the space you have (assuming that is one of your goals).

My experience seems to be saying this is the trade off. Of course other factors can come into play too, like availability of water, etc. But all other things being equal this seems to be what it usually comes down to...
 
Joe Grand
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We have a organic gardener who sell to the public, he puts compost down & then plastic sheet on the beds with drip irrigation & removes the plastic in the Fall. He does about 20 acres now.
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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Joe Grand wrote:"I think it is better to cut the 'weeds' a little above the soil surface."
That will not kill half the weeds on my 10 acre, ....


Hi Joe. Indeed, I wasn't talking about killing them. I want the useful plants to regrow, so I can chop&drop again. But my garden is not the same size as your, and I don't have the same 'weeds'. You do what's best for you, which can be totally different from what I do.
 
Joe Grand
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I misinterpret your meaning & I realize people all over the USA & the world are on this form, therefore what is good for you may not work for me.
I understand the benefits of cut & drop, the whole using a hoe made me think of killing weeds.
The thing about your reply is that you do not have these particular perennial weed, good for you.
They are a pain to suppress & I doubt I will irritate them in my life, because I will not spray them, but keeping them out of my garden is good enough.
I have weeds that can be cut & drop also. Thank you for clear up my misunderstanding.
 
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Nina, would you use neem oil? I mean the pure, organic, cold pressed ?
I use wood chips but neem oil keeps many bad bugs in check alas, this oil is hard to come by lately.
 
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