When most people think ‘vegetable gardens’ they immediately think ‘food’… but in order for an organic garden to be about food, it first needs to be about soil. Understand that organic vegetable gardening is really ‘soil building’ and you will have the healthiest plants possible. The food your garden produces is only as good as the soil it grows from. Compost is your friend; use it always, whenever you replace a “weed” plant with a more useful species, and whenever you see a spot unoccupied by a plant.
I have mentioned “weeds” but I need you to realize that there is no such thing as “weeds” because in the ecological gardening method, every available space must be occupied by a plant. The close proximity of the various species creates a microclimate that keeps the soil moist longer, and a habitat for predatory bugs and other animals. Ideally, each species included in the garden might be of some use, whether edible or medicinal, but it is better to let a “weed” grow if you don’t have a more useful plant to put in its place.
The ecocultural “weeding” rule is that you must know what species a plant is (including its characteristics and properties) before you ever consider removing it, so that you may make a wise choice whether or not it should remain; this is the idea behind what is known as ‘companion planting’.
I had a mature chard garden that had grown in full of all kinds of other plants… all kinds of “weeds” to someone who doesn’t understand the ecological gardening method. Well, I showed my garden to a friend and the first thing she said was, “There’s a lot of weeds. Don’t you ever weed?” I told her that “weeding” is unnecessary and briefly about the ecological method. Anyways, whatever I told her was not the traditional gardening method that she and most people think of when they think of gardening… ordered straight rows of the same species of plant each surrounded by “weeded” bare dirt… and I could see that she was having trouble forgetting about what she thought she knew about good gardening … she didn’t see the bees and butterflies buzzing and flitting from “weed” flower to “weed” flower, or the spiders patrolling for pests on the leaves of the chard, ready to drop down into the protective cover of the “weeds” at the first sight of a hungry sparrow, or the green frogs sitting in wait for a wayward slug or uncautious spider making its way through the mass of “weeds”, or the stalking garter snake as it slithered sneakily in the “weeds” toward the frog to see how close it could get… no, she wasn’t seeing the ecology, the fully functioning habitat to literally hundreds if not thousands of beings amongst the “weeds” and in the soil itself… no, all she saw was what she had been deceived by an insufficient education into believing was her enemy… the “weeds”… she wasn’t at all grasping that the ecological method is the best method because it is the method nature has been using from the very beginning. Mankind’s worst mistake is to believe that nature’s way is something that can be better substituted for.
Anyhow, a week or two passed and I visited my chard garden to find that my friend had “weeded”! Her non-discriminate act had, in effect, destroyed the ecology of my garden… she had set my garden back to the vulnerable condition it was in when I had first planted it almost a year earlier. When I first started it, the area was covered in clump grass so rather than struggle with trying to remove the difficult grass I turned the area over with a shovel so the grass was under the soil and would die… enriching the soil. So, the soil was completely bare at first when I planted the seedlings, and they suffered from the heat and dry conditions of summer and from many pests as well. After a while plants other than the chard started growing in, filling the spaces between the chard plants… providing habitat for insectivores and creating cooler moister conditions in summer and warmer conditions in winter. But now I looked at my chard garden and saw that it was the same as when I first started it almost a year earlier except that the plants were much bigger, much more easily targeted sources of food for pests.
Almost a year’s worth of ecological harmony at work, gone in one ignorant-but-well-intended-I’m-sure afternoon. Where there were once hidden amongst the colorful menagerie of plants… voracious beetles, spiders, and frogs to eat the many pests that love to eat chard as much as I do, now there was only bare uninhabited soil; where the shaded soil once stayed moist for weeks, was quickly dehydrated by the sun and now had to be watered every few days. The horror that my friend created reminded me of those so-called gardens that rely on chemical fertilizers and insecticides. “Weeding” is a so-called technique passed off as “keeping the weeds from competing with the desirables for nutrients”… a lie invented by chemical companies in order to sell poisons and further perpetuated amongst proud homeowners whose unecological gardens appeal only to their unfortunately common twisted aesthetic of domestication and superficiality.
As if “weeding” indiscriminately wasn’t bad enough, although my friend put the “weeds” that she removed on the compost pile, she didn’t put any new compost on the bare soil… she was removing nutrients from the soil and not replacing them, depriving my garden of its long term full potential. All of the “weeds” that she removed were beneficial to the ecological method in terms of microclimate and habitat, they all created habitat and provided food alternatives to the pests so they wouldn’t focus only on the chard; and some were also beneficial in other ways; the “weeds” included mints and one of the most prized of all herbs to find growing wild in your garden, Heal-all (aka ‘Heart of the Earth’). The mints are aromatic and do a great job of repelling vegetarian bugs with an area effect, and the Heal-all is both edible and medicinal and has folklore spiritual significance as well. The trick is to know what plants you have so you can make intelligent decisions… you might be surprised to find that most if not all of the “weeds” growing in your garden are of some benefit. Other than Heal-all, I have found various mints including Pennyroyal; also, Chickweed, Dandelion, Feverfew, and others… all useful and welcome surprises. I love seeing what different kinds of “weeds” come up!
The only “weeding” that should ever occur is when:
1. You have a more useful plant to take the “weed’s” place; or
2. The “weed” is crab grass (clump grass), morning glory (strangle weed), or some other plant species that you know to be too invasive (hard to remove when established, or strangles out other plants either with its roots or its tendrils).
In either case, whatever plants you did “weed” from the garden, place them on the soil or mulch layer to dry out and decay releasing the nutrients they took from the soil back into it. Also, each time you remove any plant, whether it is a “weed” or a plant you harvested, you must put some compost on and around the spot where you replace the removed plant with another plant. Remember that a vegetable garden is only as good as its soil; it is the true value of a garden… keep it ecologically hidden under compost and a dense diversity of foliage and your plants will be as healthy as can be.
I was inspired to use the ecological gardening method by Jonathan White, an environmental consultant, landscape designer and author of Food4Wealth, an ebook and video package that shows exactly how to set up and maintain an ecological garden.
Do you “weed”… if so.. WHY?
About me… Troy Boylan
Ecoculture Village Founder & President, Anthropology BA, Interdisciplinary Studies: Ethnobotany BS. Two things I think are worth anything at all… all things wilderness and ecoculture… and well, RPGs… and skateboarding!
So, what’s up!?