Thursday, January 28, 2016

Top Ten Tips We Used to Minimize Weeds

We may think our weeds HATE us, but they sure think we LOVE them!

At least right up to the moment they see us transform into maniacs with weed-wackers and sprays! Because, we treat them like we just can't get enough of them. It's like we do everything we can to encourage them to move in, grow and be happy - then all of a sudden we're re-enacting the shower scene from Psycho with a weeder in hand. 

Lately, I've been lucky to do a number of talks on Permaculture and forest gardening and the #1 question I get is: "how can I spend less time weeding?" 

And the answer is, by and large, stop acting like a crazy human in a love/hate relationship, begging them to come back and then ripping them out again. Talk about mixed signals! 

Also, stop bein' a hater. For most of us, gardening is supposed to be relaxing and getting in touch with nature, right? So, isn't it kind of a bummer that our number one garden task is eradicating nature from our garden?! 

Clearly, there's something not quite healthy about this relationship we have with "weeds." 

So, here are a few of top top 10 tips we used to minimize our weeding time, bring sanity back to the garden and treat our co-dependent weed neurosis.

10. Understand where the weeds are coming from. When the weeds moved in we used to go ballistic, but then we realized they're just trying to help us out by turning our boring lawn and needy gardens into productive, low-maintenance forests for us, and they just didn't get why we were trying to stop them!

Ecologists call this process "natural succession." If you get more than 30 inches of precipitation per year, like we do east of the Mississippi, your yard wants to naturally become a forest. All those things we call weeds? That's just what they are, nature's little helpers re-building the woodland humans thoughtlessly removed. 

So, instead of fighting them, we decided to help them out! We planted gardens with ecological succession in mind, letting our landscape evolve over time, from a one-dimensional grassland or flower garden to a young woodland of small trees and shrubs... and eventually to a woodland. It's easier to slow this process down, direct it and work WITH it, than to try to stop it completely. Once they've finished their work, the weeds started to move on.

9. Our soil thinks we're tacky. We may have our own favorite plants in mind when we plan a garden, but our soil has its own ideas, and it thinks we have bad taste. 

Tip: if you have an argument with your soil about what to plant in your garden, your soil is going to win. Every time. So listen to it.

I talk to a LOT of frustrated gardeners who have tomatoes languishing year after year in the shade. Meanwhile, there are lots of "weeds" that are happy to thrive in that soil next to the unhappy tomatoes. 

What do they do? Either they keep planting tomatoes and pulling weeds, or they give up! Instead, how about trying something like lettuces, carrots, onions, beets, or perennial vegetables that would work better in the shade? 

And the number one frustration I hear is about "invasive" weeds infiltrating "native flower gardens." We hear all the time that "natives" should be better adapted here, so, why are those weeds kicking the natives' butts?!? I'll write another post about this surprising fact next week, but there's a shocking secret reason why our "native plants" just can't compete with weeds in our "native gardens," (Hint: Have you ever seen a "native flower garden" in nature?) We'll also talk about a complete approach to "weeds" in native gardens. 

8. Pamper the soil with organic matter. As we've already said, most "weeds" are early "pioneer" species working to repair disturbed forest. They germinate better in depleted soils with low organic matter than they do in rich, forest-like soils. As the soil becomes more "forest-like," and richer in organic matter, you'll get fewer weeds. 

7. Stop creating perfect weed habitat. 

Your weeds: "If you don't' like us, why do you keep making us such perfect little weed-homes?"

 See this:

This is why they think we LOVE them. 

This looks like a McMansion to some agressive jerk of a weed. It practically has a "welcome home" sign on the door. Those stones collect water and "food," provide habitat for worms and a nice empty root zone with no competition. It's the PERFECT place for weeds! So are lawns: wide open monocultures of grass that weeds have evolved especially to grow in. 

Just recognize you're just asking weeds to move in. "if you build it, they will come." 

6. If you pull a weed, replace it. People weed the same dang spots over and over and over again. Why don't we learn? If a weed has a perfect, un-tapped niche that it can exploit, it will. So, if you don't want to encourage them, learn from them. At Lillie House we follow a tried and true Permaculture strategy that turns weeds into valued teachers: if you pull a weed, replace it. Otherwise, you're just helping it out by clearing out space for it to thrive. 

It's like you're cleaning it's house for it. 

Nice, huh? Why would your weeds ever want to move out!?

There are lots of great, useful, beautiful plants that can fill that niche as well as the weed could, and once the "house" is filled, the weeds will go elsewhere. 

5. Stop digging. Seriously, humans act like they LOVE their weeds. It's like we go out of our way to do extra work, just to make them happy. Digging (or tilling) destroys the developing soil ecology that would prevent weeds from germinating, exposes a whole new set of latent seeds that were safely buried in the soil to be the surface where they can germinate, and then mixes the soil with oxygen that stimulates bacteria and worms to release tons of nitrogen in the form that your garden plants can't use fast enough, but it's like SUPER FOOD for weeds. 

Again, we'll get into the details of this more next week, but the lesson is: If you're digging, you're going to have happy weeds. Period. 

4. Instead, prep garden beds the way nature does: Mulch! And I mean MULCH! Not just a light sprinkling, but a good 4 - 6 inches or more. Thick mulches build organic matter, shade weed seeds and smother young weeds. The famous "sheet mulch" has some problems in our climate, mainly slugs, but still, we can use simple strategies to minimize slug damage, and sheet-mulching is a great strategy. 

3. Fill all the niches: plant in polycultures and "guilds." Again, don't leave room for the weeds. Polycultures and guilds are planting strategies of combining multiple plants together in one garden. You can use ground covers like creeping thyme and clover as a natural, weed suppressing mulch. Establishing deep taprooted plants will compete with those taprooted weeds. Bulbs and woody perennials help repell grass. Spring ephemerals soak up excess nitrogen in the early season when weeds could use it to get a foothold. A garden that has a good diversity of useful plants will be more resistant to weeds. 

2. Plant perennial fortress plantings. Ecologists have a term, the "edge effect," which describes how edges of ecosystems, like the forest edge, are the most productive and fertile habitats. For example, the edges of our garden. We always leave them wide open to the weeds! 

And we say we hate them? 

Clearly, we have a very confused relationship here. 

"Fortress plantings" are perennial plants at the edge of a garden bed that keep weeds from invading this fertile habitat. Woody perennials, bulbs, woody herbs and dense ground covers all make good "fortress plantings around our beds. 

1. Appreciate your weeds, eat them. Or, more generally "harvest" them. In Permaculture, we define weeds as "a plant we have more of than we can use." Virtually all our "weeds" have uses if we're creative enough to utilize them. Dandelions feed our rabbits, make wine, and can be "cellar-forced" to produce a vegetable in mid-winter, comparable to the Belgian endive we pay $5/head for in the store! Each one can be harvested 3-5 times or more. Imagine each of our dandelions is worth $15 or more and we're pulling them out to make room for a $2 head of lettuce! Poke and chicory roots can be used the same way to produce gourmet winter vegetables with no greenhouse or grow lights. 

We used the same strategy for "sticky willy" and garlic mustard, which were absolutely out of control when we moved in. We got so used to using them that these days we rarely see them here, and when I do, I actually get excited! 

Thistles and burdock can be put to good use, too, as they add a rich artichoke-like flavor when used as the base of vegetable broth (just don't use the bitter skin of burdock.) The root of burdock makes a great vegetable ("gobo") and the large leaves make fantastic deer-repellent mulch. A few years ago, we had deer eating all our pumpkin seeds before they'd germinate so we covered them with bitter burdock leaves and solved the problem. 

Inedible plants and even poisonous plants like full-grown pokeweed can still be used in the garden, by being harvested for mulch. Many of these fast growing weeds produce lots of nitrogen-rich biomass to feed the soil. 

Think about it: If you fill up most of the niches, stop exposing new seeds by digging, keep the soil covered and shaded, and use the few weeds you do get, weeding will stop being a "problem." 

Altogether, these tips create a much healthier relationship with weeds, and mother nature. Appreciate weeds, invite them to dinner, put them to work, value their ecological function, and let them do their job making your garden a richer, more diverse ecosystem. When they're done, they'll be less likely to overstay their welcome and cause you grief. 

Who knows, you may even be sad to see them go. 

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