Farm News

In Praise of Weeds Pt. 2

weeds on april joy farm

Part 2

The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over three weeks, I’m sharing three reasons. Last week I wrote an essay on how Weeds Heal. This week I share how Weeds Nourish. Next week, I’ll explore how Weeds Teach.

Weeds Nourish. If the fact that we need weeds to protect our soil isn’t enough reason to rethink a relationship with ‘noxious’ plants, how about this statement: If we look at the origin of the word we find the Anglo-Saxon, “weod” means “little herb.” If herbs are intended for healing, then weeds are also for healing – of the soil. Many weeds act as collectors of minerals. When they die and decay the minerals are added back to the soil in a form which is available to plants. The purpose of weeds is to correct soil problems.1 Do you remember the “pesky” dandelion I wrote about earlier this summer? Viewed from a soil building perspective, dandelions are anything but ugly nuisances. Dandelions are providing much need minerals to the depleted soils of turf grass lawns.

Because growing food crops entails compromising (disturbing and exposing) topsoil, careful organic farmers utilize the unique characteristics of a diverse number of ‘weeds’ like dandelions to help mitigate such practices. Seeding plants not to harvest and sell, but specifically to improve soil health is known as cover cropping. I think of cover crops as the food I grow to feed my soil.

In fact, some of the plants we use as cover crops, including mustards, buckwheat, vetch, clovers, chickweed, grasses, and rye are, depending on whom you ask, considered “weeds.” But in the right place, at the right time, these ‘weeds’ add tremendous value to our farm system.

Out at the farm, it’s September. You’ll notice our potato, onion and spring brassica fields have all been disked under. The soil looks uncomfortably “bare.” But as an absolute rule, after we harvest a crop, we never leave the soil unplanted. Last week we planted field peas, rye, wheat and clover. This week we’ll be seeding oats, daikon radishes, ryegrass and vetch to the mix. Each of these plants is selected for multiple reasons, all of which are devoted to improving soil health.

But of course, we aren’t the only ones working to keep our soil healthy. SARE2 describes a cover crop as a plant “that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds3, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity.” Sounds a lot like what weeds do too, doesn’t it?

The practice of cover cropping is a beautiful example of biomimicry, “an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate Nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges.”4 I think weeds are, in essence, Nature’s cover crops. So this fall, out in our fields, you can be sure Nature will be planting her selections right in and amidst our carefully selected seeds. There is no doubt in my mind that next year’s produce will be the better for it. Lucky, lucky us. ~AJ


1Taylor, Ronald. Weeds and Why They Grow

3You can use some “weeds” to suppress other “weeds.” We plant several rounds of buckwheat in the summer months for this very purpose to shade out slower growing grasses. In the winter, chickweed and cress can germinate in 24 hours and reach full size in 30 days, beating crabgrass to the punch.


1 Comment

  • Jerry H. October 8, 2016 - 5:45pm

    As I’ve read your interesting articles on weeds I couldn’t help but compare some of your thoughts about weeds to the plight of people. We, teachers, society – expect a perfect and uniform crop only to find that we have “problem” people in the fields and harvest. The poorly nourished, imbalanced environments that many are raised in contribute to thistles and thorns in society just as they do in nature. And yet many of these outliers add to the mix of history and advancement just as the”weeds” do. Perhaps you can turn your observation skills into even greater gifts by writing about people and plants. Or maybe that should be left to your readers to conclude on their own.
    Either way the Good Lord knows that we all need to be nourished and appreciated. Just a passing thought, Jerry.


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