Farm News

In Praise of Weeds Pt. 3

detail image of weed

Part 3

The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over three weeks, I’m sharing my top three reasons. In week one I elaborated on how Weeds Heal. Last week I wrote about how Weeds Nourish. This week, I’ll explore how Weeds Teach.

Let’s go back in time to my very first years as a farmer. As soon as I bought myself some good weed resource books, I started learning the names and brief snippets about a few of the more widely spread and common weeds of my fields. That’s when a curious thing happened. I started to take more notice of them. I watched when and how long it took for each of them to sprout. I connected their individual growth habits to the seasons, and to bouts of warm, cool or freezing weather. I noticed which vegetable crops certain weeds companioned themselves to. I took note of how rainfall, irrigation practices and certain weeding techniques affected them.

Then another curious thing happened. I started to actually care about my weeds. Who were they? What did they need to survive? What were their strengths and what did they excel at? Who seemed to be their “friends” and “associates”? What insects and plants depended on them, supported or hindered them?

I learned that Burdock thrives in soils very low in calcium. I learned that male Canada thistles look different than female Canada thistles, (Circium arvense), which both look very different than the Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). I learned that all thistles gravitated to acidic soil, but could be mostly eradicated with applications of lime and consistent, vigilant extraction of their deep taproot.


April's Uncle Larry

My Uncle Larry, a.k.a. The Whistling Thistleman, spent the first years of my farm endeavor dedicated to (in his words): “The extirpation of the vile prickly beast.” He was tireless in his efforts to pop out of the ground prodigious amounts of long white thistle taproots all the while whistling extensive scores of classical music. After many years of service, and several pairs of leather gloves, he has succeeded in reducing the thistle population to a very manageable situation in our cultivated beds. While several varieties of thistles thrive in hedges and un-mowed fencerows around the farm, these days it is a surprise to come upon one when I am weeding, and when I do, a sort of nostalgia washes over me. Thanks Thistleman!


I learned that crabgrass needs consistently moist soil to become established. I learned that field bindweed prefers loose mulch and will spread like wildfire once rooted. I learned that pigweed thrives in highly fertile, finely tilled seedbeds. I learned that certain thistles maintain a symbiotic relationship with ladybugs and lacewings (beneficial insects) and nesting birds1 that I still don’t fully understand, but respect nonetheless.

I know that all this sounds like one big undertaking. But actually, miraculously, over time, it just happened; it just keeps happening. The biggest hurdles I need overcome are ego driven, of aesthetically wanting things to be just so.

For instance, one thing that used to bother me was that regardless of what cover crops I seeded in my fields in the fall, by spring there was never the perfectly uniform stand I envisioned. Nature had planted a whole different series of “weeds” in and amongst my selections. I use to foolishly think of this as a failing, but as I mentioned in my essay Weeds Nourish, I have come to be grateful for Nature’s continuous additions. Moreover, as time passed, my gratitude became multi-layered.

Not only do weeds help feed my soil, they teach me; weeds literally write messages in the fields. Weeds are a way I can communicate with Nature.

Biodynamic pioneer Dr. E.E. Pfeiffer is the author of the book Weeds and What They Tell Us. Dr. Pfeiffer explains how different plant families can visually identify many important things about the state of our soils, including texture, drainage, specific mineral deficiencies or excesses, acidity and organic matter. For me, this was the proverbial light bulb coming on. I came to see that the more I knew about my weeds, the greater insight I would have into the health of my soil. Instead of costly soil tests, expensive soil boring tools, or ongoing lab analyses, my weeds could teach and direct me to take the right steps toward restorative soil health. This is another reason I’m so thankful for Nature’s additions to my cover crop fields. Every year, I get the chance to learn more about my farm’s soil. I get to go out and “read the weeds.”

Developing a deeper relationship with my farm weeds has been transformative. I used to walk each section and lament, seeing the outbreak of this weed or that and wanting nothing more than for the problem to “go away.” But after learning how interconnected the lives of many ‘ordinary’ weeds are to soil, insect and avian health, I now walk my fields with a strong dose of pragmatism and curiosity. I look at weeds like newly surfaced clues that, given time and attention, will bring me close to understanding the truth below the soil.

In this way, weeds help me move past the superficial aesthetic and into Albrecht’s realm of really “seeing what you are looking at.” Even with my human’s relatively poor sense of smell and taste, as long as I keep building up my relationship with weeds, I can come closer to being as astute as Albrecht’s cows. I can evaluate every plant by its hidden truth. I can decide more skillfully if it is worth the effort to engage or if I am better off passing over it and moving onto greener, ‘healthier’ pastures. In my fields, I am no longer burdened by stereotypes or shallow judgements.

I will be forever grateful that weeds have challenged my philosophy, my physical strength, and my mental fortitude. My work with weeds has allowed me to break out of the cookie-cutter-neat-and-tidy box and accept and respect all plants for what abilities and strengths they bring to the farm. Gene Logsdon, author of The Contrary Farmer, once wrote about his vision of a healthy pastoral economy, in which many skilled and dedicated people worked to ply their unique crafts in concert with the surrounding community. I try to approach all the plants in my fields with the same ethic, one he so perfectly described as both, “independent and interdependent.”

***

In the ecosystem of the coast, one finds the relatively uniform environment of the sandy beach and the turbulent dynamic ocean. In between, where these two worlds meet, is a third unique and special landscape. The ever-changing shoreline is a spiraling system of give and take, advancement and recession, enfoldment and exposure. I think of my farm as that shoreline ‘edge,’ a place between uniform, human dominated landscapes and the rush and roar of a wild, native environment. As an organic farmer, it is my role to be both interpreter and steward of this transitory place.

Here at the edge, great exchanges of energy, knowledge and connection occur. At the edge, things are constantly evolving. At the edge, there is sometimes chaos, upheaval, loss, and the messiness of motion. But by living and farming at this edge, I am pressed to remember everything is not rightfully mine to manipulate; that everything exists for reasons I most certainly cannot yet fully understand.

With respect to weeds, it is with great humility I believe we must ask: How close to the wild am I willing to live? How close to the unmanaged ecology of place do I have the courage to embrace? As a society, we fear judgment from others if our lawns do not resemble Parade of Homes landscapes, or Sunset Magazine cover-spreads. Yet persistently we crave the beauty of forests and meadows, which thrive in blatant contrast to such sterile, hyper-managed and groomed landscapes. It is ridiculous how much energy and resources the latter types of places suck out of our world and by contrast, how naturally and restorative the former ones keep on giving.

Walk for only a few minutes through a manicured, fussed-over site, and you will notice immediately if any one thing is out of place. You will be disturbed by anything that is un-pruned, in disarray, non-uniform, or even just ‘in need’ of mowing. In such an environment, judgment and comparisons rush in, and these critical feelings overpower any sense of wonder or contentment.

Now instead, go and sit in a wild meadow and not one thing seems out of place. Not one thing needs fixed or tended or tidied up. Not one thing is wrong or growing where it is not wanted. Out here on the edge, we seek to move closer to that place of peace, where nothing is actively being judged or compared, most especially not our own weedy selves. ~AJ

“Each plant is an indicator. This is an inevitable conclusion from the fact that each plant is the product of the conditions under which it grows, and is thereby a measure of these conditions. As a consequence, any response made by a plant furnishes a clue to factors at work upon it.” ~Botanist Fredrick Clements, 1920

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