Blaming Weeds

My garden would be great if only I didn’t have these two weeds: Crabgrass and Bindweed.

Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). Every year this grassy weed quickly covers my soil with tiny seedlings from spring through summer. If I don’t aggressively keep the soil well swept of these millions, they’ll march rapidly ahead of my young vegetables, and if allowed to advance any further a dense smothering mat forms. If I weed often enough I can mitigate that damage by using a hoola-hoe or similar weeding tool cutting the young tender roots just below the soil surface. Inevitably I miss a few, many actually, and my only option of control is to pull each by hand, sometimes uprooting a nearby vegetables along with it. I learned this the hard way my very first gardening year, naively thinking how attractive the garden had become covered in so many harmless little green sprouts. What a disaster year that was. This is how the joy of gardening becomes work.

crabgrassA hundred crabgrass seedlings cover only a few inches of earth.

Field Bindweed (Convolvuls arvensis) is the most wicked weed of them all, even defying poison sprays as its roots grow six feet deep in almost no time at all, far from harms reach. Frustrating my best efforts, I seriously considered spraying with a toxic stew of man-made chemicals out of gardeners vengeance. In the end I decided against it, and believed that somehow I must manage this through weeding alone. Against this foe however, the more you weed, the more you break its roots, the more numerous it becomes. Where you pull one, two will grow, where you pull two, four will grow, and so it goes. When totally uncontrolled this dastardly organism can not tolerate coexistence with your more delicate vegetables, sprawling across the garden seeking out your tomatoes, peas and peppers, grabbing hold of them and choking them down to the ground as no plant could hate another so intensely. Desperately I searched for an answer from a wall of organic gardening manuals, finding but two possible solutions: spray poisons for many years or cover the soil with a suffocating plastic for many years, preferably both. It seems eradicating this plant can only occur by exhausting every last ounce of energy from its deep roots. Each year is the same as the one before, cursing and weeding, weeding and cursing.

bindweed1Bindweed spreading out in search of vegetables to prey upon.

I paused my work one afternoon and pondered this gardening fate. Was my soil short on chemicals to rescue it from these ills? Must I accept this botanical curse? I looked curiously at the bindweed I was trying to free from climbing a pole intended for peas, and realized my foe may actually be struggling. An unhealthy plant growing alongside a robust and healthy pea, sick and under attack by some unknown fungus. I found another not far away in a recently reclaimed area where I had planted potatoes, but it was healthy as any plant could be. Later that fall I sent in two soil samples for analysis and when combined with my notes it become quite clear, the soil conditions were ideal for my two great enemies, the recently reclaimed plot even more so.

bindweed2Weeds are the protectors of the soil and exist to restore fertility where degraded. My soil was in poverty having been mined of all its riches long ago, and constantly frustrated from restoration. A mineral balance ideal for weeds and grasses, but not for vegetables. Nutrient and energy restrictions supported a thriving weed population that competed well against what I had intentionally sown. The soil was often dry, receiving almost no rain all summer and fall and a dormant biology when I needed them most. Soil low in humic acid and struggled to perform effective aerobic breakdown of organic matter, a condition preferential for weeds. A subsoil that was also very dry, magnetically tight, airless and compacted preventing proper fermentation of plant residues. The surface was often left bare, suffering from intense summer sun, erosion and harsh winter weather, inducing crabgrass hormones to go ecstatic and sprout like mad as soon as a little water was added. The only means to combat the deep roots of bindweed is with antagonistic fungi, something my soil was in very short supply.

I understand now the folly of applying herbicides and covering the ground with plastic. These suffocating measures only work through total destruction of fertility, an extermination so intense that even the hardiest organism succumbs. Poverty soil for poverty vegetables.

The cause of my two weedy problem: a fragile natural environment disrupted by my ineptitude, a garden steward forcing plants to grow where they are not adapted and rejecting the ones that were. I had blamed the weeds when it was I that had granted them the right to thrive.

Having recognized this the task now is to restore fertility and beat out the weeds through nutrition, health and energy. The first thing I could do was establish a balance of the major minerals by applying amounts of gypsum, sulfates, manganese, zinc, copper, sodium, soft rock phosphate, etc. I added the missing rare earth minerals and improved the energy profile of the soil by applying finely ground basalt dust and humic acid. I then added food for the biology in the form of meals, raw milk, molasses, trace minerals, enzymes and vitamins. I provide support to all the plants now to produce excess carbons and encourage them to deposit their sugars into the soil for the biology to consume. I created and apply probiotic solutions to repopulate the earth in soil bacteria and fungi using good compost, teas and other live cultures. And I created a better biological home by adjusting my cultural practices, growing more green manures, avoid unnecessary digging and tilling, halted the removal of organic material from the surface, leaving it in place to decay and protect the soil as a digestible mulch.

Each year now improves and joy returns to gardening.

~Sean

Broad Fork

How would you describe your soil? For my garden I like to use cobbly sandy loam and I also use not prime farmland. Two phrases you wouldn’t ever associate with a productive vegetable patch. I found those two bits of information from the USDA Soil Survey. If you can tough through their not so user friendly application, you might find some amusing data as troubling as mine. Some of the problems I have observed in my garden include:

  • Lots of tree roots from numerous nearby pine trees.
  • Lots of large cobble-stone sized rocks
  • Tight airless soil 6-10 inches below the surface

bfkFor these three reasons I decided my garden needed a deep till. On average, agricultural topsoil is only about 6 inches deep; that’s about as deep as you can work the soil with normal garden tools and rototillers. Tillers have the extra downside of creating a hard compacted soil zone called hard pan. This is a major problem on farms using tractors and has done much to contribute to the reduced plant health and subsequent decline in nutrition. What I would like to see in my space is a solid 20 inches of top soil, the kind you can push your arm up to its elbow in. That might sound like a lot, but its still a far cry from the 240 inches (20 feet) found by early American pioneers in some parts of the country.

One of the tools I’ve been wanting to use to help solve this problem is the Broadfork. I had an opportunity to visit a friends urban garden where he had two different forks for me to try. The one I chose comes from Meadow Creature, and it’s a real monster with four 16″ inch steel claws and a heavy all steel construction.

The broadfork allows you to deeply till and aerate your soil by hand without excessive mixing and bringing up of the subsoil. It looks like a large double handled pictchfork, but it’s a whole lot heavier and the tines are very long and sturdy. The tines can vary in length from about 12 to 16 inches long, some are for lighter soils and others for very tough soils. The tool can cut a good sized swath about two foot wide. Using it is pretty simple, step on the crossbar and use your body weight to bury it as deep as you can get it, then pull backwards while the teeth  rip upwards.

broadforkMy broadfork posing with some of the buried treasure it found.

And what a workout! Every spring I seem to do some major work in the garden and it sure makes me wonder if it just might be a little too big. I’ve been working every weekend for a month to get all the beds prepared in time for planting and I am just about done now. My process is to first broadfork the whole bed lengthwise, add my soil amendments and then broadfork it a second time crosswise. That first tilling is tough, my soil wants to resist the intrusion and I locate a lot of rocks and roots. The second till is much easier, but I still seem to harvest a second crop of cobblestones.

Be aware that the fork I chose to use was designed for working in difficult soils. Once the soil has improved in both depth and tilth, and a lot less cobble stones, I will switch to a much lighter and easier to use fork with five or six tines. In excellent soil these tools are fast and nearly effortless to use.

~Sean