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

Success with Weeds

Weeds do not grow in old-growth forests, it’s not their environment. Like all organisms, weeds grow well when they are within their particular ecological niche, one that supports their needs the best. This brings us to the theory of Ecological Successionthe observed process of change in a species structure of an ecological community over time. This describes how environments change due to life processes and thus supporting differing kinds of organisms in the same place over different periods of time.

sprgLets begin with an inhospitable environment, slowly colonized by hardy pioneering plants capable of surviving and thriving in that terrible place. Through their actions of living and growing, the conditions to support other plants are now met and new species move in and eventually replace the pioneering ones, as the conditions are no longer conducive to them. This processes continues over and over again until a stability of sorts is met, called a climax community, like an ancient old-growth forest. Ecological succession can take many hundreds or thousands of years to occur naturally.

Plant succession can be seen just about anywhere. Take you family on a hike through a natural area. Starting in the parking lot, a very inhospitable environment, you can see early pioneering plants peeking through cracks in the pavement and growing through gravel. As you enter the trail you can see very hardy plants growing on the well trodden trail. As you pass through a field you can see grasses and wildflowers succeeding to bushes and small trees and at the forest edge tall trees take over and the plant species change yet again. In time, the field and parking lot may too become forest.

bindweedPlant succession can also be witnessed in the garden, converting a section of your lawn to a vegetable plot is a good example. The lawn is a sort of Climax Community, while the combined actions of the lawn mower and Weed & Feed keep the conditions static. Till up the grass and you have now caused a drastic change in the environment, no longer suitable for lawn grass. Initially your garden soil may be somewhat rich that first year and weeds are wimpy and easily swept away. The next year however may be different and your weed pressure increases. Now the garden is being heavily attacked by very noxious weeds such as bindweed and quack-grass. No matter how hard you control them they just seem to win, and by mid-summer gardening is fast becoming a real chore. You now consider applying an herbicide to remove those pesky weeds once and for all, but they return the following year intent as ever to take over your lot.

Most garden weeds are lower succesional plants, meaning that they are the pioneer plants capable of growing well in disturbed, unbalanced and inhospitable grounds. These weeds can be found anywhere people have seriously disturbed the area by stripping away the topsoil, applied toxic compounds or mined the soil of its limited minerals. Observe the plants growing along the sides of a road, a farmers field, the front lawn or your own garden plot. Most fruits and vegetables on the other hand are higher successional plants found naturally growing only in the deep rich soils near streams and rivers.

bglsFor robust and successful weeds, all you need to do is observe the conditions that allow the weeds healthiest growth and practice soil management in a way that continuously converts soil to dirt. Be sure to break up the ground frequently with lots of digging and tilling. Limit and destroy the microbiological life by applying herbicides, pesticides and other toxins. Use plants to mine the soil of nutrients and minerals and never return them. Apply fertilizers and compost excessively. Remove all plant residues, including grass clippings and leaves, and if necessary throw them into the garbage. And always make sure the soil stays bare for as much of the year as possible.

That is the irony. The misconception is the conditions that allow for healthy vegetable growth are the same conditions that allow for healthy weed growth. That just isn’t true. If your weeds are overpowering your garden, your soil conditions are not suited for vegetables. If however your vegetables are overpowering your weeds, then you’ve got one awesome garden.

~Sean