"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What is a Weed?

But a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit. Weeds are people's idea, not nature's. ~Author Unknown

One of the many challenges we face in growing our own food is in that of competing with the plants (weeds) native to this area. In our gardens we have chosen to "try" and view our weeds as an asset to the garden rather than a hindrance, working with them rather than against them as much as possible and using them as a valuable source of nutrients for our vegetables. Lambs quarter, pigweed, wild sorrel, mallow, chickweed, wild mint, dandelions, plantain, and various clovers make up the majority of common weeds that inhabit our gardens.

In the videos below you will hear the thoughts of Hellen Atthowe of BioDesign Farm and see how she, in her small produce farm in Stevensville Montana, focuses on working with her weeds and clover cover crops, using them to not only nourish but also help create a more natural and beneficial system for her amazing peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. I found these videos to be most informative, especially in regards to Hellen's ideas on some of these weeds, "self-established" mallow in particular, being an surprisingly excellent additional source of slow release nitrogen in conjunction with her more commonly used nitrogen fixing leguminous cover crops.

Our rows are kept very narrow, practically disappearing around this time of year, allowing us to not only use every inch of space available but also more easily manage the weeds.

We have been trying to apply, on a much smaller scale, somewhat similar methods of weed control in our own gardens. Instead of a tractor we use a hoe, shovel, and push mower, but in the end the results are the same. The weeds are allowed to grow in our isles but not go to seed or take over in the actual rows, they are then chopped up and eventually worked back into the vegetable rows as we weed and hoe and mow, thus, over time, comprising a large part of our soil's fertility. As I have mentioned in a previous post this also applies to our fall crop residue;

"I am once again focused on enriching our soil through a form of sheet mulching. Before winter I pulled up all of the remaining plant materials and broke them up a bit to be distributed amongst the garden rows. According to Emilia Hazelip plants synthesize from light and only receive a small portion of their mass from the soil. The rest comes from air and light and if left in the garden to decompose will give back much more to the soil then they take out."

I would add that living plants such as mallow, dandelions, strawberry spinach, plantains, sorrel, chicory and so forth with their deep root systems are supposedly able to "mine" nutrients from farther down helping to bring them to the surface where they will be more available to our shallow rooted garden vegetables. One of the things that I have been working on over the past couple years is growing out certain plants that I know will easily re-seed themselves and actually become "weeds" in the garden. In doing so I am, in a sense, at least partially in charge of what weeds we do and don't have. For instance, last year I overwintered and let go to seed a large amount of biennial Belgian endive and kale, sprinkling some of the seeds throughout our gardens in the fall. These plants are now growing in little clumps anywhere that I allowed them to but are also easily removed from where I do not, if I am diligent in doing so before the roots take hold.

Note the kale growing in one of our tomato rows, by the time I need to pick tomatoes this kale will have been harvested.

This year I am doing the same with a row of Italian chicory, I received a few seeds from a friend some time ago and have now established an entire row that will be allowed to re-seed itself.

Many of these so called weeds are also a valuable source of nutrition for farm animals, chickens in our case. As an example, extremely hardy chickweed and the various forms of chicory/endive help us provide the birds with green food all year around while lambs quarter fills in some of our hot weather gaps when certain greens are not as readily available to them. And where do some of the vitamins and minerals from these weeds end up but in the eggs that we eat and the compost that is spread throughout the garden. Not only that, but we eat them as well. Almost daily a few of these unsung super foods find their way into our salads.

Perhaps our garden walkways will only look pretty a couple days after I hoe them but in my mind it is much less work to use the weeds to our advantage rather than trying to constantly remove, suppress, or exterminate them which, where I live, is a losing battle anyway as they thrive in the woods around our gardens constantly spewing forth seed with reckless abandon.

Another alternative method for providing soil fertility and controlling the weeds is through the use of heavy mulch such as leaves or hay. This is something that we do in certain areas of the food garden but as our garden is fairly large we have yet to find a practical source for the amounts needed. That, and there is always the issue with it providing a nice place for voles to hide out. You can read a fellow gardeners interesting post on mulching your garden beds here.

Speaking of mulch, in the second video you will notice that Hellen discusses the use of a black plastic mulch that helps her to achieve such early and prolifically fruiting peppers in a colder climate. I will be trying this in my own garden next year with a couple of my pepper rows. You can see from my pictures below how much better some of my potted peppers planted in a black containers look when compared to the same peppers planted directly into the ground. All of my peppers are growing in a similar manner this year, the ones in pots far outpacing those in the ground even though the potted plants were started a couple weeks later after I realized the possible consequences a cold dreary spring would have upon these heat loving plants. Hope you enjoy the videos, I did.:)

Jalapeno →
Red Belgian →


Anonymous said...

This is a great post! Just today I was discussing that it is not necessary to remove all the weeds from the garden. Just that much so plants can grow and provide you with fruits.
I love how you are having self-seeding garden parts. Same thing (unintentionally) happened with my arugula - my spring crop self seeded and now I have same area full with arugula seedlings.

I use black plastic mulch for tomatoes and am very happy with it. They grow fasted and provide fruits earlier. No weeds there.

I also use hay for mulch. Can't say that I’m very happy with it as I expected more. I guess that you do need a very thick layer of hay if you want to suppress weeds.

Elizabeth said...

Down here in HOT SW Florida I can't do much summer gardening. I do have a small container garden on our upper deck. It is producing a small amount...I'll take that. I also have several banana trees and one key lime tree. Both of those have fruit.
I will be putting together 2 square foot gardens in the Fall. I can't wait. I have never had a square foot garden and I am so excited to grow my own food!!
I know your blog is going to be a wealth of info for me.
Thanks so much for sharing your gift.
Peace and RAW Health,

Mavis said...

You are seriously making us all look bad with your commune garden :)

FYI: I think it's pretty neat what you and Mrs. H are doing there in Idaho... Maybe you could get PBS to come out and do a documentary on the two of you... but then again maybe not... then you'd get a bunch of weirdo's at your gate taking pictures and you'd have to hide from the stalkerazzi... BUT... on the upside you could charge admission.

By the way... I'm banking on it being a "hard winter" like you said... I have enough food stockpiled to last me thru the next ice age.

You Can Call Me Jane said...

I agree with Mavis. You guys are pretty awesome. Your gardens look GORGEOUS. Great thoughts and information on the topic of weeds. Very inspiring- thank you!

Unknown said...

Your garden fills me with the greenest of envy!

i hope you enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor for many seasons.

Emma said...

I have a black plastic mulch (recycled from compost bags) under my watermelons in the greenhouse this summer, and it really seems to be keeping them happy :)

Stefaneener said...

Those were terrific videos. Thanks for showing them to us. Your constant interrogating of your system is really enlightening. I can only wish I had a full time farm to try this system on -- it looks pretty impressive.

Do you think you'd have vole issues with a lot of mowing?

What do they do with the black plastic after the season? How do the crop residues get tilled in to (if I listened correctly) switch growing/living mulch rows each year?

One of the reasons I love to garden is the endless list of questions it generates. Keeps me young.

Mrs. Mac said...

Very nice presentation Mr. H. We're still working on getting the soil better enriched so this gives me another avenue to help it along. I noticed my bush beans are much larger in the row I applied hay mulch .. same with my pepper plants. You know how I feel about the VOLES!!! Dagnabit!

Ruth Trowbridge said...

Exceptional post - you really do know the sweet spot! Loved the bit about the mallow as it grows like grass here. I keep my peppers in pots too, would be silly not to now that we know. You are leading the way for us all. Loved how you talked about problem solving being what you like about gardening last post, gave me much thought. Do you have a pussy willow? They really attract the bees in the spring. Peace

Carole McGivern said...

I really enjoyed this post - I've become a bit obsessed by mulch over the last year. I have been mulching heavily with grass clippings....and now as I harvest crops like Broad Beans from my raised beds I'm cutting the plants off, lying them on the soil, and then covering with more mulch to keep the soil well covered. I do have to keep lifting it back onto the beds, as the Blackbirds just love raking it off to get at insects!

I also agree wholeheartedly about the weeds. I try to gather a large bucketful of greens every day for my hens....and quite often this is largely composed of weeds (chickweed and goosegrass figure largely here) harvested from my neighbours gardens.

I'm also encouraging self-seeding and have benefited from self-sown Mizuna and Chard this year....currently have more Mizuna and Chard going to seed. Like you say free plants! Over the winter I plan to grow them on in the polytunnel along with some green manure like Rye to feed the hens on.

Looking forward to watching the videos later on.

Mr. H. said...

Vrtlarica - Arugula is a great plant to use for self seeding purposes. The funny part is that the arugula in my garden that self seeds always outperforms the ones that I plant...interesting how that works. I hate using plastic in the garden but I am definitely going to use it to help warm my peppers next year.

Elizabeth - You will love having the square foot garden beds and I am looking forward to seeing what you grow in them...how fun.

Banana trees, now that is almost beyond my comprehension up here in Idaho.:) Lucky you.

Mavis - You know what would really work out well is if I could charge admission for the opportunity to weed the garden, now that would really be something.:) Believe me we do not need any more weirdos where I live as there are already more than enough.

Good job on stockpiling the food. I have an article for you to read when you get a chance. Oh, and while you have been stockpiling beef Micki has been loading up with coffee as we think the price will be going up...we now have a years supply. I can live without meat but not coffee.:) Here is the link - http://www.cdapress.com/columns/cliff_ha



This guy (Cliff Harris) has been extremely accurate with his long term weather forecasts.

The Hand - Thanks for the great article on mulching.:) I really do love the way you use it in your gardens. This fall we are going to collect every pile of leaves that we can for our gardens even if I have to rake them out of the neighbors yards myself.:) I think leaves are one of the best sources of mulch and compost out there...I especially like using our maple leaves.

E - Thanks, with any luck we will have a decent harvest this year and as I continue to learn more, even better ones in the future. Thanks for visiting.:)

Emma - You know, using the black plastic bags is a great idea and might work well for my eggplants...I'll have to remember that for next year.

Stefaneener - I'm glad that you enjoyed the videos, she really is a pretty cool lady and seems very intelligent in regards to understanding the soil and the needs of her plants.

We have almost solved our vole issues by allowing the chickens access to the outskirts of our gardens. They freak the voles out with all their scratching and other noises. The one place where the chickens do not have access is where we still have the occasional vole issue. But yes, mowing or not we are literally surrounded by thousands of voles and they used to be an absolute nightmare in the gardens.

It was my understanding that in the fall she goes through and cuts down all of the remaining crop residue. In the spring they go through with a machine that actually makes the rows for them and also (I think) lays down the plastic. I do not know how they remove the old plastic though. perhaps the same machine that puts it down also removes it...not sure.

Mrs. Mac - Here is something you might be interested in. I was reading the other day that if you plant your beans or peas in the same spot every year they will do better than if you rotate them to a new spot. This is the opposite of what I have been doing and have read about in other garden books. That said, I have noticed that my runner beans that are always planted in the exact same spot year after year always perform extremely well for us. Something to think about I guess. Unfortunately I can not remember where I read that.

Ruralrose - We do have pussy willows growing in our area, perhaps I need a few on the outskirts of the garden too. Mallow is a pretty incredible plant. Not only can you eat the young leaves, use it to build your soil, but the mucilaginous properties of the roots make an excellent sore throat remedy.

Mr. H. said...

Carole - Grass clipping are wonderful, we use them to mulch many of our potted plants and it really makes a huge difference on how often we need to water them.

I forgot to grow mizuna this year...hmm. But yes, chard is another plant that does a good job of re-seeding itself. Chickweed and Lambs quarters (also called "fat hen") were often used in the old days to feed chickens, how great that you are able to harvest the wild greens for your flock...bet you have some pretty happy healthy birds.:)

Roasted Garlicious said...

I doubt there much i could add to either your great post or all the comments!! i'm not a fan of black plastic because it's plastic...but i will use landscape fabric if need be...i've been using the same roll for 5 yrs now... i like the documentary idea.. or even a weekly show!! our televisions are lacking in quality garden programs ;) get to it will ya!!!

Faith said...

Hi Mr H. Your garden looks great! One of my friends is trying to cultivate weeds in her garden. She is having a hard time getting them to grow. We are actually going to dig up some white fireweed and bring it home to plant.

Mr. H. said...

Roasted Garlicious - I hate the idea of using plastic in the garden as well but I love my peppers. The goal will of coarse be to re-use it for a number of years which means I will have to be very careful not to rip it up. Some of the plastic I use for our row covers is 5 years old and still usable.

Perhaps a show about the adventures of my wife and I could be played late in the evening to help people who suffer from insomnia fall asleep quickly.:)

Faith - I knew I wasn't the only one trying to cultivate weeds.:) Good for her, I have never seen white fireweed before, I bet it is very pretty. I will have to keep an eye out but as far as I know we only have the reddish colored fireweed growing around here. I just looked it up in Wikipedia and it sounds like a plant I need to learn more about.

From Wikipedia - "The young shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens. They are best when young and tender; as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in the stage. They are peeled and eaten raw. When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. The Dena'ina add fireweed to their dogs' food. Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena'ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed.

In Alaska, candies, syrups, jellies, and even ice cream are made from fireweed. Monofloral honey made primarily from fireweed nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavor.

In Russia, its leaves were often used as tea substitute and were even exported, known in Western Europe as Kapor tea. Fireweed leaves can undergo fermentation, much like real tea. Today, Kapor tea is still occasionally consumed though not commercially important."

meemsnyc said...

The potatoes I grew this year were Red potatoes, Yukon Gold and White potatoes. The potatoes were pretty small in size. I am going to try to plant them in buckets next year instead of in the ground.

kitsapFG said...

Where to start... First, your garden is beautiful and if I were there you would find me just standing in it and admiring it. I sincerely think a high performing food production garden is living art.

Second, the videos are excellent and resonate for me because so much of what she is speaking to are things that I have found to be true in my own garden - even though my living mulch method is one of raised beds closely planted and green manures combined with traditional compost applications. The concept of recycled fertility is critical in the biodiversity methods of John Jeavon's and many others.

Third, I use plastic mulch on the beds that I plant tomatoes, peppers and squashes - or I plant them in containers (black ones even!) and grow them where they are likely to get light reflection or passive solar collection (greenhouse) to further enhance the warming process. That is critical for my cool maritime climate.

Thoroughly enjoyed the post and video links. Thank you!

Heiko said...

Really interesting those 2 videos. I picked up particularly on the mimicking of the natural environment. The thing is that, no matter how many garden books you read or films like this you watch, your individual situation is always going to be different.

The trouble of course is applying this to my situation. Our terraces are too narrow to have alternative rows, but on the other hand of course I have to mow the vertical bits and I leave what comes off there on the flat bits, So I suppose that should help some.

Food for thought anyway, still looking for the best system. If I'd mimick the natural system, I'd be in an oak and sweet chestnut forest within a couple of years!

Mr. H. said...

Meemsync - There are quite a few people that I have read about who have a lot of luck growing their potatoes in buckets. Hopefully it will work out really well for you. It will be interesting to hear your thoughts on the results.

Laura - If you were standing in my garden you would probably have a headache from answering all my questions about your own garden.:)

I'm glad you enjoyed the videos as she obviously has a pretty good understanding of her own little ecosystem...as much as anyone really can. All I know is that before we had chickens all I ever used on the gardens was composted plant debris and it worked out really well for us and still does. So I really found her thoughts on using these weeds as a way to nourish her plants encouraging.

I am tossing around the idea of trying the red mulch on a few tomato plants next year as I have seen how well it works for you. Gosh, this gardening year still has a ways to go and here I am all excited about the next.:) Glad you enjoyed the videos.

Heiko - You are so right, I think each of us can use some kernels of information from fellow gardeners/farmers to our benefit but on the whole we have such different environments that we will never be able to fully copy the success of others. I do think that many people fail to understand this.

The point you make is a very important one as every garden, even the one down the street from me has it's own challenges. If I were to try and apply the way I garden to your terraced garden and much different environment it would probably not work out very well.

I really appreciate your thoughts on this.:)

Diane@Peaceful Acres said...

Mike that was absolutely one of the very best posts I've read!!! Great job!

I don't know what it is, but I never tire of looking at gardens. And you guys have one of the most beautiful. Weeds and all! As I'm in my jungle where I can't find isles anymore either, I just keep telling myself that it's called "permaculture". I have to purposefully leave some weeds (not the crab grass) to do their work. I know I should leave and even eat the lambs quarter but it becomes a like tree here. I hate to say I pull them up. But like you, anything that's pulled or has bugs or is not edible, I feed to the chickens. My compost pile is near extinction, because the chickens get most everything now.

I know how you can get that spent hay and straw! You guessed it....a couple milk goats!!! But you are right....Templeton (my beloved rats) loves to burrow in it and I don't think I'll ever catch (I mean kill) all of them. So I think we peacefully will exist....I let him live and eat my celery roots! Dang that rat!!! He has however done a splendid job at turning the manure pile!!!

Say Mr H, do you think if I put up hoops and plastic over my bed of peppers & eggplants I can harvest them into the winter or at best late fall? I'll have to give that a try.

miss m said...

Another excellent post, filled with wonderful and useful information ! Enjoyed the videos very much but you, sir, are my real inspiration. Your garden, lifestyle and philosophy are awe-inspiring. :)

I, like RoastedGarlicious, tend to gravitate towards landscape fabric instead of plastic.

Mr. H. said...

Diane - Yes permaculture, and with any luck we will both continue to garden in the same places for many years because our soil is good and our diseases and pests are few.

Chickens have ruined our compost pile as well, they eat all the best composting ingredients...what can a person do.:)

So, yes I do think it would be a great idea to cover your peppers and eggplants. With any luck your first few frosts will be light and the plants will continue to thrive. Both peppers and eggplants can handle a very light frost much better than tomatoes once they are established so I say go for it. Your other option would be to carefully dig up and pot up a few of your favorites and keep them in a frost free environment.

Miss M - Between you and Roasted Garlicious I might just have to use landscape fabric instead of plastic in the future. The thing is that I already have a roll of black plastic that was given to me years ago and I have never used...so I will have to take that into consideration as well.

Don't let the pictures fool you, the gardens don't look quite as nice in person. Thanks so much for your kind comments.:)

Emelle said...

Very inspiring lifestyle. Especially like the winter tunnels.

Mr. H. said...

Hi ML - The winter tunnels are great and help to keep us in greens all year. I'll be planting our winter spinach in the next week or so followed by turnip greens in September to grow under those covered rows.

Robin said...

I recently read some anti-crop rotation info in a Ruth Stout book. Very thought-provoking.

I have encouraged many plants to become weeds in my chaotic happy crazy garden.
Cilantro, parsley, sorrel, arugula, chard, leeks, daisies, violets.

I don't come by your blog as often as I might like, but I always learn a lot. Great blog!

Mr. H. said...

Robin - I have that Ruth Stout book and need to pull it out and read it again soon. The whole anti-rotation idea is very interesting. Every time I walk by a patch of weeds or wild edibles that has been thriving in the same spot for years I think about it.:)

I'm glad you stopped by and good luck wih all of your "weeds." :)

Kimberly said...

I just found this You Tube that you might enjoy about propagating cabbage plants. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHQP8kEabbU

His cabbage plants don't look like cabbage but maybe its because they've already gone to seed. ?

You might already do this.

Mr. H. said...

Kimberly - Thank you! That was a very interesting video on propagation. It looks like he also has a blog at -


I look forward to trying this with my own cabbage and maybe kale soon.

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