Sunday, 20 May 2012


More than anything else, gardening involves weeding – nature dislikes our imposed order and wants to spill its profusion back over our land, and all gardeners must constantly deal with their weeds in some way.

In weeds’ defence, though, remember that they are simply the plants we don’t think we can use, and they can tell us a lot about our soil. If our soil is poor, acidic, chalky or has some other quality, we can tell in part by the weeds that come up. Remember also that they are part of the natural cycle of succession; Nature abhors like a vacuum, and any bare earth exposed in the wild is quickly covered with waves of opportunists that protect the soil from the elements and prepare the way for trees and other permanent residents. We plant our crops on bare soil, and any soil contains dozens of weed seeds waiting for decades for the opportunity you have given them. These days, of course, many people simply spray poisons on weeds -- poisons that could make their way into your food later on. Instead, try some of these other ways of handling your enthusiastic guests:

 1.) Eat them. Nettles, dandelions, clover, daisies, fat hen, and many other plants are delicious and full of vitamins – and free. In the spring the fields are covered with free food; you could get all your greens this way, for months, until the rest of your crops come up. Even if you don’t like them, maybe you have chickens or other animals that will.

 2.) Soak them. Put all the weeds in a bucket of water, and keep stuffing more in until it is full. After a few weeks the weeds and seeds should have rotted, and the liquid should be a nutritious “tea” that you can use to water the garden. The rotted plants will be pungent, but you can throw them on the compost pile and cover them with earth to cut the smell. If you keep weeding every day or week, you can line up several buckets according to week, and keep using the latest as fertiliser.

3.) Burn them. If you throw weeds on the compost after they have seeded, the earth you get from that compost will keep on sprouting weeds for years to come. You can eliminate weeds and seeds alike, though, by burning them, and the resulting ash is good for the soil.

 UK Victory Garden handbooks in World War II recommended making burn mounds to sterilise soil; lay straw on the ground in a circle perhaps two metres across, with a pipe of terra cotta or other non-flammable material on top of the straw – from the middle to the edge of the straw, like the hand of a clock. Then they lay pruned branches and other wood in a pile on the straw, and cover those with all the weeds gathered from the gardens.

Finally they cover the whole thing with earth, reach inside the terra cotta pipe, and light the straw. This method was supposed to kill off all the weeds and sterilise the soil of weed seeds all in one go, and create potash that could be used to fertilise tomatoes and other hungry plants.

 4.) Make peace with them. If the weeds are right next to your crops, you can certainly keep them from overrunning your beds. But if they are on your lawn, save yourself some work and pick only the least desirable weeds, leaving the lovely and useful ones to colonise your property. If you have children, for example, pick the nettles but leave the dandelions, which provide them so much entertainment. Pick the thistles but leave the chamomile, whose flowers you can pick for tea. Eventually you will have, not a lawn, but a very useful flower meadow, which looks nicer and is better for the soil.

Photo: Our property a few years ago, before we started our gardens.


Andy Brown said...

Have you ever heard of the the Three Sisters where the Native Americans would plant beans, corn, and squash in an integrated manner? Part of the squash’s job was to shade out the weeds.

Brian Kaller said...


I've never planted that way myself, but I have seen it done; when I was last in the USA I stayed with a friend on an Anishinabe reservation, and she has fields planted that way. Those crops are possible but not ideal for Ireland's climate; have you tried it?

Andy Brown said...

No, I haven't. I'm seeing if sunflowers will support pole beans just for fun. I didn't want to grow corn, since my experience has been if you don't have a dog and you do have corn, all you're going to be doing is feeding the raccoons and the deer. So far my gardening has been on a scale where weeds are manageable and I lean toward vigorous plants like potatoes, tomatoes, parsnips, squash and beans, which pretty much out-compete most weeds with only a little assist from me.