Weeding is often looked upon as one of the biggest and most annoying of all garden chores. But when you begin to look at weeding in the right way, it need not be such as pain for the gardener. In this ultimate guide to weeding, we will look at how and when to weed in an organic garden. We will examine practical solutions for sustainable gardening, and begin to reshape the conversation as we consider weeds not as a nightmare to be overcome,but as a valuable resource – just one more yield from our productive gardens.
Weeding in an Organic Garden
In an organic garden, it is important to discover ways to work with nature rather than fighting against it. In many gardens,weeds are the enemy – they are eradicated with harmful chemicals, which do huge amounts of harm to the local and wider environment.
In an organic garden, of course,such harmful chemicals are avoided at all costs. Instead of seeing weeds as the enemy,organic gardeners learn to see that weeds are not all bad. Organic gardeners learn how weeds can be useful. They learn when to weed and when not to worry, and how to manage the garden ecosystem in an eco-friendly and sustainable way.
Why Weeds Are Not All Bad
‘Weeds’ is simply the name that we give to plants that grow readily in our gardens,and which often pop up where we do not want them to grow. Before going in all guns blazing, would-be organic gardeners should always ask themselves – what is a ‘weed’? Do I really need to get rid of these plants in the first place?
What is a weed in one location can sometimes be a prized plant in another. They often tend to be native plants, ideally suited to your garden environment – so ideally suited that they can take over if left unchecked. They are sometimes the right plant in the right place – and we just need a little attitude adjustment to see that they don’t need to be removed at all.
Sometimes, organic gardeners should consider so-called ‘weeds’ as useful additions to a garden. Weeds can sometimes be a boon. Weeds might:
- Give us information about the soil and other conditions in our gardens,and give us clues about what else might grow well there.
- Attract wildlife to our gardens – providing a food source or habitat for bees and other pollinators, or other beneficial creatures.
- Be a valuable source of fast-growing biomass. (Organic matter that can be added to a compost heap, used as mulch, or used to make plant feed.) Some weeds can help us gather nutrients and add these back to our gardens.
- Be useful to us for a range of practical purposes… such as food, dyes, fodder, herbal remedies etc…
When we see weeds as useful, weeding does not seem like such a pain.
When to Weed and When Not to Weed
Organic gardeners understand the importance of leaving some wild corners in their gardens,and of developing a more casual and relaxed approach to weeding. Weeding will,of course,be necessary in some scenarios – for example, in annual vegetable beds where weeds may outcompete edible crops. It may also be necessary, for example,to remove weeds from paths and paving. However, there will be plenty of occasions when it is best not to weed – in the case of lawns,for example,in which a greater biodiversity can be beneficial to local wildlife, and in a wide range of other ways.
How to Avoid Weeding Out Plants You Want
One of the challenges for gardeners who grow annual crops from seed is determining which plants are weeds and which are wanted seedlings when they first emerge from the soil. Using plant labels to clearly mark the locations where seeds have been sown can help you to avoid weeding out plants you want. Over time, you can also begin to built up knowledge of what different seedlings look like when they are small. That will also,of course,help you to weed without losing precious seedlings.
Casual Weeding – Weeding Little and Often
Not all weeds, of course, are desirable additions to a garden and there will always be some weeds that need to be got rid of. Invasive species should, of course, be removed wherever possible. And even useful weeds must be removed when they grow in the wrong places and compete with our food crops.
When we garden organically, without using harmful chemicals, there will always be some work involved in weeding. The key to avoiding stress is to take a casual approach. Weed little and often to keep on top of things and you will be far less likely to become overwhelmed by the challenge.
How to Reduce Weeding Required
The good news for busy organic gardeners is that there are ways to reduce the number of weeding that needs to be done. Some measures that you can take to keep weeds down are:
- Mulching. A thick organic mulch between annual or perennial plants will suppress weeds by preventing sunlight from reaching the soil surface.
- Adopting a ‘no dig’ approach and disturbing the soil as little as possible.
- Avoiding bare soil as much as possible. Placing annual crop plants close together, utilising ground cover plants, and creating ‘guilds’ (polycultures) or ‘forest gardens’ are all ways to reduce the space and resources available to weeds.
- Be water-wise – water and irrigate crops carefully, directing water to where it is needed and thereby reducing the amount available to unwanted weeds.
What To Do With Weeds After Weeding
Reforming your ideas about weeds can help turn weeding from a chore to a far more enjoyable garden job. As mentioned above,weeds can be incredibly useful plants. Here are just some of the uses for weeds that you could consider:
Eating the Weeds
One way in which some common weeds can be useful is as edible plants. Some people are surprised to learn that some common weeds, such as the stinging nettle or dandelion, are good additions to our diet. Weeding can become another sort of harvesting. And when weeding becomes harvesting, it can become a much more appealing garden chore.
While you are unlikely to decide to give over your growing areas entirely to edible weeds, allowing a few to grow around and between your cultivated food crops can be a good way to add extra nutrition to your diet, to bulk out spring and summer salads, or to use like spinach in a range of cooked recipes. Weeds can be particularly useful as an edible in spring, during what is sometimes referred to as the ‘hungry gap’. If you grow your own food, you may well be aware that this gap, when there is less to eat, comes after stored winter produce has run out but before crops are ready to harvest from late spring. When you consider fresh spring weeds and fresh spring greens, you will find it a lot easier to eat from your own garden all year round.
Feeding Your Soil With Weeds
Weeds can not only be edible, they can also be useful in a wide range of other ways. Some weeds, dandelions, for example, are particularly good at gathering nutrients. Their deep tap roots mean that they acquire nutrients from deep below the soil – reclaiming those nutrients that are beyond the reach of the root systems of other plants. Clovers, also often considered a weed in neat lawns, are also extremely beneficial and are a different sort of accumulator. They work to accumulate nitrogen, working with bacteria in their roots to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates in the soil, which can then by taken up by them and by other plants in the vicinity.
These dynamic accumulator weeds (along with other weeds in general) can be added to a compost heap or simply chopped and dropped and used as mulch material, to add fertility to the soil of your growing areas. Since dynamic accumulators gather nutrients that other plants cannot, from the air and from deep below the soil surface, dropping these where they grow or adding them to the compost heap is a good way of adding nutrients to the topsoil for the use of the plants you are cultivating.
Making Liquid Plant Feed From Weeds
Not all weeds are edible, of course, and some are best not added to a compost heap. Some weeds regrow from root sections so easily that they can colonise a compost heap before you know it. (Ground elder, for example). The ground elder and other pernicious weeds that you do not harvest for food, however, can still be of use. You can use weeds that cannot go in the compost heap to make a weed based plant feed that can be used as a multi-purpose, nitrogen-rich fertiliser which will give a boost to leafy vegetables.
To make a weed plant feed, you could also use some of your dynamic accumulator weeds, many of which offer a good balance of the three main plant nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nettles are an excellent source of nitrogen and make an excellent liquid feed, though you can make use of whatever weeds you have to hand.
To make your liquid plant feed:
- Place the weeds in a large bin, or other container (with a lid) and cover with water. (Placing them within a fabric mesh bag will make it easier to decant the liquid later and also makes it easier to weigh the weeds down so they are submerged.)
- Leave (with lid on) for at least a month to six weeks.
- Pour the liquid into a different container.
- Dilute the sludgy solution so it is the colour of weak tea.
- Use the diluted liquid feed to give a boost to leafy plants.
Making and Crafting With Weeds
Numerous weeds can also have other practical uses. Some weeds, for example, can be used for making fibre for paper, fabric or cordage, as in the case of nettles, and many more can be used for making dyes, as with dock, nettles, yarrow, tansy and many more wild plants and ‘weeds’. Weeds can be used in many different projects, so another way to make use of the weeds in your garden could be to consider their use for arts and crafts.
Do you have any tips for organic weeding,or ways to use weeds from your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.