There are two sides to every story. It would be negligent of me not to include weeds in this edible garden series, because many of them are edible. Fear not, though, I'm not going to give you the hard sell on foraging in your herbaceous borders for dinner. Highly trendy that may be, but it's a story for another time. No, this week I'm going to encourage you to look at weeds from a different perspective.
Abbie Jury mentioned the saying last week that weeds are merely plants in the wrong place, and to the conscientious gardener they are, but why are they there in the first place?
Before our organic lifestyle, living north of Auckland on 10 lush, super-phosphated, glyphosated to buggery acres, anything that so much as resembled a weed was blasted with the foul-smelling gunk from the backpack.
Cue our move to begin organic market gardening in Cambridge. (I like to refer to it as a hippy awakening, albeit one in my posh Hunter wellies and designer jeans.)
I'm like a reformed smoker - it's always the ones who have given up who are the most vocally anti-smoking.
No longer do I view dock, buttercup and brambles as the enemy in the gardens or pasture - they can still sometimes be a pain in the backside, but it's mostly from an aesthetic point of view - which is my issue to deal with. Call it low gardening self-esteem.
We have learnt to look at the weeds in a more holistic way. Rather than leaping on to the herbicide hamster wheel of treating the symptom, why not take a detailed view of the offending plant, its immediate and greater environment?
Dock and buttercup, for instance, thrive in wet, acidic soil, demonstrating that we should either drain and lime that area if we want to grow crops or plant permanent, wet-loving edibles, such as elderflower. Moreover, dock's deep tap root is doing the surrounding plants a huge favour by mining nutrients from deep below and bringing them to the surface. That's why you'll often find the shallow, surface-rooted buttercup nearby. They're great companion plants. Removing dock by hand can be a laborious and difficult task - you have to dig the whole plant out completely, as even minute pieces of the root left behind will sprout a new plant.
It's also hard to kill through the composting process, so we tend to burn it and return the ash, with all its nutrients, to where it came from.
Thistles, including Onehunga weed, are a sign of copper deficiency in the soil They will multiply madly in an effort to unlock nutrients in the soil that will balance what's needed. Many minerals cannot be absorbed by plants or organisms without another being present. Magnesium and calcium work in such a way. They need each other to be beneficial.
Thistle is chipped or slashed, then left to wilt on the ground before being mulched with a mower and allowed to rot back into the soil. This is done before it sets seed, of course.
Dandelion may be a blot on your near-perfect lawn, but its presence there is not coincidental. Its seeds can travel many kilometres, settling where potassium levels are low. It fixes K deficiencies much like legumes fix nitrogen in the soil and it cleanses contaminated soil of heavy metals. The bright-yellow flowers are a feast for honey bees and bumblebees and the leaves are a tasty treat for chickens and rabbits.
I have to admit that Oxalis corymbosa - the larger variety with white flowers - does send me to the brink now and then. My house vegetable plot is riddled with it and, because I rotate my crops and cultivate the soil all season, every season, I assist its multiplication by breaking off the bulblets and spreading them further. All oxalis varieties enjoy fertile, free-draining soil, so take comfort in the knowledge that if your plot is plagued with it, then your edibles will want for nothing.
Clover is no more a weed than a lettuce. Nitrogen rich, it is a great ground cover and high-protein bee food. If you have plenty of clover in your lawn, hang on to it. When your expensive lawn grass turns its toes up after a week in summer with no rain, rest assured the clover will be there, protecting from the sun's harsh rays and fixing nitrogen in the soil for future food needs.
Finally, for those with larger, more rural patches of paradise, I want to tell you about gorse. Yes, it's an invasive weed, but have you ever wondered why it's so spiky? It's telling any predator to keep away, fending off browsers with its armour.
Gorse is a legume, a very efficient nitrogen fixer and, while it covers much of our landscape, it does actually serve a few important purposes - it protects young, native seedlings from frost and predator attack, allowing them to become established.
The flowers provide nutrient-packed nectar for bees and native birds and its foliage offers a safe nesting haven for many of our native bird, insect and invertebrate species.
If you need to get rid of it, then cut it at ground level, before it sets seed, then feed it through a mulcher. Spread the chip over your garden or compost it for its rich nutrient levels.
So, before you get out the herbicidal arsenal or stride purposefully into the garden with your diamond head hoe, have a closer look at the plants that are offending you and ask what they are doing there. I'm sure that if they could talk, they would give you such an answer that would make you reconsider your actions.
Whether they are there to do a job or are just opportunists, nature has a way to communicate with us beyond words.
Observation will tell you all you need to know about the health and wellbeing of your garden, just as it will offer you the remedy to an ailment.
You might not want to follow a path to a hippy awakening, but at least, by viewing things from outside the square, you will save yourself some money and time undertaking "the garden equivalent of vacuuming", as my colleague Abbie put it last week.
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