Monday, March 22, 2010

When is a Weed Not a Weed? Sustainable and Holistic Gardening

Last week I wrote about our concept of weeds. Weeds are plants that we don’t want. However, many of our weeds are quite useful plants. We may not want them in our farms and gardens, but many so-called weeds are not inherently bad. They’re just a little naughty and enjoy traipsing around where they’re not wanted.

Permaculture is a gardening concept that is about far more than gardening. It’s the idea that a gardener can create an ecological system that sustains itself, much like a forest would. Except that this ecological system is a garden. Many of those who practice permaculture approach weeds very differently than the average gardener.

In the permaculture method of gardening, you listen to your weeds. Weeds are telling you something. If your garden only grows weeds and your desired plants look sickly, those weeds are sending you a clear message. In fact, they’re being extremely useful and you should thank them. Perhaps they’re telling you that your soil is low on nutrients so that only tough plants can grow there. They might be telling you that you’re tilling the soil an awful lot and that all of the weed seeds are coming to the surface and growing with vigorous delight. They may also be telling you that the location of your garden is not ideal for the plants that you’re growing, and that your garden receives too little light, too much heat, or too much wind. Listen to the weeds. They have wisdom too.

Permaculture gardeners also work to create a diverse ecology in which weeds play only a small role. It’s not that the weeds are not in the garden, it’s just that they are surrounded by the vigorous growth of other plants. By creating a diverse garden with plant species suited to the conditions in which they grow, a gardener can develop a garden system that discourages weeds. By mulching and practicing low-till agriculture, a gardener can discourage weeds even more.

And after this, if there are still weeds, that’s all right. You use them. Use it and lose it. Permaculture’s approach towards weeds is one that I love, especially for those edibles that love to take over the garden, like borage, comfrey, dandelions, and mint. The ethic is this: plants that grow in abundance should be used in abundance. Use your dandelions and your comfrey and your borage and you will control their populations. Pick them and dig them and get angry with them, and they will spread their seeds and little pieces of themselves around the garden. Work with what’s there, and if you can’t figure out a way to use those plants that we may call invasive or weedy, look again.

The permaculture approach to weeds is much more than spray and run. It’s a holistic view of weeds that promotes the development of a healthy garden ecosystem.

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