In the Weeds

It has been dry.  We were finally relieved with some pleasant rain showers yesterday afternoon.  Besides the obvious need to water the pants, I am excited because the rain will soften the soil slightly, so I can get out on them with the tractor to cultivate.  I have to be vigilant about when soil conditions are optimal to do so, too dry and the soil will turn to powder and blow away.  Too wet, and the weight of the tractor will compact and deteriorate the soil.

When growing organically, weed control  is a challenge.  I rely largely in mechanical cultivation, dragging blades through the soil to disturb weed seedlings.

Tractor with cultivator set up to weed around two rows

Tractor with cultivator set up to weed around two rows

With this method, timing is essential.  Weeds are opportunistic and vigorous growers.  The younger the weed seedling, the better your chances of actually killing it. Especially if it you have dry weather for a couple days after.  This is true, too in the home garden:  Rustling about with the hoe while the seedlings are just sprouts can save you much work later on.

If the weather is wet for a spell and I cannot get out in to the fields, however, the weeds can quickly grow to the point of shrugging off the cultivator, at least the type I use.  There are other designs for different situations out there.  I have had to at times resort to using a weed whacker or lawn mover if the weeds get too far ahead.

The limitation of the cultivator is that while it eliminates weeds between the rows, the seeds hiding in the row with the crop are untouched.  These must be removed with hand tools or by pulling.

results of tool-bar cultivator with Danish (S) tines

results of tool-bar cultivator with Danish (S) tines

When removing larger weeds by hand, do your best to pull the roots out as well, or they will just re-sprout, often with more branches.  Be sure to completely remove them from the garden.  Tossed into a pile in the corner of the garden or leaving them lie where they were pulled is unwise, for they will easily re-root and resume growing, usually going immediately to seed from the stress.

Regardless of how else your gardening season goes, the best long-term strategy for dealing with weeds is to make it a point to stop all the weeds from going to seed, thus preventing more weed seeds from being added to your soil. Flowers produce seeds eventually, so when weeds flower, get them out of there!

Weeds getting ready to make seeds. Center, ;eft to right: ragweed, grass, campion (white flower), pigweed)

Weeds getting ready to make seeds. Center, left to right: ragweed, grass, campion (white flower), pigweed

You can reduce the current seed load by putting some of your growing space into what’s called a fallow.  This means not growing a crop on the space, but letting the weeds sprout, cultivating them to eliminate, letting another batch sprout, and repeating the process a few times over the course of abut 6 weeks or so to sort of ‘clean out’ your soil.

A rain shower following dry weather is a great time to pull weeds by hand.  Dry weeds have a weaker grip on the soil, and adding moisture allows the roots to easily slip from the dirt. You can achieve the same effect by watering the garden then immediately pulling the weeds.  This is only a grace period, however:  Within hours, those weed roots will drink up the water and attain an iron-like grip. Again, timing is everything:  After yesterday’s rain shower, I pretty much dropped everything and ran out to pull some ragweed that had gotten quite high in the cabbage patch, knowing if I waited until morning it would be rooted in too tight to pull.  Ever.

Chinese cabbage flanked by ragweed

Chinese cabbage flanked by ragweed


Yellow dock

Yellow dock


Docks are another weed with a firm grip that pretty much shrugs off the cultivator.  Burdock is best hoed out as a seedling, and yellow dock is advantageous to pull after a rain.




Get to know the seeds growing in your area and their growth habits, and you can get a fairly good leg up on them with vigilance and persistence.  I don’t ever expect to eliminate every weed from my fields, for a few around are beneficial for biodiversity, water retention, and insect habitat, but I do keep in mind that ever tiny weed left behind has the potential to become a 4’x4’x4′ shrub by season’s end.  So I do my best, knowing that somehow, a few weeds always get left behind.


Even Farm Animals Like Recycling!

Springtime has come early to Sunny Hill Farm in the high tunnel.  When the weather is sunny, the tunnel is usually 10-15 degrees warmer than outside, especially when it’s windy.  The green things have already begun growing for the season and the smell is wonderfully warm and verdant.  My daughter likes to go in there and take off her shoes, enjoying the feel of grass between her toes a few weeks early.


Spinach, arugula and mustard in the tunnel first week of March, 2012

Spinach, arugula, mustard and lettuces are waking up and growing again from last Fall’s sowing.  Other green things are growing in there, too:  clover, purslane and especially chickweed.  These weeds need to be removed before we plant the space anew for the Summer season.  I know that many of the plants we consider “weeds” are actually perfectly edible, nutritious, and quite yummy.  Back in the past, many of these cold-hardy greens were a welcome addition to the diet in the earliest days of Spring, when folks were living off their winter store of starchy roots and rich meats and were ready for a fresh change.  Chickweed, in particular, is especially sweet and nutritious, and it grows abundantly in a low spreading carpet.


Chickweed entangled with lettuces.

Even though discarded weeds are composted to return their nutrients to the soil, I still look for ways to capture even more of the nutrition and resources available on-farm, to minimize our off-farm inputs, reduce costs, and keep our ecosystem as healthy and diverse as possible.  One way we do this is to harvest plants such as grasses and weeds to feed to our animals, especially those who cannot always be out on pasture.  Feeding the animals grasses and weeds is closer to their natural diet than grain, and provides the myriad of vitamins and minerals often needed to be supplemented else-wise.

So my daughter and I have been going out to the high tunnel daily and harvesting this abundant chickweed to feed to our pigs and poultry.  I was unable to find definitive evidence that it was suitable daily for our other animals, so I only feed it to them, not the sheep, cows or horse.  Many of these weeds are good for one species of animal but not others, so always do your homework and check first, being sure you have a positive identification.  In order to keep the horse from getting jealous, we also grab a few handfuls of clover to give to her, too.

This time together is very enjoyable for my Gwee and me, and we are doing two jobs at once, weeding in preparation for this coming season, and giving our animals a little nutrition boost.  Fun, easy, and cost-effective recycling!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,801 other followers