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Under the Arbor Issue 39
June 21, 2023

In This Issue:

~ Working with Weeds ~

Why Cooperation Works BETTER Than Domination

When I get busy (when am I not?), or sick (recently), the weeds in my various gardens have a rave party. I don't mind too much, because each weed has its own music and its place in the band, as does every created thing. It took me a long time to realize this, but weeds actually do some fine work, if you don't let them get too out of hand.

I remember reading the book Weeds and What They Tell (1946) by biodynamic farmer and scientist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer many years ago, and realized that weeds are actually nature's soil-healing medicines. Different weeds grow in different conditions: acid soil, compacted soil, mineral-deficient or imbalanced soil, etc. The presence of different weeds not only indicates conditions, but helps rebalance and correct them. Weeds generally have deep roots which help break up hardpan, pull up nutrients from down deep, prevent erosion, store carbon, feed earthworms, pull nitrogen out of thin air (if legumes), act as a living mulch to moderate soil temperature and regulate water retention, and do many other jobs.

I actually use low-growing weeds intentionally now, as cover crops to moderate soil temperature and reduce evaporation. In my hot, dry climate I let purslane and yellow clover grow a bit. But that said, I don't want them taking over! Weeds don't compete for nutrients much, but they will compete for light if you let them get too tall.

What NOT to Do

Now I probably don't need to say this to my readers, but my first rule is never ever EVER use glyphosate (Roundup, etc.) or any of its many formulations, anywhere, including your lawn. It is devastating life everywhere. It kills soil microbes, and is killing the necessary and critical gut microbes of bees, butterflies and humans. It is killing off amphibians and fish. We are only just learning about its many devastating effects on life. (Read Toxic Legacy by MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff if you're interested in the science.)

Also, as tempting as it may be to use "natural" weed killers like salt or vinegar, these too will make soil inhospitable to life, not only to weeds but to whatever else we may want to grow there in the future. Ever notice the dead grass along the edges of sidewalks or the dead trees along the side of mountain roads that got salted in the winter by ice melt?

Also, if you're still using a tiller in the spring, stop, because it actually leads to much worse soil compaction, hardpan, and weed pressure over time (alternatives here).

What TO Do

This leaves us with mechanical means of just-below-the-surface weed control.

Over the decades I must have tried every gizmo ever made to take out weeds. I've spent many an hour (day, week…) over the years cursing and hacking at weeds with poorly-designed, cheap, dull "tools" that tired me out and made me dread weeding.

These experiences eventually turned me into a tool nerd. A fine, sharp, well-built tool is a joy to use, and makes weeding actually fun.

Four tools have proven their nobility, and will forever have an honored place my heart and my tool shed (okay not forever, but at least until I'm pushin' up daisies myself): my collinear hoe, my nejiri kama (Japanese weeding sickle), my scuffle hoe, and my Fiskars standing weeder (for dandelions and thistles). They are pictured at the top, clockwise.

Collinear Hoe This is a standing hoe designed by Eliot Coleman and is angled for easy, maneuverable weeding without bending. I like the one with the replaceable blade. Available from Johnny's Selected Seeds.

Nejiri Kama Razor-sharp and slightly curved toward you, this is the tool for weeding when you're down close to your plants and want to reduce competition. Available from Garret Wade.

Scuffle Hoe I can quickly prep or weed an entire bed, or take out an overwintered cover crop, with a cuts-both-ways scuffle hoe. The one made and sold by Johnny's is razor sharp, built to last and is the only one I'd recommend.

Fiskars 4-claw Stand Up Weeder Our "new" next door neighbor let their whole back yard go to thistles a couple of summers ago, which blew giant, gentle, graceful clouds of sparkly seeds over the fence and across our yard. Since I enjoy optimizing my vitamin D, I took up a new hobby last year and added a previously-unnecessary tool to my repertoire: the Fiskars Standing Weeder.

Now you have to wait until the ground is just the right moisture level, like the day after a good thunderstorm, but this puppy will take out a 14" deep thistle root. The trick is: soft but not wet soil, getting the 4 claws properly centered over the stalk and the tool vertically pressed in to the hilt, and then very slowly leveraging it back on its foot. You have to go slow to allow the little side roots to gently let go. I find it actually fun to see how huge a thistle or dandelion root I can pull out with this thing. Available at Home Depot.

Leave severed weed tops right on the surface, where they will act as mulch and return their nutrients to the soil via earthworms, fungi and microbes.

Finally, I think we need to get over our collective glamorization of a "perfect", "ideal" lawn or garden, and our resultant war on nature, which we don't actually understand as well as our ancient ancestors did.

Life is better for everyone if we understand each other's place in creation, and work together in cooperation for the common good. Welcome a few weeds for the soil-healing gifts they offer.


Vegetable Garden Guru is dedicated to the renewal of regenerative, sustainable, organic vegetable gardening around the world. May we become gardeners of healthful, nutrient-dense food, careful stewards of soil, and may the plants we tend remind us to always keep growing toward the Light.

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