I once lived next door to a wise eccentric we called Tomato Man. He was renowned in the neighborhood for his exceptional tomatoes, reliably produced in abundance year after year in his “weed friendly” garden.
Tomato Man was as proud of the “weeds” that grew between his tomato plants as he was of the luscious fruit they bore him; and he bragged unabashed to any who would listen that it was because of the weeds that his tomatoes (and everything else) grew so remarkably.
Being “educated,” I didn’t believe him. I just figured he was lazy and didn’t like weeding. I was certain that he hoarded some other secret, something so amazing that he got great tomatoes despite the weeds. And I thought that way for a long time, trying to wrangle the secret out of him — until I started really listening to him and experimenting on my own.
I had long believed in the misconception that all weeds are a gardener’s bane. Like most other “civilized” creatures, I had developed a high need for order and an unconscious jealousy of all things wild and free — like many of us would secretly like to be. I saw weeds as signs of poor garden management, and worse: competitors for scarce resources. Now I know better. As much as “weeds” can be a nuisance, they have a vital place in the web of life and can even aid our gardening efforts, like the beneficial insects they provide habitat for.
Among many other things, Tomato Man taught me that what constitutes a “weed”— or a nuisance, for that matter— depends entirely upon your point of view. (Like everything else?)
A weed is just a wild plant that shows up where we don’t want it, or one we have yet to find a reason to exploit. Before we developed agriculture, every plant was essentially a weed. Of course, there are certainly “bad” weeds. Invasive grasses, like Johnson and Crab, for instance, which aggressively spread to rob from all the other plants like Wall Street bankers.
But the vast majority of broadleaf “weeds” are tame and helpful. Many of them are ecologically essential: stabilizing, improving and rehabilitating the soil and helping other plants, including vegetable crops, in a variety of ways. As Tomato Man discovered, some wild plants make exceptional companion plants to vegetables. Many are also edible, medicinal, or both. So they need to be managed — like you manage your tomatoes — rather than eliminated altogether.
Some weeds you could call tractor plants, because they excel in loosening compacted soils, helping us maintain, loosen and build our soil with a LOT less work— and better for the soil than a shovel, plow or tiller. Some send their roots deep, mining nutrients leached to the subsoil and returning them to the upper layers (often by way of the compost pile) where most plants feed. Some excrete a chemical from their roots that actually “melts” compacted soils and hardpan so the voracious roots can penetrate. In the process they also open up channels for worms, improved aeration, water penetration and microbial life, while helping the heavy feeders like corn and tomatoes get their roots deeper in search of nutrients, all of which translates into healthier plants and better yields.
Which is why Tomato Man wore a near constant grin on his face when he talked about his favorite weeds, like he had discovered the Holy Grail in his basement.
Certain weeds can also tell us about the health of the soil they choose to grow in, having a “soil-improving purpose” you might say. If you watch an abandoned lot where significant top soil erosion or compaction has occurred, what you will have over a few years is a gradual natural parade of different kinds of plants that move in and then move out, beginning with certain deep rooting broadleafs that prepare the soil for the grasses (grains) that can only grow where there is a humus layer.
I’m not suggesting that you just let “weeds” grow unrestrained. That would only make sense for those who think that organic gardening just means doing next to nothing. But if you really want to be a master gardener and upgrade your ecological literacy, I would recommend that you learn about “weeds.” There’s a free book, available online, that will help you with that— which weeds are good for what and so forth— and you can take it from there. Weeds: Guardians of the Soil. Enjoy.
Letting the “good” weeds do their job is not quite as tidy as other gardening methods perhaps, but less work and more productive. Which would you rather have?
Photos by Melita Bena
Upcoming Workshops from the Community Teaching Garden:
Backyard Chickens and You
Saturday, March 19, 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.; Fee: $15.00
Shasta College Farm, Shasta College Main Campus; Presenters: Casey Schurig and Nancy de Halas
Garden Soil Dynamics: Building Soil Fertility
Sunday, March 20, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.; Fee: $15.00
Room 812, Shasta College Main Campus; Presenter: Ken Waranius
Planting a Medicinal Herb Garden
Sunday, April 10, 10:00 a.m. to noon; Fee: $15.00
Community Teaching Garden, Shasta College Main Campus; Presenter: Kalan Milhous Redwood
Seed Saving and Improvement
Sunday, April 10, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.; Fee: $15.00
Community Teaching Garden, Shasta College Main Campus; Presenter: Jim Collins
Register for all workshops by going online to www.shastacollege.edu/EWD, and click on Pathways or call (530) 225-4835.
Jim Collins is a local ecopsychologist, organic farmer and founder of a regional seed bank. He is currently garden manager of the Community Teaching Garden project at Shasta College, a pioneer program promoting self-reliance, sustainable practices, regional food security, and ecological literacy by providing information, instruction, and practical experience in sustainable organic food gardening.
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