what to do with weeds

Are they nature’s mistakes or do we not understand nature’s processes?

In the same way that a volcanic island is colonized by lichen & moss, then grasses, ferns and woody shrubs, eventually to become a tropical forest, the perspective of time is worth bearing in mind when observing the landscape. Certain plants create the conditions needed for others to thrive. This natural succession of species may take longer than one human lifespan. The more we try to create limited species landscapes, the harder Nature tries to redress the imbalance. It is our own activities (disrupting existing ecosystems) that create the conditions for invasion by weeds.

A great many common plants we now regard as garden weeds were once considered medicine & food, hence their introduction. If you already have them present, then understanding & using this freely available resource could be beneficial to our own good health!nature fills every niche

                 Life on Earth:

Rule no. 1 : everything is connected

Rule no. 2 : each element has a purpose

Rule no. 3 : nature fills every niche

Rule no. 4 : nature tends to diversity

Rule no. 1: A mature natural landscape has a wide range of species, symbiotically inter-connected, each supporting/feeding another.

Rule no.2: Every element has a purpose. Many weed species concentrate minerals that the soil is deficient in. The presence of excessive weeds often indicates depleted soil that is unable to support nutrient hungry crops. The plants we consider weeds are notoriously tough & adventitious, often growing in conditions our highly bred preferred species can’t survive. Avoid choosing plants that are unsuitable for the local conditions such as those that require intensive irrigation in dry areas. Grow local natives & hardy naturally bred heritage varieties of food crops that have stood the test of time. (Save your own vege seeds to develop hardy local varieties.)

Rule no. 3: Nature abhors a vacuum. Think of weeds as ‘scabs’ for the soil- they may be ugly, but they protect the damaged surface while it heals (if we keep picking them off it will only take longer). Empty spaces (bare soil) will be colonized. Natural stacking (different height & growth types- deep-rooted, suckering, ground hugging, climbing etc) will fill every gap.

Rule no.4: Nature tends towards diversity & abundance. Many of the plants we think of as ’taking over’ the landscape (such as lantana) thrive in areas that were once dense forests or complex mixed landscapes. Of course they run rampant, it is in the very nature of the climate zone(sub-tropical Northern NSW). For a period of time a single species ‘appears’ to dominate & prevent the proliferation of anything else. But in a long range perspective, after 100 years of land clearing, burning, slashing & grazing, it’s not surprising so few native varieties germinate, where would the seed stock come from? Rampant weeds like lantana & blackberries at least prevent topsoil erosion, create biomass to build up the soil & provide shelter for seed bearing birds. Eventually, vigorous native pioneer species, (marangas & wattles) appear, and although lantana will grow up these (relatively) short lived trees & possibly strangle & pull them down, a more complex topsoil is being created & long-lived top-story trees (rainforest) that sprout in low light conditions will push through & overtake the vines. Weeds like camphor laurel & lantana are often spread by birds, whose native food sources we have destroyed. By providing habitat and food even these trees play a part in protecting wildlife while they spread the seeds of native varieties from remnant forests. Unless we can replace these interim species, it may be best to let them do the work for us. Consider the possible benefits as well as the negative impacts before determining the necessity of eradication. I am not referring here to intact native landscapes, but to those areas we have already altered. Of course, it is important to be mindful of introducing any new potential pest species  so as not create more future imbalances & restrict the further spread of invasive exotic weeds in the natural landscape.

So now to gardening: Remember Nature’s plan & imitate her processes. Leave well enough alone & don’t bite off more than you can chew. Before clearing an area, make sure it can be immediately replanted. Try to grow many varieties & many different growth types- avoid monocultures; mixed plantings are less likely to deplete the soil of any one nutrient & will contribute different mineral/nutrient combinations in leaf litter. Plant thickly to fill gaps & mulch heavily to protect bare soil & impede new undesirable weeds sprouting.

Throw weeds back on the ground where they grow (upside down to kill the roots) or compost them. If they are flowering or forming seeds (& at their most vital) make a liquid weed tea fertilizer to prevent them germinating – cover with water in a bucket for several weeks to rot the seeds & & use the resulting liquid tofeed the soil. Add EM-1 (Effective Micro-organisms) to promote fermentation & dynamic accumulators such as comfrey, tansy, dandelion & nettles. Just as seasonal vegetables & herbs are best for our health – so too with weeds. Consider the properties of any plants added to the mix, such as aloe vera for heat stress, woody & deep rooted weeds for strength etc. USE the medicine Nature suggests!

IMAG1198Left: Weed tea soil tonic

In larger gardens, consider sheet mulching. Simply cover overgrown areas with cardboard, newspaper, weed mat, even old carpet, so nutrient rich weeds can compost where they are. (start where you are, use what you’ve got)

Right- Sheet mulching with cardboard held down IMAG1206with branches.  I use cardboard for heavily infested areas & leave for months. Newspaper mulch breaks down faster & can be covered with mulch for better insulation in vege gardens. Such treatments may seem untidy but saves work!      

IMAG1204Left- cardboard planted over with pumpkin vines.

Below Right- Sheet mulching with black plastic-  directly over long grass, crofton weed, bracken & lantana for 3 months (summer)

black plastic/setaria grass

 

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Left- freshly prepared ground after black plastic, newly planted on right (with tamarillos & soy bean cover crop         using weeds                                                       

 

Ingredients for an instant garden: layer box with mixed weeds at bottom, cover with newspaper, straw mulch & worm castings, finish with topsoil or potting mix & plant!

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creative gardening ideas

Small spaces. Even if you don’t have a backyard or live in an apartment, you can still grow some of your own food. Try potted herbs & salad greens on the kitchen windowsill or hang outside window boxes, plant the balcony rails with climbing peas or beans or make a vertical garden using stackable containers. As long as there is sufficient natural light & water, there will be something useful that will grow for your conditions.IMAG1069 No need to spend money on growing containers, anything can hold soil (spend your money on good quality potting mix & organic soil conditioners). Here’s some garbage gardening balcony ideas:      

Milk bottle madness cut tops, leaving handle & pierce holes in base for drainage , fill with good quality potting mix.            

           above: Lettuces hanging on fence in laneway      IMAG1076                                    

nimbin ricebottom left: Organic dry land rice (locally grown Nimbin Valley rice)

right: bamboo ladder with lettuces at bottom & snow peas above with supporting stakes . Note angle  & alignment of bottle handles providing protection from sun. 

Below from left: narrow lanewayfrog hollow lane with straw bale garden, (detail at centre)       right: milk crate potato patch & Styrofoam box onions (or other shallow rooted crop- salad greens, herbs etc) laneway potatoes & onions   

straw bale 

Temporary containers made to decompose Plant seedlings into cardboard containers, (toilet rolls, wax milk cartons,etc) & plant directly into ground when ready (less transplant shock). We like hessian potato sacks filled with soil &  straw mulch for growing potatoes. By the time the spuds are ready, the sack has decomposed & you can leave it where it is to build up soil. Placing the sack directly on the ground kills any weeds or grass lawn (useless stuff) so after the crop is harvested, you have clean bare ground to replant.  strawberry patch 

We make instant strawberry patches with sacks too, laid flat, filled with straw/compost & planted to runners & put directly on grass where the sack eventually decomposes & runners left to spread the next year.         See right: 

Bambooherb spiral1 is a very useful renewable resource that lends itself to many creative garden ideas. Apart from stakes for climbing plants & fencing we make spiral herb gardens (left) & our ‘garden mangers’ (below centre) to make raised beds or straw bale gardens as well as wagon covers- cover with netting or shade cloth to protect young plants. (right)  wagon frame covers   the manger

                     living bridge  

This little strangler fig is growing in a piece of bamboo- which make nice vases or pots for bonsai. We’re hoping this tree will grow up to become a living bridge one day, to which end, it will be transferred into longer & longer lengths of bamboo as it grows. Living bridges take generations to grow, best start now!

Raised garden beds take of lot of backache out of gardening, & commercial versions are available, but of course, anything can be used for the walls. I like to build soil where it will be used, so raised basket gardenstart your raised garden as a compost bed, layering sticks & pruning’s at the bottom for drainage, pile up green weeds (biomass, biomass yah!) & kitchen waste, cover with newspaper to stop weeds re-sprouting, add layers of whatever organic matter you can get, leaf litter or straw mulch, manure, worm castings, seaweed etc.  Allow to cook for several months & plant. Yum!

Above: I call it a food basket! These beds (m2) have been made by weaving mulberry branch pruning’s (flexible) through bamboo stakes. Looks so cute!

IMAG1231

Start where you are, using what you have        Making good soil means lots of organic matter.  As in the raised gardens above, use the existing growth & sheet mulch over the top. Rampant weed growth is turned into worm food. The new vege bed at left was a foot deep with wandering dew. More weeds & leaf litter from the surrounding paths & spent coffee grounds were piled on top, covered with newspaper & left to compost for 2 months. When the pile was sufficiently decomposed, more newspaper was placed on top, covered with straw & planted. The new seedlings are covered with milk carton cloches (bottoms cut off), whose plastic is designed to diffuse light, protecting the babies from wind & the hot midday sun, still allowing enough light while they establish roots in the new soil. These 2L cartons seem to be the perfect size, they act as mini-greenhouses & the new plants need little watering. The cloches are taken off when the plants fill them or start growing through the hole at the top.   For more ideas for using waste, see garbage gardening & what to do with weeds 

 water chestnutsAquatic gardens Water is an important part of a natural garden & a beneficial addition to any space, no matter how small. Make use of your water feature to extend your growing range, add edible aquatics like watercress, water chestnuts & kang kong (Chinese water spinach). Many plants that have high water requirements can be grown in containers floating on the surface. (left)Aquaponics (combining fish & vegetables) is becoming popular & hydroponic systems are now the preferred growing method for many commercial lettuce & strawberry farms. I prefer my food plants to grow in morepipe garden complex natural soil, but the fill & drain method of hydroponics can be adapted for well drained growing mediums. Try a mix of biochar, gravel, sand, broken terracotta, perlite, vermiculite (expanded clays), & compost. Add weed tea & seaweed solution regularly to replace nutrients that may be leached out by constant flushing. Better still re-use the water by pump or bucket collect. The strawberry pipe garden (above right) is a vertical reticulated system (solar pump) that doubles as a fence/ balcony railing.               

water garden

Because aquatic plants take nutrients from the water. they can be used in water purification systems (reed beds) Many also convert toxic compounds into less harmful elements & can be used to take up heavy metals. The pipe garden at left receives water from a hand wash basin above it. It collects in a vertical pipe filled with charcoal, before filtering through the horizontal pipe filled with gravel & planted to weeds before entering the fish pond (local Rainbow fish & silver perch- who take care of mosquito larvae, no feeding required!) Of course, only non-toxic liquid castille soap is used & bio-active cleaners in the bathroom. Don’t put down the sink what you can’t drink!    If it makes the fish sick, it’s probably not good for you either.

garbage gardening

“There is no such thing as waste– only unused resources”

Get creative “Start where you are, use what you’ve already have”                      

zone one is lucky to be next to Nimbin’s famous ‘Rainbow Cafe’ & we have access to some great resources that would normally be called ‘rubbish’. Not only do they make kick-ass coffee, (local brand ‘Cafeind’) which used grounds we take home by the bucketful every day to make super worm food, but also lots of useful containers as well as newspaper & cardboard for sheet mulching (see below). Food wastes, however, are snapped up by local chook-keepers whose free range eggs the cafe serves up for their ‘big breakfasts’ , otherwise we would use for making compost. In fact, any cafe could supply at least some of their own herbs or fresh greens by using their wastes.                  

Anything can be used as growing containers- here’s some of our experiments:

styrofoam box

IMAG1088

styrofoam box with bamboo wagon cover                      Styrofoam produce boxes (the ones with holes at bottom) make great mini-gardens- even to float on ponds (centre picture) for edible aquatics like watercress, kang kong, water chestnuts. We have started rice seedlings like this & grown lettuces in hot summers when they would normally wilt in the full sun without constant irrigation. I’ve contemplated covering my whole dam with these strung together to prevent evaporation in summer & plants would be self watering

IMAG1100

potato crates

Old Milk crates filled with straw mulch watered with seaweed solution (helps prevent mould, as well  as fertilize) & good compost are planted with seed potatoes. The crates at right are stacked to make a wall of potatoes, tops grow through the gaps. Easy to harvest, good drainage & a great space saver! We have these in the narrow footpath lane that leads to zone one.sack o'potatoesOld car tyres make stackable potato patches too.

seed potatoes

Left: We start the seed potatoes in these foil lined 1kg coffee bags with good potting mix & barely water (just keep damp till sprouted)       Right: These potatoes are growing in old hessian sacks (potato sacks!) Start with one layer of straw, plant spuds & then add layers of straw/soil mix, rolling bag up as plant tops grow. We call it ‘a sack o’potatoes’.

milk carton ladder

Milk carton Madness Lots of our city visitors to zone one in Nimbin say they don’t have enough space, so Steph started on the milk bottle madness to demonstrate a do-it-yourself vertical garden, using 2L milk containers (The Rainbow Cafe goes through dozens every day) Small containers like this are best for shallow rooted plants like lettuces & herbs, although they are also good for raising seedlings. We’ve also grown rice & peanuts in them too! More pics below: 

hanging carton detaillettuceIMAG1069 carton cloches  From left: carton detail, lettuces, milk pots hanging on fences, cut bottoms & remove lid for seedling cloches- protects newly planted seedlings from insect attack, sun & wind burn, conserves moisture (mini greenhouse)

Steph makes these hand painted tea light lanterns from milk cartons. They float on water or can be hung up in the trees.       butterfly lanterns   

 wanderer butterfly  purple butterfly

Now what to do with all the bad/old news? And bottomless piles of cardboard boxes at the back of shops? Hopefully, they collect & recycle such things in your area, but if, like me, you don’t want to spend endless hours battling weeds or break your back clearing bare ground for new gardens, start collecting newspapers & flattened cardboard boxes to use for sheet mulching. Newspapers are lighter & break down faster, so I use these to cover freshly prepared beds before planting & cover with straw or raked leaf mulch to impede weed growth.   Cardboard is heavier & takes longer to break down, so I use this to cover large new areas. Don’t bother digging! Place straight on top of grass/weeds (a bit of slashing helps with tall rampant growth) If you like, add lime, seaweed, weed tea, activated EM , or whatever organic soil boosters you prefer before covering with cardboard. Hold in place with branch trimmings (for strong winds) or cover with mulch if you can afford it or can’t stand the messy look. Personally. I no longer bother-the neighbours can’t see in & I’m happy knowing the rubbish is working for me. After 3-6 months, I can plant into the area, the cardboard has broken up a bit & the original growth is gone, composted in situ to feed the new garden area. 

cardboard sheet mulching new pumpkin patch pumpkins                     Above: 60m2 covered in cardboard (without mulch), planted to pumpkins

Remember, Nature fills every niche (& wastes nothing), so we can too. Replace your lawn & pot plants with things you can eat. Use whatever you can think of for growing containers, remembering different plants have differing growing habits- one local friend without a permanent garden grows all his food in buckets (for deep rooted plants) so they can move with him. A little creative garbage collection means you can always have your own free food garden spaces!     

More creative gardening