I harvested six cauliflowers from this patch over the past month -
now it is mulched with the weeds growing in and around the cauliflowers,
plus the remains of their straw mulch.
Yesterday I listened to scientist and sustainability consultant Dr Ron McDowall talk about some of the awful things he has seen and endured in his role as a expert consultant in cleaning up toxic waste for the United Nations Environment Programme. (Read more about it at Agri-chemicals – a global toxic legacy.)
Most of the chemicals Dr McDowall has helped clean up are highly toxic pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals are responsible for many tragedies, from the deaths of children to the deaths of ecosystems.
What is even more tragic is that these horrors are still occurring, although over roughly the same time frame we have had a science as well as an art of non-toxic, sustainable food production. This science shows us that - far from being an enemy to be poisoned to death - so-called weeds are mostly harmless plants with many uses, from mulch to medicine. Hence they are friends rather than enemies, even though some of them behave a bit like the sort of friend who doesn't know when they have outstayed their welcome.
That is certainly how I think of them in my garden. I keep some of them alive because I have a use for them that way, and the ones I don't have a use for the worms and micro-organisms in my soil can certainly use – but only when they have been hoed or pulled by hand, not poisoned. Nature maintains (and improves) soil fertility by retaining dead plant material close to where the plant lived and died. I now take a tip from nature in my vege garden by using weeds as mulch. As soon as I clear a bed of a crop and the weeds that have grown among it I fork over the bed, add some animal manure if I have it, and then mulch it with the weeds and any spare leaves of the crop I have just removed. The worms pull it all down and they and the soil micro-organisms transform it into good soil. I couldn't afford to buy soil this good, so there's no way I would want to prevent it from happening - not to mention wasting money and endangering my health by using weed-killers.
Fathen is a weed that is
relished by chooks,
and can be eaten
by humans too,
while horehound makes an effective treatment for coughs.
I also let the useful weeds grow where they will, occasionally removing them to a more convenient place. The useful 'weeds' in my garden are mainly herbs or greens which have self-sown. They include horehound, dill, rocket, dandelion and nasturtium. (The Eco-Forester makes a pesto out of dandelion leaves and walnuts, which he relishes.) Those who keep chickens will know that the weeds puha, fathen and chickweed are always a welcome addition to the hens' diet.
Chickweed also makes a great poultice for drawing out splinters, as I discovered one night when it was too late to see what the chemist had to offer for this, and I consulted a herbal instead. I found it extremely satisfying to be able to treat myself for free using a common weed from my backyard, and it was a good lesson in why we should learn to live with weeds in a friendly way, not try and exterminate them.
This patch of weed-mulched
ground includes nitrogen-rich
clover and the flowers
and stalks of coriander
that is past it best.
Sure, there are some weeds which cause a lot of trouble and have no good uses (convolvulus comes to mind) but there are non-toxic ways of dealing with such weeds to keep them in check. They may require a little more labour, and certainly more thought, than reaching for the spray – but now that I know the full extent of the damage that those sprays do, right around the world, I don't want any more children to die in Africa, Asia or South America just so that those of us who can afford the safety gear and safe disposal methods can have the 'convenience' of killing convolvulus without effort.
I'd rather be thinking of ways to use and enjoy weeds instead – and I'd love to hear your ideas for making good use of common weeds.
Nasturtium leaves and flowers are edible in salads,
and the trailing kinds make a great living mulch.