Image credit: Paul Wheaton
I've noted before that if there is a war on weeds, it's important to identify what victory looks like. While many old-school gardeners and farmers talk in terms of a never-ending battle with invading hoards, a more interesting, nuanced approach is also possible. What if we could choose our weeds, and even enlist them as allies?
When I posted an awesome tour of my old permaculture teacher's urban allotment, I was reminded of his seemingly chaotic yet decidedly sensible approach to weeding. Rather than seeking to eradicate weeds from his site—an objective that was at best incredibly labor or chemical intensive, if not downright impossible—he instead chose to encourage weeds that had some beneficial properties. Those might be wild edibles, or they may be nitrogen fixers, or plants with particular benefits in terms of biodiversity. The idea, then, was to edit rather than control—and to encourage a community of plants that was both productive and more-or-less self sustaining.
Selective Weeding Through Careful Observation
This video is a classic example of that approach. By observing her fields and the life-cycles of both the main farm crops, and the weeds that inevitably accompany them, Helen Atthowe of Veganic Permaculture is able to identify penny cress as a plant that does not compete with her main crops, and also attracts beneficial insects. So while she weeds selectively and takes out plants that cause more disruption, she lets penny cress thrive and spread—in the hope that it will crowd out some of the competition and ultimately reduce the need for weeding or other interventions.
Farmers As Stewards, Not Directors
Just as the end goal is not eradication of all weeds, it is also not the establishment of a broccoli and penny cress double crop. Rather, it is about accepting the role of the farmer or gardener as steward and editor, not controller—seeking to tweak the balance of nature in our favor, not bend it unrelentingly to our will. It's a lesson that could be applied way beyond farming, and a reminder of why gardening is not just the best metaphor for engineering. Gardening is the best metaphor for gardening too.