Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On weeds and outputs

Weeds used to present an ongoing challenge to my gardening - particularly in my organic garden, where I can't resort to my neighbors' chemical "kill 'em all" approach.

Over the years, my relationship with weeds has slowly transitioned from a power-over battle (which, organic and under equipped, I verged on losing) to a strange kind of partnership. Slowly, over the last six years, the back garden has transitioned from a 30 x 50 foot weed farm to a lush edible landscape. And still, the weeds crop up: bits of Johnsongrass and bermuda, lambsquarters seeds still coming up from the crop I planted six years ago, sprawling low ground covers that try to blend in with the St. John's wort, and the beautiful but deadly bindweed (as well as the 'volunteers' that crop up everywhere, which may or may not be allowed to stay).

If I can be permitted some idealism, the weeds are trying to teach me something. They have some specific outputs and functions. And the more I can slow down, partner with the weeds, and understand those outputs, the quicker they move on their way.

So, what are those weeds trying to remind me?

Everything has a function. Mostly, those weeds have been trying to cover patches of bare soil. They've done their weedy best to protect that soil from wind and rain damage, and from running off. If I want the weeds to go away, I will need to do something to replace their function - with mulch, deliberate ground covers and denser plantings.

Observe and verify. Specific weeds can serve as diagnostic tools - teaching me more about my soil than any test kit. Looking at just a few of my weeds:

  • Bindweed indicates heavy soils - and also tells me that its kissing cousin morning glory might do well in these same soils.
  • Purslane indicates poor, compacted soils - and does well in drought conditions
  • Dallisgrass loves heavy, clay soils while Johnsongrass indicates richer soils - which makes complete sense with how it mostly volunteers where the silt collects from water erosion
  • Spotted spurge establishes ground cover where there is none, and begins to create inconformities in the soil

So, I have a pattern. Stuff that thrives in - and presumably wants to break up - heavy soils, some of which indicates relative patterns of richer versus poorer soils which I can use to my advantage when planning for intentional plants in those areas. Obtain a yield. Okay, so there's a lot to learn from these weeds. All well and good. But ultimately, I still want to be rid of them. That's where obtaining a yield comes in. Assuming I either catch them before they go to seed, or have a good hot compost pile, all those weeds are food for the compost bin. (Nom, nom, nom.) Among other brown materials, I compost a fair amount of paper - and all that paper needs a balance of green materials in order to heat up and break down. In come the weeds - suddenly my most valuable crop! In go the dallisgrass, the spurges, the extra bits of purslane! In go the little dandelions and volunteer mallows and lambsquarters! In go the horehound that's gotten a bit too rampant! And you, little baby weeds! And so it goes, in a flurry of compost harvest until . . . I suddenly find that I've harvested almost every weed, and need to look for plant trimmings to fill in the rest of the pile's needs. And almost, just a little bit, wish I had more to work with.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Autumn Riches

Autumn in the Hill Country is much like the desert southwest where I grew up - which means, like spring in any other part of the country. After a hot, dry summer a cold front rolls in and storm clouds burst out with rain.

And so, it's planting time for our second major growing season. The last summer squash and the brussels sprouts are already bursting forth, and somewhere in that damp soil are mesclun mixes, kohlrabi, beets, chard, collards, mustards and cauliflower (which I probably planted far too late, but we'll call them an experiment).

With a bit of protection, those greens will make it through the entire winter, providng food for the grazing. With any luck, they'll start producing in earnest while we're getting the last of the squash, peppers and a few last tomatoes. (We're still working through the jars of green tomato chutney from last year's bounty.)

Puttering around the garden this morning, weeding a bit in the pre-dawn light, that little voice whispered to me again: "Blog! Start a blog!"

You see, I've been threatening to do this for a while. There are Posts that Want to Be Written about topics like water conservation, apartment gardening, composting, turning fruits into jam . . . okay, I admit, it's a pretty random list. Probably a bit like the garden itself.

So here we are: we'll call this another seed for the fall garden. A place where I can try, as I joke with my design clients, to make lots of mistakes in my own space so you don't have to. Pull up a chair under the pergola, and enjoy.