At a sustainable farming conference, I once took a class on controlling weeds organically. The focus was mid-large organic operations, but I was sure the talk would be relevant to our 1 acre in annual production. I remember the speaker saying,
“If you, as a farm manager, are spending more than 30% of your time weeding, you’re doing something wrong.”
“I’m doing something very wrong,” I thought.
At the Harvest Table Farm, I’m not very diligent in making sure no weeds go to seed. See, many types of weeds are beneficial to the overall ecosystem of the farm. However, too many weeds and the ecosystem starts to tip more towards its natural state- that is, away from human food production. In trying to find that balance, we’ve employed a number of weed management strategies from heavy mulching to weed tastings. I’d add to Mr. Milne’s comment, “Weeds are vegetables, too, once you serve them convincingly.”
One of our favorites at the farm is Amaranth (Amaranthus hybridus), which is high in protein (almost 3 grams per serving), vitamin A, and provides 90% of the daily vitamin C recommendations. Another essential weed to get to know is Oxalis, or common wood sorrel. It has a great tart flavor that you might think of as the Appalachian lemon.
Unfortunately, not all of the weeds are edible; and as Dr. Hopp likes to remind me, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s tasty.” So, we work to build an agroecological system here on the farm that allows for selective weed growth. A “weed” is just a plant that’s growing in the wrong place. We’re trying to minimize the number of soil-sucking, thorn producing, rhizome spreading weeds in our fields, while encouraging the succulent, shallow rooted, vitamin-packed “weeds” to move in. Sometimes, we plant them intentionally, or select for certain plants simply by allowing them to flower while eliminating others.
In addition to eating the wild plants, we sometimes just do our best to keep them out all together. We don’t do this by using chemicals, but by smart planting and mulching. We interplant companions such as carrots and leeks or beans and celery to mimic the biodiversity found in nature, shade out weeds, and efficiently use the space we have. Leaf-mulch is our primary method of weed control, and it also helps the soil maintain a steady temperature, reduces the spread of pathogens, and adds organic matter to the soil. Win, Win, Win!
I probably still spend at least 30% of my time on the farm controlling weeds, but I’m learning to do it more efficiently, effectively, and with enjoyment. Don’t be alarmed if you find a plant formerly known as a weed on your plate at The Harvest Table, just give it a try, and let us know what you think!