Long Live the Weeds!
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “Inversnaid”.)
I first really discovered the joy of weeding when I went to Sweden as a Wwoofer – almost exactly two years ago now. I stayed with two separate farms and worked for them in the fields, planting, sowing, weeding, watering, making food, digging, building….
It returns to me now as the best time of my life. Even though I’ve since been through two years of college, even though I’ve had the pleasure of stretching and bending and twisting my mind and discovering the beauty of mathematics; even though I’ve since made some of the best friends I have ever known – working on those farms still comes back to me as the best time.
Both of the farms where I stayed were fully organic, and that meant that weeding was very important. The first place I stayed was a larger commercial farm, and they had all kinds of tools and techniques and ways of dealing with weeds, and I learned all of them. It came in stages – there was digging up the ground before you planted everything, removing all the old roots from last year as you went along; there was hoeing when the little delicate non-perennials began to come up – first among the onions, I remember – they all got their heads chopped off, poor things. Then there was the Burning of the Weeds as the war went into its next stage. One hot day two of us were harnessed up to an extraordinary contraption – a canister of gas which was carried on the back, and attached to a kind of a pipe with a flame that would shoot out and wither away all the Unwanted Things – mostly dandelions – that crept around the carrots. Anders, the beautiful, white-haired, lithe and little Swedish farmer, could manage this contraption single-handedly, but myself and another girl were given the task to share. One of us carried the Contraption and burned the weeds while the other ran on ahead, pointing out where there were already the onions beginning to come up. (It had been left slightly too late – this form of Assault On Weeds should really be done while the weeds are growing but the onions are not.)
I remember still how terrifying it was – to be running on, trying to stay ahead of the monstrous heated machine coming along on my tail, shouting out over the sound of the gas “Onion! Onion! ONION!” and pointing at the precious shoot we wished to preserve from the twin dangers of strangulation by weeds or cremation by us.
My favourite form of weeding was the old-fashioned kind. On my knees, or crouched down on my heels, trowel in hand, digging up the most persistent plants from their roots. There were two kinds of difficult roots, and I found myself in awe of both of them in the course of the time I spent trying to dig them up. One of them was the dandelion weed, which would tunnel its way deep, deep into the earth, narrowing as it went, so that as you went to pull it up it was very liable to break off halfway – and if that happened it was sure to grow back from the stump. To pull up the entire root was as satisfying an experience as it was a difficult task.
Even trickier to fully root out was a curious weed known as Witch Grass. This plant doesn’t bother building great big trunk-like contraptions like the dandelions’, but instead spreads itself out in a secret network under the ground. Each shoot conceals a lattice of thin roots each of which is capable of sending up another shoot at any moment. Break it in the middle, and it just keeps on growing. Dandelions are like a great army of thickset, heavily-armoured soldiers – Witch Grass by contrast invades by stealth, like an army of secret agents. Unearthing one of their networks felt like getting to the bottom of a particularly tricky mathematical problem.
Weeding itself is a delightfully absorbing task, and gives me just the right balance of exertion enough to make me feel completely alive, with enough pauses built in to allow me to sustain it for a good long time. It quiets my mind, and, unusual in gardening, there is an immediate and physically visible sense of progress to enjoy. I get to dig my hands deep into the earth. I wouldn’t want to trade that time away, certainly not for the use of a chemical weed-killer.
And there are other reasons for that. At first I enjoyed the weeds because they gave me something to rail against. I didn’t have to be careful or compassionate or kind to them. I didn’t have to feel sorry for them. I could pull them out gleefully from their seats, knowing all the while that I could never entirely oust them. They would always come back.
Even at that stage, although I loved weeds it was precisely because they were always seen as something to fight. A permanent, convenient enemy. I didn’t realise that they were not necessarily so permanent, any more than they were always an enemy.
It was at the second farm where I stayed that I began to learn a different approach to weeds entirely. The emphasis was not on excluding unwanted plants, but creating an environment where no plant was unwanted.
Their plan might sound idealistic, but it is rooted in the real science of ecosystems. Imagine a forest of fruit and nut trees, with berry-bearing shrubs growing underneath, and on the ground, a cover of perennial plants that would enrich the soil, lock in moisture, provide resistance to flooding, and could be used as food. Some of these ground cover plants were known to me already – I would have called them weeds.
Nettles, for example – the bane of many an Irish country walker’s life, but seen there as a valuable crop – not only a very good food but extremely rich in nitrogen for the soil.
There was also herbs that like to spread, and thus readily turn into “weeds” when unchecked – things like mint and lemonbalm – and comfry, which grows in bushes, has multiple medicinal uses and again is rich in nutrients for the soil.
Here, other “weeds” would not grow in great amounts because there would simply be no room for them – and, if they did it would not matter. This, you see, is a system of agriculture that acknowledges one of the most fundamental truths of nature, one systematically ignored by us humans in so many ways, but particularly damagingly in our farming systems: that is, that the strength and sustainability of an ecosystem lies in its diversity.
That is why you do not see any piece of uncultivated land with only one single crop growing in it, as we do on modern farms where every other form of life has been obliterated. That is why weeds exist and why they will always come back.
It makes me sad to hear the likes of the gardening advice I heard on the radio just last week – three different weed-killers named, to rid the lawn of clover and daisies and anything other than grass. I would not want to be without the variety of colour and texture that these different grasses give to a field, quite apart from appreciating their nitrogen-fixing qualities. if you are feeling brave, you can pick the little white clover flowers and add them to a salad. They’re delicious.
Dandelions too are immensely useful from the leaves in early spring which taste a little like radish leaves and need steaming to make them really palatable, to the flowers in June and July, to the roots, which, if you can manage to dig the whole thing up, can be dried and ground into a wonderful coffee substitute.
Nettles make great tea, and are famous for their rich levels of Iron. My favourite way to eat them is steamed, with a poached egg on top. Or the classic nettle soup.
Ground Elder grows everywhere, is really easy to harvest and makes a particularly delicious pesto.
And then there’s the blackberries. They’re technically weeds too.
Although what is a weed? Just a plant you don’t want. So maybe consider wanting some of your weeds, and turn your weeding into a harvest.