What’s a Weed?

About a week ago, we changed seasons here in Virginia. We put down the shovel and took up its summer counterpart: the hoe. This is not to say that there won’t be more planting going on (there will), and it’s not to say that there wasn’t some weeding going on back in March and April (there was), but it’s just recently that the center of gravity has shifted, and from now until late August, we’ll be working harder to get rid of plants than to start new ones.

I’ve come rather recently to the hoe. My first gardens were planted in Mel Bartholomew style: as many plants as possible squeezed into every square foot. Intensive gardening, it’s called. And man, was it a lot of work. Because the plants were so close together that they all had to be weeded by hand. And as much as I enjoy excuses to get into the garden, the task was overwhelming even for me, and even in the moderately sized garden I planted that year.

Reading Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When It Counts changed all that. I started gardening extensively, in widely spaced, old-fashioned rows. (My corn, for example, is in rows 3 feet apart, not 1 foot apart, as per Bartholomew. Just try weeding a patch of corn planted 1 foot on center, and you’ll see why I switched….) Not only does this method reduce the amount of watering you have to do (because each plant’s roots can spread through three times the amount of soil), but I have to say, it can actually make weeding…a pleasure. Because it’s not actually weeding. It’s cultivating. It’s walking around the garden with your hoe and sweeping the top half inch or so of soil to uproot the little weed seedlings that have just started to grow. It takes almost no effort at all. (Until, of course, you run into some tenacious perennial grass roots. But if they’re not overly abundant, hacking at those with the corner of the hoe can be a pleasure as well.)

The key is timing. I find that the best day for hoeing is two days after a good, soaking rain (or one day after a light one). The soil has just the right amount of moisture to fall apart under the slightest pressure. And as long as you’ve gotten to the weeds early enough–before they’re over a half inch tall–it really takes very little effort, no more than mixing a cake by hand. And it’s about as pleasurable, with all those earthy smells wafting up from the damp dirt. And the weedless brown expanse that the hoe leaves behind as you move along the row. It’s a joy to know that, if you keep this up, the weeding will never get any harder than this, all season long.

Hoeing on a beautiful May day can even be addictive. It’s just so darn easy and effective that I find myself always wanting to do one more row. Or just that little spot behind the brassicas. Or that strip on the other side of the Jerusalem artichokes. In fact, I’ve begun to worry that hoeing may be too effective. I could soon be rid of every last plant that I did not expressly sow or transplant on this plot of ground. Is that the way I want my garden to be? So…imperialistic?

Eliot Coleman writes in The New Organic Grower that he sows green manures among his crops. After the vegetables are up and galloping, he might sow clover, which helps aerate the soil and fixes nitrogen for future plants to use. I’ve noticed that one of the plants my hoe has been uprooting lately…is wild clover. Hm. Cognitive dissonance.

My hoe hesitates when I come to a little tuft of white clover, and I’m forced to ponder the question, “What is a weed?” For a long time, I was a fan of the definition, “A weed is a plant that’s out of place.” I liked this, because it didn’t categorize some plants as “good” plants and some as “evil.” It allowed that everyone could find their rightful place somewhere in the world. But then I read Wendy Johnson’s book Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, and in there she says she doesn’t like this definition at all, because weeds are actually much more “in the right place” than the tender, exotic species we humans want to displace them with.

Common chickweed

I like this, enough to expand on what she wrote and say that a weed is a plant that has chosen its site for itself. A seed has fallen, say, and just the right combination of warmth, light, moisture, and nutrients have caused that seed to sprout, and naturally nourished it into the seedling that we find when we approach with our hoe to slice it down. There are many plants–and these are the ones that thrive in gardens–that nature expressly uses to heal disturbed ground, to grow quickly over wounds that have been opened in the earth’s surface to prevent the hemorrhage of nutrients. The chickweed that blanketed my garden this spring when I first went out to turn over the soil is a prime example. I carelessly didn’t sow a winter cover crop, so nature–thankfully–sowed one of her own. And I’ve been pulling it out and using it as mulch all spring. (And eating some of it, too!)

It seems to me that in gardening, as in so much else, nature knows what is needed better than we humans do. And the weeds that grow in our gardens are some of her messages to us. Chickweed, for example, tells me (without a soil test!) that my soil is porous, alkaline, and slightly sweet. (Wendy Johnson informed me of this!) And its quickly spreading habit tells me, “Hurry up and cover this naked soil before it gets washed or blown away!”

Of course, I want to grow the plants I want to grow, not necessarily the ones nature has in mind. And that means I can’t just let any old seedling gobble up the nutrients needed by my tomatoes and peppers. Which means I need a weeding strategy. Which naturally leads me to hoeing. Which doesn’t work well with mulch (the gardener’s pitiful attempt at imitating the erosion and moisture control nature accomplishes with weeds). So what’s a gardener to do?

Well, I’m definitely not going to stop getting rid of the weeds. I do, after all, want my garden to produceĀ vegetables. One good thing is that soil that has just been hoed actually acts as a mulch itself, what–in very technical language–is called a “dust mulch.” The air spaces in the freshly hoed soil actually protect the underlying earth from changes in temperature and moisture loss. Still, it seems to me that this must contribute to wind erosion…. So, as my crops get stronger, I may eventually let some self-seeded clover escape the hoe. And I may experiment with using more straw mulch, after the initial batch of weed seeds stirred up by digging have germinated and been cut off. But most importantly, I’m going to keep watching. Watching to see what nature is trying to do with my garden and see whether we might be able to come to a better compromise.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. That is an interesting looking hoe, similar to my Chillingham Hoe.

    1. Sharon says:

      Is it? I’m borrowing it from my parents, who’ve had it a long time.

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