How I Learned to Stop Digging and Love the Weeds

by Siobhán Lavelle

I trained in horticulture, which, most simply put, is a system by which you divide the plant kingdom into two categories – good plants (that you nurture) and bad plants (that you kill). The work of the horticulturist is an endless battle against these bad plants (weeds) which are ever so persistent at living. At the same time, the good plants (ornamentals, vegetables, etc.) whom it is our job to protect are often not so resilient. There is a lot of fertilising, watering, pruning, weather protection and pest and disease control to keep these desired plants alive.

Why is it so? Why is it not the other way around? Does life have to be so hard?

It turns out that most weeds are native plants, the vegetation that would be there if we didn’t interfere. In contrast, most popular edible and ornamental plants do not originate from the place in which they are grown. Most of our vegetables are from the Middle East and the Mediterranean – the places in which farming originated. As we moved north, we brought our favourite foods with us and later introduced some others from South America, even though the colder and damper climate made it more difficult to grow them successfully.

Corn, tomatoes and courgettes growing in polytunnel

Also, throughout the centuries, we bred our vegetables to be bigger, sweeter and denser in calories. The selective breeding process left the cultivated vegetables less rich in the broader range of vitamins and minerals their wild counterparts contained and also made them more in need of fertilisers and more attractive to slugs, insects, fungus, bacteria, etc.

Likewise, ornamental plants have been bred to produce bigger, showier flowers and more attractive leaves. Similarly, the breeding process has weakened these plants and left them more in need of protection and fertilisation.

Anyway, I did my duty as a gardener for hire and as a home vegetable grower – I must have removed many, many tonnes of weeds over the years from flower beds and vegetable patches. I did so much digging that the muscles in my right lower back ache just thinking about it.

The endless task of digging

What was it all for?

Within a week, new weeds appear and it starts again. When you dig up one weed, you often unearth and activate the seeds for a hundred more. The soil structure is damaged by digging as well as the soil biology, including mycorrhizal fungi which help plants to obtain water, nutrients and valuable information. Soil is full of weed seeds.

After a couple of years’ experience, realising the system wasn’t working, I switched to no-dig gardening, at least in my own garden. In no-dig gardening, you don’t cultivate or break up the soil at all. You don’t incorporate compost, just add it on top and let the worms incorporate it for you. When weeding, you just remove what you can with your hands or a hoe – stubborn tap roots are left be. The likes of docks and dandelions do keep coming back – you just continue removing their leaves and weaken them gradually. It’s a quick job each time and a lot less work than the work you create when you cause a hundred new weed seeds to germinate.

No-dig works better again when combined with mulching. Mulching is covering the soil with organic material, e.g. woodchips, hay, cardboard, even a thick layer of compost. It can smoother weeds quite effectively. In nature, soil is never bare unless something has gone wrong. If you leave soil bare, plants will move in to fill it – that’s their job. If you don’t want weeds, you need to cover every inch of ground with either desired plants or mulch.

However, you’ll never fully be rid of weeds, it seems. Mulch breaks down after a few months and becomes compost, perfect for young weeds to get started in. If you’re a little late in topping the mulch up or if it is disturbed by wind, animals, etc., you have weeds again.

Onions with weeds

The weeds are the natural plant eco-system for that particular place and time. If the soil is damaged in some way, the exact right wild plants (I’m not calling them weeds anymore!) come in to remedy the situation. Clover colonises depleted soil and replenishes the nitrogen. Docks break up hard, compacted soil with their strong, deep tap roots. It’s difficult to derail such a perfect system unless you have a better one to offer.

Over the years, I learned more and more about wild plants and became increasingly intrigued. First there were the obvious ones, like nettles, that most people know are a great source of iron and delicious in soup.

They are also anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, contain an array of vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats and are a crucial host plant for small tortoiseshells amongst other butterflies.

Dandelions contain almost every vitamin and mineral we need, can be used to flush out urinary infections, heal the liver and gall bladder, are an important early source of nectar for pollinators and provide seeds for birds. Plantain is a nutritious food, antibacterial, stops bleeding when applied to a wound and supports ladybirds and wasps which eat garden pests such as aphids. I could go on and on. The important thing is that as I learned all of this, I thought, ‘the lettuces and pansies I’m protecting by killing these weeds don’t have as many nutrients or impressive functions as the weeds themselves. Maybe I’m doing it the wrong way around.’

I found myself increasingly reluctant to remove these powerful plants. I learned how to use more and more of them, in salads, in cooked dishes and in medicinal herbal teas. I found when I looked out at my ‘untidy’ garden, I was no longer stressed out by it. Instead of a battlefield full of invaders, I saw a mix of plants, some seeded by myself and some self-seeded surprises, all beautiful and useful.

I found myself increasingly reluctant to remove these powerful plants. I learned how to use more and more of them, in salads, in cooked dishes and in medicinal herbal teas. I found when I looked out at my ‘untidy’ garden, I was no longer stressed out by it. Instead of a battlefield full of invaders, I saw a mix of plants, some seeded by myself and some self-seeded surprises, all beautiful and useful.

I started off experimenting with leaving low-growing, edible, wild plants such as chickweed and hairy bittercress growing under and in between my salads. If there was any decrease in yield from my salads at all, it was imperceptible and more than counterbalanced by the extra yield I was obtaining from the space, hitherto unused, in between and under my salads.

It was almost too perfect that these two wild plants had joined my salad bed since they make nutritious and delicious additions to any salad – chickweed contains a lot more vitamin C than any of the cultivated salads we grow. I also found they covered the soil really well, preventing more competitive wild plants, especially grass, from moving in. The result was a long, effortless growing season of doing nothing but harvesting and enjoying the food from this bed.

I now have a system by which I divide wild plants into 3 different management categories.

  1. Leave it be

Most wild garden plants fall into this category – chickweed, clover, hairy bittercress, ground ivy, veronica ground elder, garlic mustard, cleavers and dead nettle. They are edible and/or medicinal and don’t out-compete the cultivated plants too readily and so can be left to grow away to a point.  Most of these, however, do get taller towards the end of their lives and can put the pressure on for space and light (some, for example, chickweed, veronica and ground ivy never get taller or pose a threat). Luckily though, they are soft and easy to cut back in order allow your cultivated plants to get a head start again. Most also have weak roots and can be pulled or hoed out with very little effort if you change your mind about them.

Even when these wild plants they get taller, they won’t pose much of a problem to big-leaved vegetables such as cabbage, kale and spinach. They may need to be kept in check more when growing with the likes of carrots and onions – these vegetables have smaller leaves and are less equipped to compete for light.

Kale growing amongst clover, cleavers and other wild plants
  • Slow it down

These are vigorous wild plants with strong, deep roots. They are edible and incredibly medicinal – dandelions, docks, plantain, nettles but they can out-compete your cultivated plants if you let them. However, they are also mining nutrients from deeper in the soil than your cultivated plants and you can make use of this resource by pulling, cutting or hoeing their leaves off and using them as mulch around the cultivated plants (the leaves you aren’t using as food or medicine that is!). I think of this task as harnessing the power of wild plants to provide free food to my cultivated plants and this I find much more satisfying than weeding.

This practice, carried out every second week, will slow down their growth, so they don’t take over and, even more importantly, don’t flower and spread their seed. They are very useful plants but you’ll always have more of them than you’ll need, so it’s a good idea to control reproduction. Remember that, if you’re mulching well, you won’t have too many of these wild plants anyway.

Kale and cabbage growing with nettles
  • Get rid of it

Before I sound too idealistic here, I better make it clear that I do remove some wild plants from my vegetable and flower beds. Grass is the most common culprit, ever present and strong in Ireland, it forms a thick mat of roots near the top of the soil, snatching most of the incoming water and nutrients before other plants can. Cultivated vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs all struggle to compete with grass. I try to catch it when it has newly rooted and can be taken out easily enough with my fingers. If it’s too late and it has taken hold, I smoother it with four layers of cardboard and some hay or woodchips.

Then there is the issue of invasive plants, which can be more problematic, although I feel they have been demonised to an unreasonable degree. A full discussion on invasives is beyond the scope of this article and I will write more about them in a future post. For now, needless to say, they generally will outcompete your cultivated plants and all need to be either slowed down, smothered or taken out.

So there you have it – my, perhaps controversial, strategy on weeds. I have stopped digging completely (with the exception of planting holes). I have not stopped weeding but I have greatly reduced the effort I put into weeding. When I am dealing with wild plants, my feelings of respect and awe for their resilience and functionality have overtaken any frustration I had. They are exactly where they’re supposed to be. I’m the one being fussy and changing the programme.

I say that I allow wild plants to grow in between my vegetables, but the truth is that most of the vegetables I grow are only to help feed the volunteers and other guests that come to the eco community. When it comes to feeding myself, I predominantly eat wild plants and some perennial vegetables (perennial vegetables live for many years, are tougher and better able to hold their own amongst wild plants). Most of the time, I’m happy to eat whatever edible plants happen to pop up near my front door. It took a bit of adjustment to my palette, but this is a truly effortless and sustainable way of feeding oneself – no need for polytunnels, plastic seed trays, purchased seeds or plastic bags of compost; no heavy lifting or digging. Wild plants will grow happily in poor soil, with no compost added and no protection from weather or pests.

I understand that not everyone will choose to go to this extreme but I hope that you will at least get to know the wild plants in your garden, taste some (after careful identification!) and experiment with which ones might be able to live peacefully among your vegetables and flowers instead of assuming they’re all bad guys!

I also hope that we can learn to appreciate nature in its unaltered from in our gardens. Our senses have been spoiled with the unrealistic extravagance of man-made blooms. We’re too overstimulated to see the subtle beauty of the humble daisy, the brilliant, cheerfulness of dandelion or the strange but interesting dock flower.

Abundance and ease do not equal lack of value. If we only ascribe value to that which is expensive and difficult to maintain, then we guarantee ourselves a life of hard work and a mindset of scarcity. Nature offers us so much that is easy and free. Let’s enjoy it!

Dandelions – a sea of food and medicine

Siobhán Lavelle is a qualified horticulturist and adult educator who has been growing food and foraging for 12 years. She is passionate about making food production easier and more sustainable by understanding and working with nature. She aims to apply permaculture to all aspects of her work. She is an apprentice with the UK Permaculture Association and is a co-founder of Coole Eco Community.

Siobhán offers workshops in horticulture, permaculture, foraging and winemaking at Coole Eco Community.