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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

On Weeds and the Meaning of Life

Every plant-loving gardener massacres plants by the tens of thousands every year. A market gardener kills millions every week.  And their only crime is that they are seeking their place in the sun.  Tragic isn't it?  For them, natural selection has been superseded by the whim of a bloke with a sharp stick.
Chas Griffin from More Scenes from a Smallholding

It's the time of year again where we battle against those un-invited guests in our gardens: weeds.  Don't you hate them?  We spend so much time detroying plants instead of getting on with the real job of growing plants.  But hey, hang on a sec...is this really so?

First of all we need to define weeds.  They are spontaneously growing plants on cultivated land on which we have high hopes of growing something else.  But are all weeds bad?  Let's take a look at some of them.

On the photo above Susan is clearing the plants threatening to engulf some coriander and chives seedlings.  I like coriander... and chives.... not so much grass or these tall plants pretending to be parsley when young.  So weeds = bad.

Amongst all this here I'll be searching for shiso, parsley and leeks.  Again, not good.

But, what about this one:

 In front of my experimental plot of Greek corn several leafy plants like this have popped up.  Wild beet.  Delicious and heathy eaten just like spinach.  Also pretty non-invasive, so we'll let that one live (until it ends up in the soup, that is... or the vegetable tart...)

Or what about this one:

Amongst my tomatillo plants, there's some fleshy ground covering stuff, what's that?  Purslane.  The best source of Omega-3-Fatty Acids in any land based food.  Great in salads.  Again we leave it where it is and eat it over the summer with tomatoes and cucumber.  Mind you I can spot one of those pretend parsleys amongst that crowd too!)

And then there's this one:

Pigweed.  A relation of amaranth and considered a superweed by Monsanto farmers, because it is resistant to roundup.  I like it for that simple reason alone.  It is also edible cooked like spinach.  However it is rather invasive and there's only so much of it you can eat.  So I've been pulling some out where it threaten to take over my Buenos Aires beans and left some elsewhere, where it wasn't so much in the way.

Do you recognise this one?

Of course!  Borage.  Flowers and leaves are extremely tasty in salads or stuffed into ravioli.  Some people sow them deliberately, but mine came from nowhere and I leave it wherever it feels comfortable.  It's only an annual plant anyway and is loved by bees.

And this one here is entwined with a pretty yellow flower behind a squash plant:

Not only has that plant pretty yellow flowers it also attracts bees and other pollinators galore, a good thing for the garden.

You see, it's not always so simple to tell what is a weed and what isn't.  Many are edible or in other ways beneficial to your garden. 

This has also got me thinking of the quote above.  Plant-loving gardeners killing tens of thousands of plants every year?  Well do we?  I actually find it very hard to actually kill a weed.  And how to do you count how many species you manage to eliminate.  Going over a bed with a hoe will keep the weeds down for about.... a day?  The same species will come straight back at you.  Even if you employ the mind bogglingly boring and tedious finger and thumb method, pulling the weeds out by the root, you'll succed in keeping them down for maybe... 3 days... if you are very lucky.

And aren't those plants the same individuals?  Just a fraction of the root stays in the soil and imediately push up a new plant.  Genetically the exact same as the previous one.  Is this not the same plant that you 'killed' 3 days ago?  Are they like the Lord Jesus and come back after 3 days?  It's a miracle!!!

Some weeds have such long tap roots shoots of the same plant pop up several metres apart, like the bamboo that continiues to defy all our efforts to eliminate it.  Or grass.  How do you define an individual gras plant on a lawn or meadow?  It makes you think, doesn't?  Well it makes my tiny brain wonder anyway....

If the borders between individual plants are a bit blurred, maybe our whole idea of individual lifeforms doesn't fit.  With the whole world, all life on earth being intricately connected, maybe the whole idea of us being individuals is an illusion.  After all our bodies are made from second hand bits that once were something or someone else and are constantly being replaced.

My ethics are built on the fact that if all life is inter-connected anything I do to hurt another life-form ultimately comes back to me.  This doesn't mean that I won't hurt other life forms.  Apart from me killing tens of thousands of weeds I also kill plants to eat, not to mention animals.  It's part of life that we do so.  But it does mean that I do my best not to contribute to the wholesale destruction of the planet, because ultimately it's me, or what will be left over of me and transformed into another lifeform and another and another etc that will be hurt.

So treat all life with respect, you may come back as a Monsanto defying amaranth plant...  With this, happy summer everyone!

Oh and finally... the fruit season has begun, hooray:


MikeH said...

In North America, we've declared war on so-called weeds. They're either noxious or invasive or both. In some jurisdictions, native species such as milkweed, which is a host plant for the monarch butterfly, is deemed to be a noxious weed even though it is dangerous to ruminants only in drought conditions.

What we consider to be invasive, often has ecological, healing or culinary benefits.

Sometime, maybe even often, we're just plain wrong about invasives.

Prem said...

There was an interesting take on weeds in the Food Programme a couple of weeks ago:

One of the growers deliberately lets his soil green over as a way to mitigate CO2 emissions.

Mr. H. said...

Those cherries and plums look delicious...mmmm.

Glad you are able to distinguish a benificial food source from a weed, it's amazing how many people can't. We have a small section of dandelions growing right in the garden and always get funny looks from people who visit...most people hate super nutritious dandelions for some odd reason...we eat them almost daily.:)

We started growing borage last year and have been transplanting the self-seeded seedlings...it is one of my wife's new favorite plants.

Your terraced gardens are looking great!

Does Lambs Quarter inhabit your gardens? Sure makes for an excellent soup. Also, you have inspired me to try using pig weed more this year, we have never made much use of it but should.

Happy weeding.:)

Heiko said...

Thank you Mike and Prem for the links, I'll have a look at them when I get a chance.

Mr.H, Me and Mrs. H both love boirage. On the dandelions we unfortunately have a shortage. We use wild chicory more, which is a close relation. I don't think we've got lamb's quarter. Just looked at some pics and it doesn't look familiar. Pig weed doesn't taste of much, but mixed in with a sauce it's ok.

Anonymous said...

Another big fan of purslane here and thanks for the tip on pigweed. We've got loads and although I thought it looked like amaranth I haven't tried it yet.

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Anonymous said...

The wild beet looks like wild chard... or at least that's what I call it! Yes, weeds are not all bad, they're just plants in the wrong place aren't they, but I still have to try and get most of them up. Unsuccessfully! I've got behind with reading your blog, but will try and do better now that I'm with Wordpress.

Heiko said...

gimg, chard is of course a kind of beet, only you grow it for its leaves rather than roots. The leaves of beetroot are of course also edible. So yes, wild beet, wild chard, same difference.

Fern Driscoll said...

Heiko, thank you for identifying so many 'weeds' - I'm one of those people who *doesn't* know her weeds, and I frequently wonder if I'm pulling up something delicious. Now I'll be more selective about what stays and what goes! Your cherries and plums look scrumptuous. I envy you the plums. We had solid rain when the trees flowered and we have not got a single one - and only one apricot. Happy summer, happy gardening (I won't say the 'w' word...)