The other morning, I ventured out in my garden. Walking down my mulched pathway, I didn’t get far before I was actually brought to tears. At that exact moment, I saw a hummingbird feeding from bolted broccoli, a flock of tiny goldfinches raising up from eating aphids off my kale, and a nuthatch was jumping around in is crazy upside-down posture on the sides of my raised beds (hopefully eating rolly-pollies).
The birds quickly scattered away, alarmed by my presents, but my garden was still full of life. I saw aphids heavy on my apple tree, but they were being consumed by ladybugs and ladybug larva, solider beetles, and lacewings. Closer examination of my volunteer dill revealed two larva of Anise Swallowtail; I had seen one flittering above a few weeks before. Honeybees, carpenter bees, bumblebees and tiny native bees forage on bolted plants and the handful of flowers I have scattered about. If I turn over soil, I find worms. If I turn over logs I find skinks and occasionally salamanders. There are ladybugs of all life stages in my garden.
People garden for many reasons. Some to collect the newest or rarest specimens, some for stress relief, some for cutting flowers, or some for edibles. While I garden for many reasons, supporting natural life is the main one. Right now I have only edibles and a very few ornamentals planted, but have plans for extensive habitat gardens, including a pond. And despite not having “official” space set aside for the natural creatures, I still have tons of life thriving in my garden. And nothing makes me happier to know that I am creating a safe and healthy place that meets the needs of all these creatures, and even though my yard is a created ecosystem, it is acting as a part of nature.
Weeds are considered undesirable because they steal water, space and nutrients that would otherwise go to plants you intentionally want to grow- like edibles or flowers. Many weeds actually useful, like dandelions, purslane or plantain, are highly nutritious, a useful medicinal herb, or may provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. But some, like Bremuda grass, are invasive and will easily take over.
On my half acre farm, I have lots and lots of weeds. In general, I have a pretty nonchalant attitude towards them, and they don’t bother me to much. The roster of weeds that I’ve identified in my garden include blackberries, foxtail, bindweed, burclover, dandelion, dock, ground ivy, groundsel, mallow, plantain, purslane, sow thistles, spotted cat’s ear, a variety of grasses, which of course, includes Bremuda grass. Because I’m essentially starting from scratch on my land, I don’t have the time, money, or strength to create all the garden in one swipe, so I’m working in sections. I let weeds do their thing until I start working in that area, then declare war and give my best effort to eradicate.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on clearing the area around the fruit trees. With the epic drought we are in, I don’t want to share any precious water with greedy, weeds. In a conventional garden, one might just spray the whole area with Round-up or some other herbicide to clear the weeds, and call it done. But I use a different, healthier approach: chickens, cardboard and lots of mulch.
The first step to my weed removal is to release the chickens. Using a concoction of chicken wire sections and bits of old rusty hog wire, I create a super janky fence enclosing a weeded area but exclude the fruit trees and the handful of plants that I’ve established in the area. By blocking off the tunnel which normally directs the birds to the back half of the yard, I can direct the chickens inside the weed enclosure. After a few weeks of their eating, scratching and dust bathing, the area is pretty much cleared of weeds.
After removing the fence and setting it up in the next area, I lay down cardboard over the now bare dirt. Making sure the pieces are overlapping and there is no exposed soil, I then cover the cardboard with a layer of wood chips.
Normally we buy wood chip mulch by the yard from Sonoma Compost, and used it on our garden paths. Its cheap, but its a pain in the ass to drive out there, but the other day, I noticed Davey Tree trimming the trees under the power lines down my street. After a friendly hello and a quick conversation with the crew, I ended up with a pile of mulch in my front yard. These chips are a great mixture of shredded leaves and wood pieces, which I think are more desirable to the woody chips we get from Sonoma Compost for mulching around the trees.
This process is known as sheet-mulching. While it isn’t a 100% method, it drastically reduces them. The layers of cardboard and mulch block the weeds from receiving light, and therefore kills them. The cardboard will break down in a matter of a few months, and eventually, in a few years, the mulch will break down and be absorbed into the soil. Double bonus for me, as I’m on the constant mission to amend my soil with organic matter to increase fertility and improve drainage.
Honestly, I prefer the lush green of the weeds over the brown layer of chips. I’ve left some of the larger clumps of grass that the chickens weren’t able to decimate, because I didn’t want to cover up all the habitat for the ladybugs, who are slowly arriving. Hopefully, next year, after the sheet mulching has eradicated most of the weeds, I can add a layer of soil and plant cover crops and flowers to create a bank of habitat for beneficial insects.