Saturday, 26 April 2014

Why Bez is a weed

Wisdom is knowing what you have to accept - Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Seeds and weeds - these words will conjure up images of an unending battle between human and nature. Weeds, the gate crashers, the unwanted, the uninvited thugs, rolling in to spoil the party. Seeds, the method of dispersal for so many of them. Sitting, waiting for an opportunity to grab life from the soil, one day not there, the next popping up amongst the geraniums in the herbaceous border when the conditions suit.

It can be enough to make the most well balanced gardener go crazy if the attitude is all wrong. The traditional weapons of war in this ongoing skirmish will range from the use of hand tools to all out chemical warfare. Constant weeding can be thankless, and chemicals are not desirable for most sensitive horticulturalists, both methods can easily exascerbate the problem if we are not careful. Whilst there are few of us who would argue that it is less than ideal to have a border full of uninvited visitors, it is wise to arm ourselves with more than just methods of simple eradication. To fight without any knowledge is to pick a fight we are unlikely to win, a thankless and uninspiring task.

Weeds - by their nature are highly evolved, pernicious species that step into a situation when the opportunity arises. Often, we create those opportunities. Freshly dug over soil of a vegetable bed or ornamental border is a common one. I understand why we do it. It symbolises a good days work, it also enables new planting, and just as other traditional images creep into our collective mindset as wholesome and productive (fields of wheat and corn), a nicely dug over piece of land is indeed viewed by many as beautiful and good.

But it also suggests a scar on the earth, a waste of land and resources, a fertile soil with nothing in it will be colonised often by species specifically for those situations very quickly.  In this case weeds are natures elastoplast, healing a bare patch of soil.

It is also the case that digging in this way will both bring dormant seeds to the surface and break up roots of perennial species such as the dreaded ground elder or bindweed, thus your digging can become a very efficient propagation method (especially when rotovators are concerned - please don't use the rotovator!)

Weeds are purely uninvited visitors, often native, and always incredibly successful, that's why they are weeds. When we tune in to the natural systems we look after, these plants take on more nuanced meaning. This is where knowledge leads to acceptance

Just as a patch of bare soil will be colonised quickly, slopes will be stabilised, compacted soils will be loosened and habitats are created. Clovers fix nitrogen, and tap rooted individuals such as Comfrey and Dandelion bring nutrients up to the surface, aiding and abetting the plants around them.

Spring comes quickly, and often flatters to deceive. Here in the UK Spring does not arrive gently or reliably. It is a rollercoaster of a season, warm and cold, dry and wet and everything in between. Frost can arrive late and snow is not unusual. The temperature of the soil takes some time to catch up and a common mistake is to get carried away with the expectation of a new season on the first warm day. But when the annual weeds begin to get going, we have a good idea that direct sowing can begin. Reading and observing these seedlings can give us job prompts - and its a better way of gauging soil temperature than sticking your bare ass in the soil.

As you delve deeper, we can learn to identify what our interlopers are - many weeds are edible - nettles, chickweed, cleavers and dandelion being just a few. We can also tell what is going on within the soil - indicator weeds can tell us whether a soil is:

Acid ( Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), curly dock (Rumex crispus) wild strawberries (Fragaria species), plantain (Plantago major) rough cinquefoil (Potentilla monspeliensis), silvery cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), hawkweeds (Hieracium aurantiacum and pratense), knapweeds (Centaurea species).

Alkaline (true chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), bladder campion (Silene latifolia)

Wet (horsetail (Equisetum arvense) joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), silvery cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), curly dock (Rumex crispus), mosses, creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Dry rough cinquefoil (Potentilla monspeliensis)

When we start to understand this sort of information, weeds become part of a dialogue between the garden and the gardener. They are conduits of communication, food and job prompts. Far from being species which drive a gardener to madness in the race to elimination, they can be used, and even in some cases, appreciated. A group of plants arriving to help, just sometimes maybe too much.

So weeds, not so much all bad and more like, as with all things, a group of plants with a complex set of characteristics. I like to think that more understanding allows us to design our gardens in the most sensitive way. By tuning in, we waste less time and money on plants that will never fit in, on jobs that are nonsensical and we glean the more positive aspects of our uninvited guests.

The characteristics that all weeds DO share however are some of their coolest. They are pernicious, born survivors. Hard to kill, often spiky and they more often than not, don't fit in within a strict regime. They remind me of some of my favourite people. Bill Mollison, Jack Spirko, Tony Benn (RIP), Larry Santoya and, recently, Bez (Please check him out if you aren't already aware of him). These guys are tough, not always agreeable, often hated by authority, but always passionately spreading a worthwhile message. Trying to heal ground that has been messed up by government and corporations with no goal other than profit. These are the healing, ground protecting tough bastards that colonise and prepare ground for the more delicate amongst us. And as with their herbaceous versions, it is often easy to not see the problems until these strange, often belligerent species turn up and start making a fuss.

So it wont surprise you to hear that I want to be a weed. That is my goal - to be a useful, pioneering indicator species. To shout about the wrongs (and the rights - see permaculture, Alan Savoury, Ron Finley) that are happening around us. I want to help make the ground better for my children and grandchildren, so we don't end up with some awful dystopian future, controlled by a few - homogenised and bland and instead embrace the diversity in this world. We need to listen to those who are marginalised because more often than not they have more to say than whoever is on the front cover of Heat Magazine. We need to tune in because we have been tuned out for so long. And as for the seeds waiting to burst forth and show themselves? if you've read this far - they've been sown by now.

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