Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

6. Weeds as Mother Crops

COMPANIONING weeds with farm or garden crops constructively will probably be the last phase of weed utilization to be accepted by American tillers of the soil. However, right now there are many practical farmers in this country who are employing "weeds" in this manner -- and successfully. A farmer from one of the most progressive states writes me that he has for several years used "mother weeds" in some of his crops, much to his advantage. He considers these weeds as particularly good crop insurance. Furthermore, this man has found that his mother weeds without exception are conservers of soil moisture rather than robbers.

Mr. F. C. King, noted agriculturist in England and author of the excellent book Gardening With Compost (Faber & Faber), also considers the weed link in the soil-fertility chain as very essential to successful crop production. A few of Mr. King's pertinent declarations about weeds are worth noting here: "A right cultivation of weeds, therefore, will do much to promote soil fertility -- Raise the quality of a weed crop in a garden and quality in the vegetable crop will be a foregone conclusion, FOR THE TWO ARE INTERDEPENDENT -- Seed saved from the best plants (weeds) should be sown on land which is carrying a poor weed crop -- It is my rule never to deprive the soil of weeds for longer than is absolutely necessary -- During the course of the growing season there is room for both crop and weeds -- I have never found that CONTROLLED weeds interfere with the crop -- "

Controlled weeds! Farmers and gardeners should not get the idea that companioning weeds with crops indicates a careless system of farming. It is true that with some crops the weeds can be permitted to go their own way; allowed to grow how and where they please, and still they will do constructive work. But as a general practice the weeds must be controlled for consistently beneficial results. They should be thinned so there is no crowding in garden or field of the domestic crop, and no crowding of the mother weeds themselves. It is the vigorous root system of the weed that does the valuable work, and those roots must have room to develop. That means weed spacing of one, two, or more feet, depending upon the type of soil and the kind of cultivated crop, as well as upon the weeds employed as the companions. With garden crops, weed spacing is even more important than it is with field crops, because vegetables as a rule are more sensitive. Extra work? Surely! To rebuild land, as Nature does, spells work.

Not long ago I inspected an excellent field of corn where the wild annual morning-glories had moved into a goodly portion of the field -- and those vines were not being controlled. The farmer told me that he had always had some morning-glories, but this was the first year they had come up like a jungle. "My very best corn is out there in those vines, too! See the ears?"

That the vines hadn't harmed this man's corn, the ears were ample evidence. Later he showed me a section of the same field that contained no morning-glories. The corn there was also good, but not equal to that where the vines were growing. We examined the soil that was weed free, and also that on the vine-covered area. The farmer was certain he could see a difference between the two soils -- and a shovel revealed the cause. The roots of the morning-glories were worming their way through the ground, many of them pushing far down into the lower regions.

I asked him, "Do you really think those vines are helping your corn, or is it just a case of the corn making a good go of it in spite of the weeds? "

He hesitated a moment. "Well, I'll give you the same answer my neighbor gave me. I don't think there is a bit of doubt about wild morning-glories being helpful to corn! How -- I won't try to answer that -- "

One of the most shocking sights near our new home in the Cherokee Strip was the weed patches near the main camp of the Pawnees from which the squaws harvested excellent com and pumpkins. To me it didn't make sense for weedy fields like those to be turning off such good crops. My first thought was -- only Indians could farm like that and grow anything to harvest.

It was not long after my arrival in the Strip that my hunter-naturalist friend told me about a wise old Indian who, he said, was different from any Indian I had ever read about. John Brown (according to Louie Bean, the hunter, John preferred to be known by his white-man name) had profound respect for all wild things, because wild things were all good and necessary for the Indian's existence and happiness. And since what the white man called "weeds" were useful both for healing and for food, those wild plants could not possibly do harm, even when growing with the corn and pumpkins and beans.

Of course, I was keenly interested in what Louie told me about Indian John, but after Louie had arranged for me to visit him, I wasn't sure I wished to go, especially alone. Louie insisted that I go alone, for John mustn't get the idea that I was afraid of him. So at last alone I went, over to John Brown's lodge on Salt Creek. And Indian John, much to my relief, put me at my ease immediately. Not that he said much to me; he just acted friendly. He grunted me a greeting, Indianlike, then, sitting crosslegged, he smoked his long pipe and acted as if he expected me to do all the talking. And to save me I couldn't think of a single question I had worked out in advance to ask him.

But after a few agonizing minutes my nervousness vanished. My store of questions came flooding back -- and I started hurling them at John. "Why is it, John?" I said, "that the Indians never cut any of the weeds out of their fields? Is it just 'cause Indians are lazy, or what?"

John was quick enough with his words then. It's a wonder he didn't scalp me on the spot. "Indian not lazy! " he wanted me to know. "Indian let weeds grow in field because Indian eat weeds!"

"You mean the squaws let all of the weeds grow so they can have plenty to cook for greens?"

John frowned a bit at that. Apparently the word "greens" was new to him. "Indians eat plenty green weeds," he said presently; "all same eat corn, pumpkin, fat dog."

"But there are acres of weeds outside the fields -- more'n all the Pawnees could ever eat!" I reminded him. "Are the weeds that grow with the corn supposed to be better?"

It was then that Indian John really opened up. The weeds in the field were superior as food weeds, just the same as any crop is better when it is given a bit of attention during the growing period. In the field soil the weeds grew fast, he said, and produced an abundance of tender leaves and stems, whereas the wild weeds became tough soon after they had made a little growth. To make sure that their weeds would grow as they wished them to grow, the squaws thinned their weeds a little. This gave the weeds a chance to grow larger roots, and when weeds had large roots they were able to go down into the soil for water, which in turn kept them green and succulent longer.

Whenever the squaws cultivated their corn, which was seldom, they of course gave the same cultivation to the food weeds and pumpkins. And by then my head was buzzing -- I couldn't accept the idea of anybody cultivating weeds. Sol Benson never thought of cultivating his pusley, other than incidentally. And before my senses straightened out, John hit me with another bombshell: if you could grow corn and beans and pumpkins and weeds on the same piece of land at the same time, with all of those crops getting along well together and producing well, why go to the trouble of working the separate fields? And my dizzy brain could only echo -- Indians are nutty!

In answer to my question as to whether he had really meant that the weeds were not harmful to the corn and pumpkins, John came back even more decisively. The corn and pumpkins were not harmed by the weeds that the Indians grew as food weeds, which, as I recall, generally meant two strains of pigweeds, lamb's quarter, sunflowers (for their seed), a variety of wild lettuce, purslane, and milkweeds. John had all his life seen the harvests from clean fields such as white men always had near the agency, and he had been brought up near weedy fields. When the weeds grew the Indian way the weeds never reduced the production of the planted crop. Indeed, Indian John said he had come to the conclusion that the weeds helped to produce more corn and pumpkins in some of the fields with which he was familiar.

When John went so far as to insist that weeds were helpful to the planted crop, I immediately thought of Sol Benson and the pusley in his corn. By now it wasn't so difficult for me to accept weeds as not being harmful to the crop, provided the weeds were not growing overly thick. But to have John declare that all weeds were beneficial to the planted crop with which they were growing -- well, that was a bit too rich for me at that stage of my weed schooling.

Many years after that important weed lesson with Indian John -- plus several other lessons I had from him -- I made a survey in Mexico of the mountain Indian's agriculture. I was at that time particularly interested in the tillage practices which those Indians employed on their "hanging farms" where one could fall out of a field and with considerable ease break one's neck. Yet on those almost perpendicular farms I found the Indians growing crops with unbelievable efficiency. I wanted to know how they could do it and still keep their land from sliding off the mountain.

It was while I was seeking this information that I came upon a very steep farm which abruptly brought Indian John and the Pawnee weed patches back to memory. Though the Mexican as a rule practices clean cultivation, this farm had a rich crop of weeds. I was more than mildly surprised at this breaking of unbreakable rules, for the early Spanish padres taught the Mexican Indians their first "scientific" agriculture, which called for fields as free from weeds as a cathedral floor. Now here was an apparently successful farm where the weeds were more in evidence than the domestic crops -- though the domestic crops were there, several types of them, growing luxuriantly among the weeds. This Mexican Indian was not onlv growing weeds with his crops; quite clearly he was spacing his weeds and pampering them.

I was able to speak enough Spanish to ask questions. So I learned from this Indian farmer that he had discovered through trial that weeds, when they produced strong roots that spread through the ground, were better anchorages for his soil than were his corn or beans or squashes. He was more scientific than Indian John, since the Mexican controlled his weeds very definitely in order to accomplish his purpose. The large weeds, aside from being soil preservers, also served as mother weeds for his vegetables, though he wasn't quite sure just how they helped his pimientos and calabasas.

In companioning weeds with his growing crops, whether in the garden or in the larger field, the farmer or gardener should be concerned first with what the weeds will do to his immediate crop; second, he should be interested mostly in what they can do toward improving his land. If his land is already fairly productive, he will probably be more concerned with the immediate effect of the weeds on his growing crop. In this situation, his problem will be to use the weeds in a way that will help his soil and his growing crop, too. But if his soil is seriously eroded or otherwise depleted, he should take a long-range view of his problem. He should be chiefly interested in the permanent improvement of his land, even if the weeds would seem to be temporarily injurious. What he loses through this severe soil-building period will be more than paid back later.

How not to produce an oversupply of weed seed when the weeds are used as mothers with row crops is a problem that every farmer will have to work out for himself. Some may choose to go through the field or garden and behead most of the vigorous weeds before the seeds develop. With annual weeds it is possible to destroy a large percentage of the seedlings soon after the seeds germinate in the spring, through surface stirring before the domestic crop is planted, or during early cultivation. No matter what system is employed, unless the soil is extremely poor there will still be enough weeds to cover the land correctly when the weeds are put to work as a mother crop.

Weed farming cannot be learned completely from a book. All that a book can do is to offer the basic principles. Anyone who enjoys working with soil and plants is in a position to make many interesting discoveries anent weed values if he desires to do so. He can prove that those very wild plants he has looked upon as annoyances can be made to serve him as helpers in many ways. And the first thing he should do, if he hasn't already done it, is to become intimately acquainted with his weeds -- where they grow normally and exactly how they grow.

I am partial to the redroot pigweed, because this weed can be made to do a good job on most soils. On heavy soils, if the weeds are not crowded, it will loosen the soil for root crops such as carrots, radishes, beets, etc. And potatoes -- a husky pigweed every two feet in the row may often increase the production of the potatoes, or in very heavy soil be the main factor in making a crop possible at all. Weeds in a potato field will enhance the keeping qualities of the potatoes. Pigweeds and tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, all get along well together. An excellent gardener once told me she wouldn't think of having a tomato garden without a smattering of pigweeds growing in it. The weeds improved the quality of her tomatoes and protected the plants from insect pests.

If the gardener hasn't any pigweeds to employ as mother weeds for his vegetables, many other deep-rooted weeds will do as well: the sow thistle, lamb's quarter, annual nightshade, ground cherry, ragweed, and many others. I have seen situations where the bull thistle was boring down into the stiff subsoil better than the neighboring pigweeds -- and the vegetables showed that they appreciated their thistle mother. If one wishes to grow sweet potatoes, but has only stiff soil in which to grow them (sweet potatoes are especially partial to sandy soils), one will find almost all members of our weed family reliable helpers if they are permitted to grow on the ridges. The strong roots of the weeds expand and open the soil in the ridges so that the potatoes can grow large without becoming woody.

In the sandier spots there are likely to be annual nightshades offering their service, or perhaps some goldenrod. These weeds are good soil improvers, aside from their beauty. Lamb's quarter is a good weed in many places if given ample room. This weed usually needs to be topped so that it won't grow tall. Annual ragweeds, one of the best for most soil-improving purposes, are not so well adapted to vegetable conditions as are several others, since the rag's root system is not overly large. This weed serves best in a rotation where the entire crop is weeds. Sunflowers also do not serve well as mothers in a garden, owing to their height. But both ragweeds and sunflowers scattered through farm crops do a lot of good. I have no doubt that sunflowers, growing in a Kansas cornfield as companions of the corn, have across the years meant many an extra bushel to the farmer who could never get round to cut them out.

The ground cherry is an especially valuable garden weed. It is a good-natured annual, and a fair diver, which can prove helpful in more than one way. It not only brings up food from the deep soils and does some excellent fiberizing at the same time, but it supplies fine shade for the ground during the period when the sun is particularly scorching. And aside from all this, the fruit of the ground cherry makes excellent preserves and pies. Then there is wild lettuce, a winter annual in many places. And here I wish especially to emphasize the value of the sow thistle, a member of the lettuce family. These weeds are good feeders in the lower soils, and when a gardener is fortunate enough to have a good crop of them to turn back into the soil, he is applying the very best fertilizer to his land.

I have often heard gardeners complain about not being able to grow this or that kind of vegetable, though every possible effort was made to do so. Mothering such vegetables with the right kinds of weeds will often solve the difficulty. Root crops, like beets, carrots, etc., need a deep, friable root zone with food materials easily available. Mother weeds will loosen the soil so the roots can enlarge easily. Root crops are usually hardy, but to be highly nutritious and savory, roots must not be forced to fight a compact soil. With leaf crops, or any other vegetables that don't seem to be responding as they should, an intermingling of the weed roots with the vegetable roots will often perk up the vegetables amazingly.

Once I heard from an observing farmer: "Even if weeds did all the harm that most people seem to think they do, they'd still have to be given credit for doing a lot of good." And he added, "Weeds stop the rain and keep it from pounding the dirt into cement. Stopping rain in that way is mighty important. With weeds in a field where a crop is growing, the rain first hits the green stuff, then trickles down to the soil. By reaching the dirt in that way it soaks in without sealing up the top of the ground and then running off."

How right he was! Have you ever watched rain pouring down on land that has been newly plowed? The beating drops soon cement the surface of the soil by driving the particles together, unless the land is rich in fiber. With the surface of the soil in this condition the water cannot soak in readily and consequently must run off or form puddles, and every drop of water that leaves the land carries soil with it.

And here's another weed value that farmers and gardeners should not forget: unless there is a crop of some kind on the land continuously to take up the food materials that are under continuous preparation by the soil-world agents, much of this food will be lost through washing or leaching, or will disappear in some other manner. No agents can excel deep-rooted weeds for gathering up and storing this rich food. When the weeds are turned under and later decay, the food substances are released into the surface soil for the oncoming crop. Bare land spells wastefulness.

Weeds have a place in the flowerbed, too, growing as companions of the flowering plants. As in growing quality vegetables, the flower gardener should center her interest on the feeding zone of her flowers. I once knew an old lady who was famous for her old-fashioned flowers: zinnias, marigolds, peonies, pansies -- all the varieties that our grandmothers used to grow. Granny's beds were always a riot of color, and she enjoyed telling folks that she produced her flowers with the help of lamb's quarter. I recall that the big weeds stood three or four feet apart, and usually were larger than the flowering plants. But the weeds did not detract from the beauty of the beds. The weeds, too, seemed to be bearing an assortment of bloom. People used to go to Granny for flowers for special occasions -- the gorgeous flowers that were produced with the help of weeds.

Rose bushes are often baffling. Many kinds of roses grow satisfactorily and blossom without much care, but even the most hardy of roses respond to a bit of special treatment -- and weeds stand ready to help. Rose growers know that the most difficult time is the period of very hot weather in summer. In some sections many of the choicest varieties do not weather hot days without injury, though water for irrigation may be ample.

In such situations, carpeting the ground around the rose plants with weeds may serve a good purpose. Encourage any low-growing weeds that happen to be available, to grow around and close to the rose plants, and water copiously if possible so as to keep the weeds green. Plant or transplant the weeds if necessary -- but don't permit grass to grow as a carpet. Grass feeds differently from the weeds. Only the weed roots work down into the soil and intermingle advantageously with the rose roots. Here we have unrelated root systems working together to the benefit of both. If water is not available for irrigation, only very hardy weeds should be used -- spreading spurge, for instance -- and these should be thinned so as to leave on the ground only enough to cover it well. Even though the weeds may rob the roses of some moisture, they will more than pay for the stolen water through strengthening the sponge structure around the rose roots, by enlarging the feeding zone to a slight degree, and by regulating the temperature.

Most market gardeners would probably consider it a bid for low-quality produce were they to encourage a weed growth in their gardens. Yet, when labor became scarce during the late war, not a few gardeners found the weed an unexpected friend. Here is a report of one such case. This gardener has long been a heavy producer of vegetable crops near a large city. Labor shortage hit him at the most critical time; the draft left him with only a small percentage of his original help. He was forced to restrict his garden operations at the outset. Then after his crops were in, he lost more of his help. This left him with no alternative but to neglect a part of his land that had been planted. And there was where the unexpectables began bobbing up.

To begin with, the planted vegetables that he had discarded went right on growing along with the weeds. "And imagine what I found when I happened to go over to that section of my garden one evening!" he said to me. "There they were, a lot of fine vegetables sticking up through the weeds. I harvested some of my very best vegetables right out of that weed patch; from the very weeds I had long fought as enemies: pigweeds, sow thistles, nightshades, sunflowers, ragweeds -- even bull nettles."

This man said he was even more amazed at his production the following year from that weed-patch land. That area became his main garden the next season, and he started out to keep it clean. He admitted that his experience with weed gardening the previous year hadn't quite convinced him that he should give up his clean cultivation. But labor again -- he was forced to leave the weeds on some of his vegetable blocks. And he harvested his best vegetables from this weed-infested land. He was now certain that the weeds had not only enriched his soil while growing with the vegetables; the weeds had given his land a dose of much-needed pep.

It took an excellent farmer, a farmer in whom my mother had high confidence, to convince her beyond any doubt that weeds in a potato field could actually mean the difference between a good crop of potatoes and no production at all. Our neighbor had planted a fairly large field of potatoes, then for some reason was not able to take care of the whole patch. Weeds, mostly pigweeds, moved in and the potatoes soon disappeared from sight. Then to make matters worse, it turned out to be a dry season, the drought and scorching heat hitting the potatoes right when they needed moisture most. The potatoes in the clean field soon turned a bluish green, a sign they were done for. The weedy part of the field remained green longer, but our neighbor, supposing that the weeds would themselves put an end to the potatoes if the drought hadn't already done so, concluded that his potato crop for that season had fizzled out and let it go as just another stroke of hard luck.

When digging time arrived, he decided to plow his entire potato field, more to get it ready for fall turnips than because he expected any potatoes. It still hadn't rained to amount to anything and the soil was extremely dry and hard. From the clean part of the field he turned out a few marbles; nothing worth picking up. But when he got into the weedy area he met with a happy surprise. He turned out several sacks of excellent potatoes. The potatoes were of only fair size but of a superb quality. After seeing that irrefutable demonstration of what could come out of a weed patch, Mother thenceforth accorded the pigweed considerable respect -- so long as it kept clear away from her choice vegetables.

One woman showed me some Bermuda onions she had harvested from a jungle of weeds. Every onion was a picture of perfection. "I thought the onions in that part of my garden were gone because I never could get the weeds cleaned out of them," she told me. She then showed me the onions she had harvested from her cultivated rows. "After all my work -- look at the difference! And my weed onions are keeping better, too. Not a one of them is rotting!"

The clean-land onions were only little more than half the size of the weed-patch onions. I was a bit surprised there, because her weeds were growing entirely too thick. However, onions collect their food materials in the shallow surface of the ground, excepting where there are weed roots to open up the lower soil. As it happened, practically all of this woman's weeds were deep divers. While they seemed too thick to feed very deep, they still fed deep enough to provide the onions with a larger than usual feeding zone.

Any farm boy can tell you that the best watermelons come from the weediest part of the patch, even from among the nettles that are thick with thorns. A farmer told me he harvested his best pumpkins from a plot that was covered with jimson weeds. Most cucurbits, like muskmelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, etc., dislike grass particularly, but often do well among weeds if the latter are not too thick.

And as a final word about mothering crops with deep-rooted weeds: don't expect miracles, especially if your soil has received one-sided treatment for a long stretch of years, or no constructive treatment at all. If you approach this type of farming seriously, you will discover that you have a means of improving your land -- and doing it without harming your main crop. All of the weeds mentioned so often in these discussions make excellent mother weeds -- if you control them.

However, anyone who expects to take a mediocre or poor piece of land and get a good crop of vegetables from it solely through mothering the vegetables with weeds, is likely to be in for some real disappointment. The weeds, if handled correctly, will do constructive work in the soil -- but they won't perform magic. Nature is no magician; she is a slow, reliable builder. One never loses by following her laws.

Next: 7. Weeds in the Rotation

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