Are Weeds Friends or Foes?
Understand the Roles of Weeds
This is a typical question I’ve been asked a lot of times:
“You guys doing Nature Farming don’t pull out weeds?”
What do you think about weeds?
Do you think weeds are friends or foes?
What if you find weeds growing in your garden? Probably, your automatic reaction might be,
“Oh! pull them out!”
Or, you get rid of them right away without giving any thoughts. Even people doing “organic gardening” do the same. Certainly, weeds have long been treated as undesirable/unwanted plants. But is it really true? Are they for us or against us? In this post, I would like to discuss with you those very basic matters of Urban Nature Farming, especially how you see weeds and fertility.
No Allies nor Enemies in Nature
My answer to the question is: There are no allies or enemies. The question itself, whether it's a friend or foe, is so weird to me in the first place.
Everything is harmonized in nature. Nature is so diverse.
This is one of the most important concepts in Nature Farming. Let me explain what I mean, by observing the way it is, comparing the soil condition of Forest and Sportsfield.
Vegetables don't grow in sportsfield...
In the forest, plants grow. But on the sports field, they don’t. Thus, the ideal condition for growing crops is to recreate the Forest type of soil. Let’s observe and find out the differences...
Please visualize the image of Forest and Sports field, and contrast them.
1. What is the size of soil particles?
Forest: rough, many varieties of particles, big and small rocks, insects, sand, or clay
Sports field: plain, small
2. How many living creatures are there? Forest: many Sports field: a few
3. How hard is the soil? Forest: soft. Sportsfield: hard. The purpose is totally different in the first place. The harder the ground is the better for athletes. If the ground is soft, the athletes will have a hard time playing.
4. What is the color of the soil? Humus is blackish, so fertile soil is black, dark brown.
5. What is the condition of the ground surface? In Forest, the surface is covered by leaves, or some kind of plants, grass. Sports fields: no covers (bare soil)
In Nature Farming, it is vital to recreate the condition of Forest-ish soil in the garden. What most people do is, however, recreate the Sportsfield-ish type. What do you do when you see grass on the sports field? YES, Pulling them out! The idea of pulling out weeds maybe comes from there.
Plants Foster Soil
Now I would like you to imagine that what would happen if grass continues growing on a hard ground like a sports field. If you don’t do anything and leave it there, can you guess what will happen?
The answer is that the hard ground will become softer and softer. Why?
That's because of growing roots. It cultivates the ground, so to speak. Soil needs plants in order for organisms and microorganisms, and other creatures to live actively around the roots. They can provide food for plants to grow. Then, the soil naturally becomes softer. If it is softer, the roots can grow and expand more, and the plants get more water and food; further, they grow bigger very nicely. This is an interdependent system to recreate the forest-ish condition in your garden. This is the way in nature. This is the reason we say, in Nature Farming, it is important that you respect Nature, and follow the way it is in Nature.
In this way, the roles of weeds in Urban Nature Farming are:
Soil Improvements: Weeds can help to improve soil quality by breaking up hardpan soils and adding organic matter to the soil as they decompose.
Nutrients Accumulation: Weeds can accumulate nutrients from deep in the soil and make them available to other plants when they decompose.
Plants Creates Rich Environment
Remember, if you carefully observe nature, the ground surface in the forest is always covered by leaves or grass, or any types of plants so that it will never get "naked." It is like humans. They need clothes, so to speak. In this way, the soil gets moisturized. Water retention is an important role of weeds.
Under the fallen leaves or behind the plants becomes home to beneficial insects, fighting against harmful bugs. Grass and plants can cultivate the soil by extending their roots. This is the way it is in nature.
Again, you can find other roles of weeds in nature here:
Habitat for beneficial insects: Weeds can provide a habitat for beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies, and ladybugs, which can help to control pests.
Attract pollinators: Some weed species produce flowers that attract pollinators, which can increase pollination and lead to better crop yields.
Depending on the condition of the soil, the types of plants change. If you observe what types of plants are growing in your garden, you can check the quality of soil. In this sense, weeds are the barometer of soil quality.
Let me explain what I mean in the next paragraph.
Weeds are the Barometer of Soil Quality
In the early stage that the soil is not ready for productive yield, you observe more grass, monocot, sometimes, dock plants, rather than broad leafed plants, dicot. They are sometimes called "pioneer plants."
In later years, restoring fertility of soil, you see more dicot, broad leafed plants, sometimes chickweed rather than grass. These are the weeds that grow in a softer soil.
This means that if you see broad leafed plants, your soil in the garden has softened and enriched. Thus, I would say, weeds are the barometer of soil quality.
You can let weeds cultivate your garden if it is still early stage.
But one thing you have to remember is that weeds can compete with crops for sunlight, which can reduce crop yields and quality. If the weeds are taller than your crops, they need to be removed.
It is important to observe nature, learn it, accept it, follow it, and practice it again and again, then you will master one of the important principles of Nature Farming.