Magazine article The Christian Century

When Is a Weed a Weed? Midsummer Abundance

Magazine article The Christian Century

When Is a Weed a Weed? Midsummer Abundance

Article excerpt

WE'RE LIBERATING the strawberries," my sister reported, using the verb our mother chose long ago and that the whole family now uses instead of the more pedestrian term: weeding.

Every farming year has its unique music, composed by temperature, rainfall, and the interactions of a huge orchestra of natural, human, and mechanical parts. This year the dominant motif on my sister's organic fruit farm and my brother's organic vegetable farm has been the brassy, boisterous, fast and furious allegro con brio of weeds.

Liberation, never easy, becomes a Sisyphean task for a number of reasons. First, around the summer solstice every green thing's chloroplasts go into overdrive, working for 18 hours straight, from the first rays of dawn until the solar power gives out at dusk. Because everything is growing at peak speed, if we are not planting or harvesting, then we need to be weeding. Second, this summer we've had weeks of frequent gentle rains followed by sunny skies--perfect conditions for accelerated growth of plant life. And finally, my brother Henry is once again farming the fertile bottom field after letting it lie fallow for four years--twice as long as usual.

The long rest has been good for the soil structure, tilth, and fertility. But in those four years the weed seeds were laying low, waiting for their moment. Weeds specialize in colonizing disturbed sites and can maintain their abundance under conditions of repeated disturbance. This is a good thing on flood plains or steep hillsides, where weeds prevent erosion and help other plants get a foothold. Plowing produces the same cues as natural disturbances, so as Henry's plow tilled under the alfalfa-clover hay mix that had been covering the fallow field, it prompted four years' worth of weed seeds to germinate.

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Conventional farms would respond to the flush of weeds by calling the nearest "crop protection" company to come douse the earth with poisons. But organic fruit and vegetable farmers do not outsource weeding to chemical companies and cannot put it off until a less busy day. Instead of chemicals we use human labor, and timeliness is crucial because weeds grow many times faster than vegetables. This means they will quickly outcompete, overtake, and snuff out vegetable seedlings, particularly the delicate and slow-growing ones. So we call all hands on deck or, more precisely, into the field to free the wispy dill, cilantro, beet, carrot, onion, parsley, and parsnip seedlings from the surrounding weeds that are already four times their size.

The tools of liberation are many and varied: Eliot Coleman's colinear hoe (we call them "slicer hoes"), stirrup hoes (we call them "scuffle hoes"), regular hoes (the old-fashioned kind--we use them for hilling, or pushing the soil up against the crop to smother the weeds), Japanese hand hoes (ordered from Japan), rakes (sometimes used for hilling), push hoes (a wide scuffle hoe mounted on a frame with a wheel), and our fingers and hands (often the best tools of all).

Henry is as skilled with a hoe as a surgeon is with a scalpel, but I find that I do much better with hand weeding. This used to be a fairly easy task in any number of positions: bending over straddling the row, on one knee alongside the row, or on all fours over the row. These days none of these positions are good for very long, so I switch back and forth between them and envy younger folks to whom bending, straddling, and kneeling are as natural and easy as breathing.

One of the young ones, Henry's son Kazami, reported the other day that "the weeds are pretty ridiculous. Before we push-hoed, some beds looked like a carpet of weeds. And even after you push-hoe, you still can't see the seedlings you're trying to save within the row."

The main weeds threatening those seedlings at the moment are foxtail and amaranth. Yes, that amaranth. Which brings up the question, "What is a weed? …

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