by Myron Horst
I have observed that it is easy for gardeners to get focused on the wrong things in gardening. Weeds are one of those things. I have observed people going to great lengths and expense to control weeds, as if gardening is all about controlling weeds, rather than producing an abundant crop of nutrient dense food. Controlling weeds becomes a big burden for them and takes the fun away from gardening. Weeds and grasses can be an important fertilizer, they can be a curse, or they can be a lesser part of the gardening experience.
This past winter, someone sent us the link to the “Back to Eden” video. It is the story of a man who implemented a method of gardening very similar to the Ruth Stout method of using mulch to control weeds, except he used a lot of Bible verses to make it sound like it was God’s method of gardening. It was an impressive video with great pictures of beautiful plants. He portrayed his method as an almost no work method of gardening. We decided to try the method on two rows in each of our gardens. It was not “no work” gardening!! It was a lot of work loading the wood chips into wheel barrows and wheeling it into the garden and spreading it. I was glad we did not have to cover both of our gardens with wood chips.
Recently I looked at the “Back to Eden” garden again and realized that it was only about 1/3 the size of our smaller garden and 1/6 the size of our large garden. I was surprised at how few plants he really had in the garden. There was a lot of space between the plants. What is easy to do on a very small scale in a hobby garden for fresh eating can become very labor intensive if you are trying to grow most of your food. If we are going to produce enough health giving food to sustain ourselves and our family, there has to be a better way.
Carey Reams, who discovered how to grow high quality, nutrient dense food, said that one of the best ways to control weeds is to plant rows close together so that the plants shade out the weeds. We have tried that method for the last several years and it has worked very well for us. It has allowed us to spend little time on weeding. We now spend much more time harvesting than weeding. We garden intensively in rows.
The first thing is to get the right nutrients in the soil. We spread about an inch and a half of composted chicken manure on the garden in the fall and plowed it under. Each year we put down some soft rock phosphate and high calcium limestone. The first year, put down about 50 lbs of soft rock phosphate per 1000 square feet and 100 lbs of high calcium limestone per 100 square feet. Each year after that a smaller quantity of each should be put down to replace what was removed and depleted during the year.
In the spring, we rototill the garden and plant the rows of green beans, corn, and other row veggies in rows 24 inches apart. The potatoes we plant 30 inches apart. This spring we made the mistake of planting some of the sweet corn 30 inches apart. That allowed significantly more grasses and weeds to grow. The rest of the story we will tell in pictures.
After the plants emerge, we use this small tiller to cultivate out the small weeds. It has only a 14 inch tilling width and easily goes down the rows planted 24 inches apart. It only takes about an hour and a half to till a 1/4 acre garden. We then hoe out the weeds in the row. In the sweet corn and potatoes we cover the small weeds as we hill the corn or potatoes. It is much faster than hoeing out the weeds. About a week or so later, we run the tiller between the rows again. This is the last time it needs to be tilled. By then the plants are starting to shade out the space between the rows and the weeds don’t have a chance.
This is 10 rows of green beans 50 feet long. There are another two rows of green beans that are to the right of the picture. Notice how the rows have grown together, shading out the weeds and shading the ground from the sun and reducing the drying out of the soil. When a wider row spacing is used, it allows sunlight to reach the soil and germinate lots of weed seeds. The ground has the desire to always be covered.
Does planting the rows close together reduce the yield? Not if there are enough nutrients in the soil. The first picking of green beans was four buckets. The second picking was last Monday with about 13 buckets of green beans.
The third picking on Friday produced another 15 1/2 buckets of green beans. The beans had very few bug holes and when cooked were tender and delicious; nothing like what you buy in the store. The yield so far is the equivalent of 5.6 tons per acre and there are still more beans growing on the plants. Cathy and the girls canned about 200 quarts of beans and froze another 100 quarts. We all helped pick and snap the beans. It took much longer to pick the beans than what we had spent total in weeding. The outdoor canner was great because the ladies could can 26 quarts at a time and it kept the heat out of the house.
The zucchini was planted in a row and the squash and pumpkins to the left were planted 5 feet apart in each direction. That is a 6′ step ladder with a sprinkler on top which shows how tall the squash plants are. I am realizing that watering the garden before it gets really dry is an important part of controlling weeds because it allows the vegetable plants to continue growing rapidly and stay ahead of the weeds.
This picture illustrates the goal with weeds: make the weeds unhealthy and the vegetable plants healthy. The weed in the center is bug eaten and the beets are strong and healthy. Too often, it is the opposite. The key is learning how to feed the vegetables and not the weeds. Nitrogen will make weeds grow just as fast or faster than the vegetable plants that we want. Too much nitrogen attracts bugs to the plants we want. Soft rock phosphate and high calcium limestone are important elements in the soil. It is also important to foliar feed the plants with a spray each week to keep the brix of the leaf above 12 so that the bugs leave it alone and go after the weeds. The foliar sprays that we use are in this article: http://www.jehovahjirehfarm.com/articles/2010/07/13/an-incredible-substance-raw-milk/
This year we also discovered another foliar spray that dramatically raised the brix of our pasture grasses and some plants in the garden. It is important to test how a foliar spray is working by testing the sap of a plant leaf with a refractometer. The same spray can cause the brix to drop in some plants and raise it in another. The formula is 4 of our raw pasture raised eggs and a tablespoon of feed grade molasses in a gallon of water. It puts a glossy shine on the leaves.
Weeds and grasses are an excellent fertilizer, as the trees in our American chestnut orchard illustrate. These trees were planted as nuts only five years ago. The gate is about 9 1/2 feet high to the cross bar. The trees have grown so dense that it is difficult to walk through the orchard. We repeatedly hear that it is important to keep the weeds down so that they don’t compete with the plants that we want. You often see orchards where they have sprayed RoundUp under the trees to control the grass and weeds. We did the opposite in this orchard. When the trees were smaller, we allowed the grass and weeds to grow 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall before we mowed it. It was not unusual for some of the grass to be above the hood of the lawn tractor. What we were doing was building topsoil with the grass. The roots of the grass go down about the same distance as what the plant is tall. When it is mowed off, the roots of the plant die off until they are about the same size as the plant that is above the ground. Those decaying roots made topsoil to the depth of two feet. By repeatedly allowing the weeds and grass to grow tall and mowing them off year after year, it created a soil that allowed the chestnut trees to grow rapidly. The same principle can be applied in the garden. After a crop is harvested for the year, rather than tilling up the ground and letting the ground be bare, allow the weeds and grass to grow, but mow them off before they produce seeds. Use the weeds to your advantage.