Some Back to Eden gardeners (like me) get caught up in all of the benefits and changes that happen in their garden that they expect to find no weeds at all.
But here is the straight-up truth: yes, you will still have weeds. There. I said it.
Although the name of the method has “Eden” in it, your garden will still have issues, including weeds. If you go back and watch the film (and yes, I still recommend that you re-watch it many times as possible), Paul talks about weeds in his garden in two ways.
Weeds are a Fact of Gardening Life
First, he says that he still has weeds, and you will too. In previous years, there have been calls to the Back to Eden Facebook groups for volunteers to help Paul weed his garden before he starts giving tours in June if people in the area are available. There simply is just no way to get around this fact of life if you are going to have an open air garden that contains plants grown directly in soil. You can’t control the wind that brings the seeds in and usually you can’t control what your neighbors do with their weed management either. Having a greenhouse or another structure that helps keep the surrounding environment out will help with this, but other factors of cost and different types of maintenance now come into play.
From my experience in a standard tilled garden, weeds are considerably less of an issue when a covering is placed on the soil and left undisturbed (except for planting and harvesting of course). Instead of looking for a garden method that eliminates weeds (like resorting to herbicides), we should seek to minimize weeds while still ensuring that the soil structure and organisms are left to do what we want them to do, which is help plants grow. Deep mulching and leaving the rototiller back in the shed are two ways to ensure both of these goals are met.
Weeding Doesn’t Have To Be a Burden Anymore
Second, Paul demonstrates how simple it is to weed his garden with just his rake. Since Paul has a medical issue with his legs, crouching down and pulling weeds is fairly difficult. He is able to remove weeds easily by simply moving the top layer of wood chips to uproot them, then on the backswing of the rake replace the covering to where it started.
The reason he is able to do this so easily even with a disability is because the hard clay soil that he started with has now been transformed into a porous structure by years of constant work of soil organisms. Actually it doesn’t really matter what kind of soil you started with, they all can compact very readily and can be opened up just the same. But now with all kinds of “tunnels” in the soil for air, water, and plant roots to reach further down, the soil resembles a structure more like a sponge. I visited Paul’s garden in 2015. Walking on the soil in his garden and orchard was a very weird feeling. It was soft and bouncy, not at all like any ground I had ever walked on before.
If you are tilling your soil or are just starting out with applying a covering to your soil, then it likely will seem more like an impenetrable fortress. If not at the top of the soil layer, it probably is a few inches down. Many plants we consider to be weeds are very capable of breaking up this hard soil fortress, and our vegetables can also break through to an extent. However, both end up getting locked into the dense soil and make it difficult to pull them out. We spend a lot of energy to get them out and often they will break off leaving a root or rhizome in the ground only to grow back again. If the soil had more pathways in it for roots, uprooting and weeding would be easier.
A Completely Weeded Garden?
In my experience, it is definitely true that the amount of weeds is decreased significantly. I didn’t keep count of weeds per square foot or time weeding or anything scientific like that. What I did notice is that each year my garden was getting bigger in terms of square footage, but there were times when I was actually done weeding. That never happens right? The only possible conclusion to draw from that observation that makes sense are that either I was getting more efficient at weeding, or there we just fewer weeds to pull. The former doesn’t really make too much sense. I have been gardening long enough to know how to pull out weeds, it isn’t rocket science.
Then the only reason I can think of is that the covering was reducing the amount of weeds resulting in less work and, more importantly, as a result I was enjoying working on and being in my garden! (I just like clean looking gardens, with straight rows and space between plantings.)
Thinking Differently About Weeds
Like me, most gardeners like that clean look, but over time I have grown to think differently about weeds. We usually associate them with theft and invasion. They take up space in the garden that must be reclaimed before they steal all the soil nutrients and sunshine, right?
Instead I would ask you to see weeds for what they really are: soil feeders, messengers about the state of your garden’s health, and edible plants that you don’t have to buy seed for or even plant!
Soil Feeders and Improvers
It might seem just flat out wrong to say it, but all plants can be beneficial for your garden soil, even weeds. That’s because each plant is unique in the ways in which it interacts with the soil biology, chemistry, and physical structure. Believe it or not, all plants develop symbiotic relationships with the bacteria and fungi in the soil. Here are just a few ways of how that happens:
- All plants manufacture sugar in their leaves through photosynthesis and send some of that sugar to the soil bacteria and fungi. They have a sweet tooth!
- Some plants fix nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use as a fertilizer.
- Some plants accumulate nutrients from deep in the subsoil and bring them closer to the surface for bacteria and fungi to digest and make available to plants via the root system.
- Some plants have large roots that bore into hardpan soil to create pathways for air, water, and nutrients. This is what most people mean when they talk about an “improvement in soil structure”.
It just so happens that some of the plants that provide the services above are what we call “weeds”. Some of you are familiar with a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that goes like this: “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” We can use weeds to our advantage.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
As messengers of soil health, weeds can tell you a lot about your garden with very little effort on your part. There are numerous online resources that describe which “weeds” grow in certain soil conditions. My favorite resource is a blog post from the Gardens All website as it is quite thorough. It lists various soil conditions and the weeds that thrive there. Another favorite part of mine from that blog post is determining the soil nutrient deficiencies based on the weeds that you find.
A word of warning about using these weed lists. A given list may show the weeds that are signs of a certain condition that you may not have. The lists usually try to be exhaustive without reference to any one particular climate. It is possible that some weeds just don’t grow in your area. The best way to make these weed lists meaningful is to find out what weeds you do have, and then learn about the conditions they do well in from there.
Don’t have a good idea of which weed is which? Never fear, just search the Internet for “weed identification” and the region you are from. Most land-grant universities in the United States provide weed identification tools on their extension websites. You can also check out http://www.weedalert.com/ which allows you to search by name, appearance, and region. With these websites you should be able to gather a lot of information about what is going on in your soil. Consider it a free soil test and assessment!
Delicious, Nutritious Weeds
While you may learn a lot from your weeds, you may also just say “Well now I know more about my soil” and continue on getting rid of them as best you can. But did you know that many weeds are also edible and highly nutritious? My garden never had a shortage of Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album) and I indiscriminately yanked them out and put them on the compost pile or gave them to the chickens. Little did I know that I was spending a lot of time trying to grow my favorite green (spinach, and quite unsuccessfully might I add), and Lamb’s Quarter is pretty much a wild spinach replacement. It is actually known as “wild spinach” and even contains even higher levels of several vitamins than cultivated spinach.
In fact most of the weeds that were common in my garden were edible. When I would head out to the garden to grab greens for a salad to take to work with me, I began to forage more and more “wild” plants. In general most weeds have a sharper taste than the lettuce, spinach, and baby kale leaves we put in our salads. Some can be even spicier than a mustard green or arugula. But I enjoyed them very much when I mixed them in with the milder greens that I intentionally planted.
Nowadays, I will let some of the edible weeds that I like the most grow where they come up as long as they aren’t in the way of seeds I am planting. It doesn’t make it as neat and orderly as I would like it, but…free superfood? Yes, please!
With all of these benefits of weeds, it almost seems like we should be seeing all kinds of blog posts, YouTube videos, and books touting leaving weeds in your garden from more mainstream voices. Word is getting out about the importance of soil health and that it can only be realized if there is a living root in the ground. It seems that if we are serious about producing healthy food from healthy plants, our thinking should shift its focus to choosing to manage weeds for our benefit rather than banishing them from the garden for theft and invasion.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but even with Back to Eden gardening you are going to have weeds in your garden. Hopefully it will be fewer to deal with like it was with me. This could happen because you find yourself with covered, undisturbed soil that allows fewer weeds to germinate, or simply because your definition of “weed” has changed for the sake of healthy soil. If you follow the Back to Eden method and properly cover your soil with good covering materials, you should be on your way to reducing the burden of weeds, but hopefully also realizing how informative and useful they can be.