Down at the allotment last week I was struck by how weedy the ground appeared even though we are in the depths of Winter. Photographs show a heavy frost on produce but this will have done nothing to reduce the pesky weeds. So I fished out a borrowed pamphlet (in case he’s reading this I will shortly be returning it to Mr Webb) published by The Soil Association on The Value of Weeds. Within ten minutes of reading my tolerance levels were sky high not least because the word ‘weed’ has been corrupted from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weod’ meaning herb or small plant. And also because weeds reflect the quality of the soil thriving best on fertile ground.
The pamphlet points out that when the earth was being formed, a process that took billions of years, everything that had once lived was returned to the soil. This cycle of life ‘the law of return’ built up and maintained fertility and allowed plants to thrive providing food for both animal and man. And following on from that plants, animals and man all provide food for the bacteria in the soil. This cycle of life , the natural decomposition of all animal and vegetable wastes, takes time but we can speed it up on our vegetable plots by putting an abundance and variety of weeds back into the compost bin.
Above are the nettles that you find on all allotments and these are essential as activator in the compost bin and below is comfrey which plays the same role. I’ve cultivated a small patch of both to have a ready supply to add to the compost.
Deep-rooted weeds (dandelions and coltsfoot) are invaluable since they penetrate the sub-soil and bring essential elements to the surface that are not available to shallower rooting plants. I’ve always resented the struggle to dig them out but from now on I’ll show respect and doubly make sure that the leaves and stems are returned to enrich the soil again.
The Soil Association doesn’t advocate the uncontrolled use of weeds in the garden but it suggests that controlled use can be beneficial. Weeds lessen the impact of heavy rain and provide shelter and food for small animals. In Winter the roots help with aeration and drainage and provide food for bacteria. In Spring they help keep the earth warm for early planting. In the heat of Summer they provide shade to young seedlings and help to keep the soil surface moist.
And the wild chamomile seen here – Chamomilla matricaria- is known as the ‘plants’ physician’ reviving sickly plants growing near it. Making it into a tea can be used to prevent damping off on young seedlings.
Hand weeding and composting is an efficient way to get the nutrients back into the ground and equally useful is gentle and regular hoeing. Weeds can even be left on the surface of the bed to steadily decompose- best in summer when they will dry out. Couch grass and bind weed shouldn’t be encouraged and these I will continue to put in the garden waste bin knowing it will be processed at a high temperature by the council.