Can't See the Garden for the Weeds

We've come a long way in our weeding since we first started farming. Why, back in the early days, we lost entire crops to weeds.

My fellow farmer and I would go out to check the planting of carrots, recently germinated. A little weedy, we said, but not too bad. We could wait a bit to tend the carrots, surely, while we tackle the much weedier peas and salad greens.

A week passes, and we check the carrots again. We are in complete agreement: these carrots are getting urgent. We better get to them this week.

Another week. Getting urgent turns to “Oh my gosh, the carrots are desperate! We have to weed these, without fail!”

But, yes, another week passes, and the carrots have entirely disappeared, under nearly knee-high weeds.

“Don't panic,” we farmers bolster each other, “We're having a weeding and ice cream party this very weekend, and our fine CSA members will clear this out in a jiffy!”

Oh, ha ha ha. Even with our fine CSA members, and our careful work, trying to hold in the wisps of carrots while rooting out the gigantic weeds, we are able to clear about twenty feet, out of six hundred, in three hours.

“Well, we've got a good start?” we say, with more hope than sense, and rush to another crisis in the garden.

The next week, one stalwart volunteer returns. We are surprised to see him. “I just wanted to help you finish those carrots,” he says.

“Oh,” we answer, looking quickly at one another. We don't want to break this kind member's heart, but we have to admit the the sensible truth. “We, uh, we realized, we didn't think, there was no way, without losing everything else, the weeds were just so big, the carrots didn't germinate all that well, we just had to . . .” we stumble around, and finally get it out: “We plowed them under.”

“Oh!” the nice fellow says, not seeming heartbroken at all, but looking rather jaunty. His whole afternoon has opened up before him, and he makes his escape, before we suggest yet another crop desperate for weeding.

Now, we can't say we've gotten to be better, faster weeders over the years; in fact, we may be just a smidge slower and creakier than we were 25 years ago.

But we are smarter weeders. Since we couldn't see the garden for the weeds, so to speak, we decided to open up a little more garden land, in order to rest garden sections in yearly succession, rather than having every bit of the garden in production all the time. Over the long-term, what with bare fallowing and cover cropping, we've been able to knock back the weed seed bank considerably.

In the short-term, we've been able to prioritize our weeding. We look at how vigorous the crop is, and how long it needs to stay in the ground. Those carrots, for example, need serious and speedy weeding. Carrots take three weeks to germinate, which means most weeds already have a head start. Carrots also have such fine feathery tops that they're not able to compete with any broad-leafed and vigorous weed, or really even any narrow-leafed and not very vigorous weed. Carrots also stay in the ground a long time, compared to some other crops. Salad turnips are sown at the same time, but they grow quickly, and so are harvested quickly, which means a different weeding technique altogether. We have another vivid memory of a volunteer, in a salad turnip bed, who was wading in weeds. Her progress, not surprisingly, was very slow.

We went over to see how it was going, and realized she was taking out every weed, from the giant to the miniscule. She also had a look of weeding despair on her face. We recognized that look, and we knew how to help.

“Oh,” we said gaily, realizing we hadn't explained what we meant: “These salad turnips will be out of the ground and into people's stomachs in less than two weeks! You don't really have to weed them! You just have to find them!”

We demonstrated: finding a crop means cutting out the giant weeds with a pair of clippers, so that we can see the vegetables to harvest. Things speeded up considerably, and our volunteer began to whistle.

Of course, we are still all about weeding, here on our sustainable vegetable farm, especially in July. But happily, we haven't even had to “find” a crop, or plow a crop under, in many years, which is excellent progress. Speaking of which, I believe I'll go out and weed those carrots.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, July 3-July 9, 2019