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Clutching at, tugging out, and chucking over your aching shoulders those insidious invading weeds gets old. Covering the ground in mats, slithering through the soil with running rhizomes, and seeding with abandon overnight, they just keep coming back. Month after month, day after day, we too come back, to grind against the growing edge of our gardens. Plants are masters of covering the soil surface -the growing edge of our gardens.
In response to these threats, we devise tools: shovels for digging, poisons to kill, pruning shears for cutting. The most advanced tools often do the job better than us, and often do the whole job for us.
They still grind against the nature of the growing edge of the earth. Weeds still grow, we just use gas to power the tools that weed-whack them. We still think the soil needs to be tilled, and our garden is filled with the clouds of smoke and roar of engines that mince the weeds, and worms, and soil.
What might our future tools look like? Rather than having roots in the distant darkness of shale and oil wells, they might have roots in the fertile soil of our own gardens. Rather than filling the air with toxic fumes of grey smoke, they could perfume the air with pleasant essential oils that attract bees and butterflies. Ideally, they may be plants.
Plants as Tools
Technology’s most advanced functions are just achieving what plants have mastered for millennia. We invented solar panels, but plants absorbed sunlight we can later release as light and heat since before we discovered flame. Before the first synthetic perfume, or poison to kill grass, plants formulated the same from the soil and sun – without our help – some of which we are yet to duplicate in labs. In many ways, plants are already our most advanced tools.
Plants have far more to offer us than we give them credit. They live in the ecosystems we grind against and so desperately try to control every day. Covering the world, plants have mastered these ecologies. They are on the growing edge, and never stop the growth and evolution of the new. It’s common knowledge that from the soils soaked with poison, supposedly the end of weeds, new weeds are raising their scarred heads: they won’t lose this fight. Of all the scenarios the future may hold, it would be best if they were on our side when they make their breakthroughs.
Control like this demands we take in the twists and turns of the plant mind, and meld their defaults with our desires. It is weeds which are our best weapons against weeds.
Crops for the soil
Science stands behind this idea to an increasing degree. In recent years, studies overflow with the effectiveness of cover crops and smother crops.
Some cover crops delve their roots deep into hard soil. once these roots have decomposed, more water can penetrate into the soil, and allows weaker roots of our productive crops to follow to depths they never would have grown before.
Some have such fine root systems they create a finer ‘crumb structure’ of the soil such as buckwheat.
The tight grip of these roots prevents erosion by holding soil in place. This is far more than we can say for rototillers, which powder and break, but do nothing to hold the soil they’ve so abused in place.
Cover crops also improve soil by adding organic matter. This is because they pull in many nutrients from the air during their growth, such as carbon, and in some plants, nitrogen. As bit by bit this new material makes its way into the soil as food for bacteria and worms, it can cause significant changes in the character of the soil. In general, it tends towards a more crumbly, loose state. With more and more of this organic matter entering the soil, it starts to resemble recently tilled soil – but is far more stable, and less apt to erosion because it is so well structured.
Smother crops blast skyward with masses of green, leaving sprouting weeds to starve in the shadows. Used again and again, by repeatedly planting over a season, the weeds can’t keep up, and more than likely die.
Perennial gardeners have for years used these tactics with ivy, or Vinca to cover the ground all year every year. This goes a long way in blocking weeds, and to some extents feeds the soil and other plants -the most difficult tasks of gardening. But these tools barely scratch the surface of what plants have to offer.
I envision gardens that are a highly calculated explosion of smother crops, cover crops, ground covers, and food crops all together. It’s a storm of growth that leaves weed invasion in the dust, producing food in the most efficient and healthy way possible: by mastering the growing edge instead of grinding against it.
This is not letting everything run wild – it’s mastering the plants through careful pairings, pinpointed timings, and light interventions, for maximum results. Like any tools, learning their function is key to their effective use. Most think plants are something they have to care for. But with the right knowledge, they can care for us. These are the tactics and tools for the new dawn of gardening.
I have provided in this book ten plants that outline these tools. They’re the tools I use in my garden which I’ve found complement each other to the greatest advantage; but there are more, and I mention them at the end of each chapter when good options are available, allowing for an even broader application across different climates and circumstances.
We are just beginning to realize that in our battle against weeds, we’ve been inadvertently weeding out our greatest allies. As part of the garden, they are the tools best suited for providing the needs of the garden, and those of the gardener. Take for instance the lowly grass mulch.