What if weeds are farmers too?

Three years of hard drought pretty much broke me. But if there’s anything good to come of breaking, it’s that it’s half way to breaking through!

So I thought I’d share a little personal breakthrough we had in our thinking on weeds courtesy of the drought. Here’s some of the things we noticed that piqued our interest and got us researching weeds a bit deeper.

Due to the drought we observed great swathes of capeweed emerge in our paddocks on ground made bare by the lack of rain and scorching temperatures. Capeweed is viewed as a troublesome weed by many farmers as it can inhibit the growth of other desirable crops and can be toxic to livestock. So, many farmers try to eradicate it. Remembering a book I’d read years earlier, by Pat Coleby, that mentioned weeds could be a useful indicator of soil health, I started looking further into the role of weeds in the landscape and just what the capeweed might be trying to tell us. Here is some of what we found.

Weeds can indeed be an indicator of soil health. They also play a vital role in remediating the soil and pioneering the way for a succession of other types of plants to move in and help restore biodiversity and healthy functioning to the landscape. So here are some of the things our capeweed was attempting to do and tell us about the soil in our paddocks.

Flowering Capeweed – image by Stephanie Ward from Pixabay
  • Capeweed is a pioneer plant. It commonly establishes on bare, thirsty soil and often indicates that the soil is acidic and compacted, making it difficult for air, water and roots to infiltrate. Capeweed’s presence can also indicate an imbalance in the calcium to magnesium ratio. Soil tests confirmed our soil was definitely all of those things!
  • Capeweed plants grow as rosettes, their leaves held flat against the ground to help hold the fragile soil in place and stop it blowing or washing away. The roots break through the compacted ground opening the soil to allow for air and water infiltration. In doing this it’s also helping to restore the soil microbial network. Just as we humans have microbes in our gut essential for good health, so too does the soil. When the soil is in good health these microbes can create an underground network between plants (a bit like the world wide web but for plants) that allows for communication and the transference of nutrients between plants.
  • Capeweed also acts like an intelligent mulch! The rosetted leaves lying flat against the ground keep the soil cooler, helping to protect and preserve the soil moisture and microbes. This clever little plant can raise its leaves away from the ground to let the dew settle on the ground, then lower them again to help hold the moisture within the soil.
  • Its flowers provide a great food source for pollinators.
  • Cape weed is an annual, so eventually it will die and in doing so provide organic matter and nutrients for the soil. Other plants will move in – plants like clover bring nitrogen to the soil, others such as dock use their tap root to mine minerals like phosphorus, potassium and iron from deeper in the soil and bring them to the surface for the benefit of all.

So our little pioneer plant, capeweed, actually has a vital role in laying the foundation for a new succession of other plant types to move in and successfully play their unique role in the remediation process of the soil, eventually culminating in a healthy, biodiverse pasture and community. We watched that mono-cultured swathe of capeweed in our paddocks and left it alone to run its lifecycle. It remediated the soil and held it together when heavy rainfall eventually did return. The capeweed has since given way to lush, diverse pastures.

So all this makes me wonder what if weeds are farmers too? We human farmers are doing a lot of the same things as weeds. We’re working with bare soil, trying to remediate it, to improve its structure, improve its water holding capacity, reduce its erosion and increase its fertility to ultimately feed and sustain our greater human and animal community? What if weeds aren’t exactly the enemy we’ve always believed? What if we’re both ultimately on the same team working to benefit of our shared communities? Can we possibly work together a little more?

I’ll explore this further in the next post and also talk about cover crops.

 

PS: I do want to add here, that of course, you need to apply some common sense when it comes to viewing weeds more favourably. You certainly don’t want to be encouraging noxious or highly invasive weeds. These absolutely need to be controlled and often there is also a legal requirement to do so. So a common sense approach is required.

 

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