Sustainable forests and gardens try not to use chemicals or fertilisers from outside. The soil should remain increasingly fertile because it is covered in mixed growth. Bare soil looses nutrients and structure fairly rapidly, and it is in the nature of ploughed field commercial agriculture that dangerous chemicals have to be used to preserve fertility.
The forest garden needs only a small input of animal manure and the ash from the autumn burn of woody prunings. The rest is up to the plants it contains.
The question is how do we grow the plants we want to grow, and keep down the plants we do not want, without turning the soil over or exposing it, and this is the question I am aiming to answer.
I shall start with a couple of old saws, which you probably already know. The first is “One year’s seeding, seven years weeding”, and the second is “A plant in the wrong place is a weed”. Wild flowers are every bit as beautiful as cultivars and mankind should never try to eradicate any living thing. The word we should use is “control”. It is never necessary to dig out every last trace of a weed. It is simply a waste of time and effort because seeds will fall on the ground you have just dug and be a new crop of weeds in no time; perhaps not the same weed as the one you were digging, but one that may prove even more difficult to control. The fact is, that weeds cannot grow where there is no light, and if the ground is already covered in the plants you want, then weeds will only appear here and there, and will be so much easier to control. So the thing is to plan where you want to put your plants, and only dig holes in order to plant them. You keep planting, while you remove any weeds that manage to grow up between the plants, by simply pulling them up. Ninety nine percent of the time, pulling is all that is necessary. Tap roots like dock will usually come up after rain or watering, if the thick mature stem is grasped low down and firmly pulled rather than jerked.
Now I will go into detail. There are two kinds of unwanted plants, the annual and the perennial. Annual weeds can simply be raked or cut with a pair of shears to prevent them from seeding, so it is only the perennials that need a little effort.
These are the five ubiquitous and most annoying perennials. I call them “The Big Five”. They are bramble, thistle, bindweed, nettle and dock, and the methods of controlling each are slightly different.
Most people love blackberries, so even this ‘weed’ is usable in the right place. Moreover there is a thorn-less cultivar available so it can be included in the forest garden. But it will try to grow ‘in the wrong place’ and here the only resort is the trusty fork. Bramble roots go deep and you should always try to get all of the thick root out, and try to stack them well above ground where they cannot ‘strike’ again. Rootlets are almost impossible to remove and are unlikely to get back up to the surface anyway.
The two most common kinds are the spear plume and the creeping thistle. The spear plume is a biennial and will not survive for years, but of course you can’t let it seed and it is fairly easy to dig out. The creeping thistle is more of a problem. You would have to turn over a large tract of ground in order to get out the spreading roots, and it really isn’t worth the effort. A lawn, or thick shrubs are the best way to remove it from your plot. It will very soon die out, under grass, or under the cover of stronger plants. The other thistles are much rarer and many are very desirable, as attractive garden plants or, in the case of the globe artichoke, as food.
Bindweed of bell-bind
Apart from having a beautiful exotic looking flower which can turn a hedgerow white, there is not much to recommend this weed, and there is not much that can be done to control it except growing fruit trees on the site or making it into a lawn. The roots go very deep and are horribly friable, so you can dig and pull out handfuls of bits of pure white cable like stems but you will never get to the bottom of them. So it is very important when planning your garden that you don’t plant any tall or bushy plants where there is bindweed. You need to grow either trees or short things like strawberries. In the first case the bindweed will be shaded out, and in the second it will have nothing to climb up and it will be easy to collect the sprawling stems without damaging the crop.
I am told that nettles only grow in very rich soil. Personally I think they have a lot to do with it being rich in the first place, but in either case if you are faced with a new plot covered in nettles you should thank your lucky stars. Nettles were a very important plant to our ancestors. They were used for making cloth, tea, and as a green vegetable, which I love.
Every decent sized garden should have a clump of nettles. It is the only way we will be able to see our most beautiful iconic butterflies in our gardens...But; control is the word, and nettles get out of control all too easily.
Nettles have shallow roots but their rootstock is extremely vigorous and tends to tangle up. So you need to tackle a whole clump at a time. With a fork you go across the whole clump loosening all the soil to the full depth of the fork, and then you take a deep breath and tug. It will all come up like a giant mat, which you shake and have a wonderful bed of first class tilth in which to plant things. You might like to rake through just to get up any remaining thick roots. The roots of nettle are bright yellow.
Young docks can be removed simply by pulling firmly after rain. Older, larger plants are more of a problem, and cutting just before they flower is the easiest way to control these. Remember the first old saw I quoted. A rider to this is that if you want to take the easiest and probably the best way of controlling most things, by pulling or cutting; you should always do this just before they flower. You let the plant put all its energy into growth, because that is the time the root has least nutrient in it. Therefore when you remove the growth, the root if it is left, is at its weakest and will not be able to produce the same amount of growth subsequently.
Well these are the weeds you are likely to find in most abundance. There are many others of course, but most can either be pulled or cut as described. These methods make gardening much easier, working with nature instead of against it.
All the biomass you remove has to go somewhere. I find that the best and easiest method is to simply throw a heap you have just pulled on top of a clump of the same weeds. Then you only have to pull the weeds in half the area, and bury the rest. Plus you are fertilising the soil without having to take barrow loads to the compost heap and bring barrow loads of compost back again. It may look a little untidy, but the wildlife and the nearby plants will thank you. Plus it is better not to compost weeds because there is always the risk that composting may not kill them. You should have enough things to compost when you have got your garden going, without risking weeds. All the parings and trimmings from your beautiful productive garden plants and vegetables can go in a huge heap boarded up in a corner, or in layered bins with worms.
No Dig Organic Home and Garden by Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty
Video: Gourmet weeds