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  • Writer's picturetribepermaculture

Reading Landscapes with Weeds

Updated: Dec 28, 2023


Are weeds wanted or unwanted?

What do u say? Are weeds wanted or unwanted plants growing?


The answer is simple, it is subjective. Weeds are unwanted when they are considered "plants growing where we don’t want them to". This is in terms of cultivation. Whereas they become wanted when we learn to read them as nature's clues to our soil conditions. They can be called 'biological indicators of your soil health'. We can simply replace unwanted plants with wanted plants that serve the same function.



More about weeds...


Weeds are the fighters of the plant kingdom

  • Weeds are indicators

  • Weeds are stewards of the soil

  • Weeds are pollinators

  • Weeds promote biodiversity

  • Weeds are food, too

They are the pioneers, setting off in uncharted territories and cutting new pathways into lands bare and scorched. Then again, they, too, are sometimes the most firmly rooted, digging themselves deep into the fabric of the soil or spreading out far and wide. Perhaps that is why they are also the most misunderstood, the wild and wily, regularly showing up where they are not wanted and then simply refusing to leave. Ultimately, though, the term "weed" is a human construct, and it is derived from our interactions with these plants.



Learning to read landscapes with weeds


Weed growth is a symptom of soil properties. A good observer will know what the presence of various types of weeds means – from compacted to overly wet soil, and more. Any disturbance to the land is often corrected by nature by the growth of weeds.


Compacted soil

Compacted soil relates to the clumping of soil particles into clusters. These soils have a reduced rate of both water infiltration and drainage. The large taproots of weeds like joy weed help break the aggregates and enhance the soil structure.


Joyweed
Joy weed
Root structure of Joy weed
Tap root structure

Eroding slopes

In eroded regions, one can find a layer of grasses like weeds growing. These plants have fine fibrous root structures capable of holding the soil from erosion.


Bindweed
Bindweed
Fibrous root system
Fibrous root system

Waterlogged lands

Another condition is waterlogging leading to poor drainage and aeration. Weeds such as cypress, crabgrass, etc. grow under these conditions.


Cypress
Cypress
Crabgrass
Crabgrass

Replacing lost nutrients

Any disturbance to land can cause nutrient loss and is fixed by certain plants. Leguminous plants are known for their nitrogen-fixing capability. A fire can deplete the potassium level in soil, which is fixed by ferns. Milkweed growth indicates the soil's boron level is good and Cocklebur the phosphate level. Similarly, there are various weeds that indicate the macro or micronutrient level in soil.


Legumes - nitrogen fixation
Legumes - nitrogen fixation
Thumba - phytoremediation
Thumba - phytoremediation

Soil pH

Sometimes the pH of soil is related to the land condition and majorly it depends on the mineral composition. There are weeds that grow in acid conditions and there are weeds that like alkaline conditions.


Sorrel - acidic soil
Sorrel - acidic soil
Parthenium - alkaline soil
Parthenium - alkaline soil

Node flowers with variation in pH
Node flowers with variation in pH

Note: A single weed might not just indicate one soil condition. An example of crabgrass growing in wet & drought conditions and also indicating low calcium in the soil.



How are you managing your weeds?


Weeds take all the nutrients from soils however you can get it back to the soil!


Managing them efficiently is the key & one simple solution is mulching, a thick mulch. A thick mulch brings back the soil life as the weeds break down naturally. If you use any cutter or pesticides you lose the nutrients. It's important to give the weeds back to soil in their natural form without adding any artificial chemicals. So if you are using pesticides, you are basically losing soil life & nutrients. The food grown in such soil won't have the natural probiotic qualities & instead carry toxic residues of the pesticides and herbicides being used.



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