Weeds not ‘natural’

March 18, 2011

Organic gardeners befriend weeds, but they’re not ‘natural’

In previous columns, I’ve written about how weeds can tell a lot about the fertility of soil.

They can peacefully coexist in the organic garden, providing needed shade and helping to hold coveted moisture near valued crops in our steamy Southern and sometimes drought-plagued environment. (Just keep the roots clear so nutrients go to the veggies, not the weed.)

But, as Michael Pollan noted in his garden book, Second Nature, most “weeds” aren’t natural to the garden, either. Most are “invasives” from Europe, including St. John’s Wort, daisies, dandelions, buttercups, mullein, Queen Anne’s Lace, couch grass, sow thistle, shepherd’s purse, groundsell, dock, chickweed – even the Old West’s signature “Tumbleweed” (properly, Russian Thistle) that came from Eurasia, as did henbit.

In fact, Native Americans called plantain “Englishman’s Foot,” because it seemed to spring up wherever a European walked. (Which may have some truth to it, with seeds lodged in baggage and cracked leather boots.) Even the venerable all-American apple tree is an import.

But this seemingly unnatural plethora of garden invasives has a silver lining for organic gardeners. Many of these ostensibly tough and thorny “weeds” are considered delicacies by bugs that will in many cases choose them over the gardener’s greens, fruits and vegetables. That’s the key to attracting “beneficial” insects – those bugs that prefer your weeds and not your cultivated plants or that prey on those bugs that covet your plantings.

Reader response: I had just gotten off the phone with a local woman who was wanting info on how to build a “Jim’s Plot” 4X8-foot organic food and edible flower garden for her daughter at her new digs in Madison emphasizing herbs, when the mail came and, by gosh, a book arrived that she might find useful: Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs by Tammi Hatung (Storey Publishing, 2011; $19.95). It’s a good book for a beginner, with common herbs and their uses (medicinal and otherwise), harvesting guidelines, unique challenges, how to prepare them, recipes and, of course, important here: all-natural care using beneficial insects and nontoxic treatment.

My beautiful wife Annette is the house herbalist and she makes herb teas, infusions, tinctures, and food for us daily. She gave it her thumbs’ up, too.

Herb Association, Anyone?: Speaking of herbs, it came up in conversation recently that Mississippi has no statewide herb society or association, which seems rather astounding, given the number of herb gardeners in the Magnolia State.

I’m wondering if there would be enough interest to form a Mississippi Herb Association for people who grow herbs, herbalists, commercial growers, foodies, stores, horticulturalists, state ag and extension officials, medicinal growers and gardeners to network, share knowledge, tips and information and, perhaps, seeds and cuttings.

If so, drop me a line (P.O. Box 40, Jackson, MS 39205).

I’ll keep you informed as to how it’s coming along, if there’s any interest in it. It will take some volunteers and committed individuals to get something like this off the ground, but I’m game to do what I can to help out.

Reader response: I’m not knocking subsidies, per se, only pointing out inequities in the system and the fact that organic food is so “expensive” because it’s not subsidized by the taxpayer; you pay the full cost.

Subsidies are actually price supports to keep farmers from going out of business. The farmer is offered a price that is beyond his control, and the subsidies only apply when the price goes below a set point.

If there were no subsidies, even more farmers would go out of business and the big ones would probably buy them up.

So, doing away with subsidies doesn’t help the small or family farm, or help diversify crops (or benefit organics).

The bottom line in this is that the actual producers of crops (organic or “conventional”) are on the short end of the stick and kept on a treadmill of risk by the commodities players on Wall Street, the processed “food” giants, the chemical-seed-fertilizer oligarchy and the government programs these big players manipulate Congress to approve.

So if we want to change the system, we change our behavior by buying organic, locally grown foods first (and milk, fruit and vegetables, not processed foods) and support programs, politicians and retail outlets that promote this way of life.

Not coy about koi : A couple of weeks ago, the paper had a wonderful article about a family that raises the beautiful Japanese fish koi for sale ($15 to $150) for garden ponds. Dawn Barnidge, who operates Falling Waters Koi Farm in Raymond, can be reached at (601) 214-8887.

•Online: A great column in The New York Times by Mark Bittman explains how, contrary to the big ag chemical biz standard line, sustainable agriculture (organic or eco-farming) can feed the world: http://nyti.ms/fnWAn7

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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