Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 3 – The Art of Weeds

I used to consider pulling weeds tedious work, this was before I learned how to properly manage them. The weeds that are growing in your garden have a story to tell, it’s up to us to figure out how to translate what they are saying. I have found countless websites that focus on identification but when it comes to the basic stuff “like how to pull them” I find the internet to be lacking. Not many people realize how much thought can go into weeding a garden bed, yet alone how to pull weeds out of an entire vacant lot. This post will focus on weeds, what they mean, and how to pull them.

Weeds tell you massive amounts of information relating to the land you are planning on working, you just have to know how to read the data growing in front of you. What you and I consider weeds play an important role in reclaiming disturbed lands whether having evolved as a legume replacing nitrogen where none existed or creating quick shade to aid in the establishment of bio-diversity all weeds have their place.

Permaculture isn’t really so much about weed eradication, the weeds are going to grow one way or another. The simple act of composting the weeds you pull instead of throwing them away is a basic permaculture principle, learning which ones to leave in the ground and for how long is an art. Many weeds are perfectly acceptable when left in the ground and often play a major role in the overall eco-system of your garden, a little bit of experience will tell you which ones have seed heads that when ready explode, sending seeds 20′ into your garden! Sometimes all the weeds need is some selective pruning, and diligent dead heading before the end of August to stop the spread of new weeds.

As a gardener who had no money to invest, I found myself learning ways around… well.. anything that costs money… I have never really been able to afford soil samples on my own so I had to learn the natural indicator plants in order to get a mental map of what I was working with. Every vacant urban lot you come in contact with is “disturbed” land and will almost always shows drastic signs of this. Bind weed, Thistles, knotweed and grasses are all commonplace, I just plan on decoding them for you.

  • Bindweed – One of the most common exotic invasive I find in Wilkinsburg and the Pittsburgh region, this plant absolutely thrives in hard-pan clay. Bindweed can take years to effectively eliminate from a lot owing to its ability to rampantly sprout from the roots and the extremely long viability of its seeds lasting up to 20 years. Pull it or mow it and stay on top of it until you have choked it out. Bindweed can take years to eliminate from your garden but it is by no means impossible.
  • Russian and Canada Thistle – I hate thistles due to the difficulty of removing them when they get to the size of a christmas tree, I have seen Canadian thistles 10 feet tall. Thistles absolutely love acidic soil and will usually only thrive in disturbed acidic soil, I find if you can neutralize the acid in the soil the thistles will disappear on their own.
  • Clovers – All – Sign of low nitrogen in your soil, the solution is as simple as leaving the clovers, when clover is present don’t remove it unless it is in the middle of a planned bed. When you remove it, bury it on site or compost it.
  • Yarrow – If you have this growing on your vacant lot, good for you. Our native versions of this plant are white and yellow and absolutely stunning when growing in a massive clump. Yarrows are one of the best indicators of potassium levels in your soils absolutely thriving in potassium deficient areas. Although I wouldn’t remove yarrow unless absolutely needed, it still is one of those plants that could help indicate fertilizer requirements for other plants.
  • Wild Strawberry – Fragaria sp. – I am not talking about the large, delicious strawberries we grow in our gardens but the little red strawberries growing in vacant lots that have little to no taste at all. Food wise the only use for these berries is survival but as an indicator for the acidity of your soil these guys are top-notch surviving in HIGHLY acidic soil. Neutralize the acid in your soil with a little lime and the strawberries will go away when they’re ready.

I do want to stress the importance of identifying weeds and learning the deeper meaning of why they grow where they do, or why they thrive. Removal is the part of gardening most people hate and to be honest with you as a gardener I would bet 75% of my job is removal. Pulling weeds is an art in its own right relying more on finesse and technique than sheer force and strength. When working on an entire lot break the whole thing into manageable squares on an imaginary grid, start by pulling or cutting the big stuff then move on to the smaller things. I find if I remove as much material as possible during my initial clean-up then the smaller stuff is easier to focus on.

Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, if a weed is hard to pull your soil sucks, you need to add organic material to your existing soil structure and future weeds will pop right out of the ground. You see weeds are not hard to pull when they are growing in healthy, alive, loose soil, it’s when they are growing in hard-pan clay that they break off at the ground leaving the roots. When you grab a weed, grab it as close to the soil as you possibly can, you want to remove the entire root structure, not break it off at the surface of the soil. Pull the weed straight up and away from you to loosen it, then finish by pulling towards yourself, apply steady pressure and do not jerk or rip it from the ground, you want to steadily apply pressure freeing the weed from the ground. Some weeds require a little more work, don’t be afraid to break out a shovel and dig out a huge weed, just remember to remove as much of the soil from the roots as you possibly can to aid in disposal.

Sometimes trees need to be removed, im not stupid, I love them but sometimes they are in the way. Everyone wants to chainsaw the thing off at the ground and either forget about it or dig it out. I had an old-timer tell me the right way to drop a tree, without ever touching an axe or chainsaw till after the tree was on the ground. The only tool he used was a shovel, and could drop any tree under 20 feet in under an hour. The secret is to use the weight of the top of the tree as your muscle and dig the roots out while the tree is in tact. As you free the roots of the tree it will eventually fall under its own weight, this way you drop the tree and remove the root ball all in one controlled drop.

Trees are a great source of nutrients and biomass, if you have access to a shredder than they should be utilized. Most of the nutrients that are readily available in a tree are focused in the top half of the tree, branches under a 1 1/2″ specifically. Branches of this size have the most cambium layer for the amount of overall biomass and should be shredded and applied fresh and allowed to de-compose in place, larger wood is either firewood or mulch. Certain trees and plants will tend to inhibit growth like artemisia and the common black walnut tree, these trees should be avoided in mulch at all costs.

One of the absolutely fastest ways to clear a bunch of weeds and create a bed and my personal favorite method is sheet mulching. This method starts in a dumpster hunting newspaper or cardboard, the amount you need will vary but my rule of thumb is 12 layers of newspaper, or 1 layer of cardboard. Mow or weedwack the area where you intend to put your bed, I like to line the outside of my beds in bricks so I place them around the newspaper. Now you want to bring in a whole bunch of compost, topsoil or whatever you have on hand. Depending on what you use you can most likely plant in it immediately, plan on building up your layers at the end of every year. Newspaper and cardboard are utilized because of their ability to decompose in place lasting long enough to smother out the weeds underneath.

Same yard as the photo from the top but after a few hours of love… This was one of the backyards on Whitney Avenue…  This lot is currently back to the abandoned state while I work on some wildlife issues…

By any means necessary – Chris Condello

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2 thoughts on “Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 3 – The Art of Weeds

  1. bcumings1973 says:

    You are correct. Weeds can tell you so much about your yard. They are also delicious!!!! I have learned to turn lemons into lemonade.

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  2. Wow, I’m simply amazed at how much valuable information is in this post. I’m going to email it to my partner Sara, as she is the REAL gardener between the two of us. You would make a great teacher. Not a lot of people know how to combine over-all principles with the right specific details and directions.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

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