Alright…I'm fessing up… I'm a messy gardener.
That “thicket” you see in the photo above is one of my garden beds. It's true, in a couple of weeks it'll look very different, but right now much of the garden is wildly overgrown. In this particular case, we've got a lovely harvest of dandelions, a patch of lemon balm on the right with a big clump of grass in it, cornstalks, catnip and a few dozen other prolific weeds. It'd be enough to make the editors of Better Homes and Gardens have a heart attack. Am I freaking out about this? Not really. Here's why.
In an ideal world, I'd have a clone or personal assistant, and we could magically stretch our 24 hour days to accomplish everything on my to-do list. In this world, not so much. Since I have yet to see anyone stop by just to clean my house or weed my garden, it'll have to wait until I get to it.
I don't mind weeds. I eat weeds, use them for medicine, use them for pest control, and use them to make weed tea to fertilize the things I plant myself. Check out the Weekly Weeder series and find out for yourself how useful they can be. (I'll be writing a post on weed tea soon.) When I first plant, I do largely clear the area and put the weeds in the compost pile or compost tea, but I will leave certain ones here and that that I know I will use during the season. Most of my beds are a mix of purposefully planted vegetation and volunteers. (LOL – my husband just commented that some volunteer trees that popped up in the yard are pretty. He's okay with messy gardening, too.)
Abundant weeds means no weed killers. RoundUp and other chemical weedkillers are some seriously toxic garbage that have been linked to birth defects and a variety of other health problems for animals and people. I was talking to my dentist a couple of years ago, and he was explaining how he applied RoundUp to his garden every couple of years to knock out the weeds. Nice guy, but I think all the mercury may be getting to him.
My topsoil is protected and teeming with life. We've got a LOT of wind around here. I don't like to till my beds in fall, even though it means I can work them earlier in spring, because I can see by the brown snow in winter how much topsoil blows off of tilled fields. As we've been working our beds this spring, they're loaded with earthworms, night crawlers, pill bugs, sow bugs, centipedes millipedes and every other sort of creepy crawly. If you've got bare soil, those critters have no protection. This may be helpful if you're trying to purge some pests, but in general I don't recommend it. All those little critters work to break down organic residue and incorporate it into the soil. They also aerate the soil with their tunneling.
If I was more tidy, I'd grow more cover crops, but with the jumbled mass that is my garden, I never seem to have an area completely cleared in time to grow a proper cover crop in fall. The weeds are my cover crop.
Sometimes pleasant things show up when I don't expect them. I left my Red Russian kale in the garden last fall to harvest into the winter. Since we had an unusually mild winter, many of the plants survived through until spring (which has never happened before). Right now, they are flowering like crazy. These, along with the weedy wildflowers, will help hold the pollinators over until the bulk of the garden is in flower. Since there are several plants, they should be able to produce viable seed.
The weeds act as wind blocks, shade and protection. In some of my perennial beds, the weeds are generally sprouting out ahead of the perennials. This year, we've had some big temperature swings, lots of wind and unseasonably warm weather followed by cold. The weeds take the bulk of the temperature swings, leaving the planted perennials protected. Now that the temps have settled out, I can safely remove the weeds and the perennials will take off. Much cruder than those fancy cone things most people use, but it works.
This sort of laissez-faire gardening approach used to drive my suburban neighbors nuts, even after I got things tidied up considerably, so I don't necessarily recommend it if you've got fussy neighbors. Around here, folks are much more tolerant, and they appreciate the bountiful harvest that comes out of my “mess”.
Sometimes I get a little frustrated because I feel “behind”, but as one facebook fan pointed out, it's better to consider how much ahead you are of those who don't plant anything. Embrace the mess!
I'm heading out to my overgrown garden now. 🙂 The mower died last week, so the the lawn matches the garden – yikes! The boys are picking it up today and we should be back in action shortly.
How's your garden growing?
Update: November 11, 2012 – I was out picking some broccoli today, and I noticed the plants I had let go to flower were humming with bees. In fall, I always let some of my brassicas go to flower, as they are tough and will survive frost. That way, the bees always have some nectar until hard winter sets in.