To Weed or Not To Weed?

 Chickweed: delicious salad green, medicinal tea plant, photosynthesizing living mulch.

Chickweed: delicious salad green, medicinal tea plant, photosynthesizing living mulch.

In my years of growing food, I have always been conflicted with the issue of 'weeds.' I am always amazed by how much passion, anxiety, and even fear we attribute to some of these plants. According to the Oxford dictionary, a weed is "A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants." I often find fellow gardeners and growers obsessing over the possibility of weeds "taking over" as though I would walk out to my garden one day and find that the chickweed monster had gobbled up everything.

My Permaculture background has given me quite a different outlook on many 'weeds'. In Permaculture, we look at natural succession in a forest ecosystem, and where different types of plants sit within it.

Most plants we commonly refer to as 'weeds', such as grasses and ground creepers, are regarded as 'pioneer plants.' Their function is to step in right after a disturbance (such as a bushfire for example) and quickly colonise the area, covering, protecting the soil, quickly filling it with stabilising roots, encouraging beneficial microbes and earthworms back, and preventing further erosion.  'Weeds' such as dandelion, have long taproots that mine for nutrients deep in the soil profile, stimulating bacterial, fungal, and earthworm activity, which ultimately creates more organic matter. So why on earth don't we want them around?

Cameron and I examined our vegetable garden this morning, and looked at the chickweed growing around our kales. Our soil is quite sandy, and we have been doing everything possible to build organic matter and stabilise soils. So we asked ourselves the following question: do we pull the chickweed and mulch with sugarcane, or do we leave the chickweed as a 'living mulch'? The answer came quite quickly. This living chickweed is sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, has roots that stabilise sandy soils and promote microbial activity. Its root system, like that of many pioneer plants, is very shallow and will not compete with the kale around it. It can easily be harvested gradually when needed (chickweed is delicious in salads), and therefore has many, many more functions than any dried mulch.

Chickweed is quite an amazing plant, botanically named Stellaria media and also commonly called Starweed. Eaten fresh, it is a mineral and vitamin rich herb, like our dear nettle and parsley, and builds strength and wellness especially in the convalescing, elderly or people with multiple food allergies or sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies. Its leaves are mucilaginous and heal and sooth inflammation especially in the respiratory tract and tummy. Chickweed can also be drunk as a fresh or dried herb tea or decoction daily as a tonic when you’re feeling depleted or inflamed. chickweed also aids the bio-availability of nutrients into the cells and help to break down unhelpful bacteria, toxins and mucous in the body.

Externally chickweed is antipruritic, meaning it relieves itching. It is useful as a poultice for treating wounds or ulcers, as well as skin conditions that are inflamed, itchy and painful.

Could our obsession with 'weeding' and 'weeds' be fueled by the commercial gardening industry, who want us to buy their sprays and products? Personally, I've adopted a more relaxed approach to unwanted plants, and see removing some of them occasionally as simply part of the wonderful activity of gardening. Apart from the amazing functions they perform mentioned above, most of them are also highly nutritional and medicinal, and there is very little chance of weeds 'taking over' as long as you keep a regular eye on your garden.

 Our chickweed/kale bed (back)

Our chickweed/kale bed (back)