What is a “weed,” anyway?

It has been rather damp on the farm this spring.

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Entrance to the farm on the morning of April 18, 2013.

The good news is that the 2012 drought is over! (That didn’t officially transpire until the rain event in April after which the above photo was taken, when we got 5 inches of rain in 24 hours.) The bad news is that planting has not been proceeding at our desired pace. What’s a girl have to do to get just three or four days in a row without rain these days?

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We’ve been keeping ourselves fairly busy with other, less urgent tasks, but today I mostly wanted to just sit around and watch the fields dry in hopes that would speed up the process. Turns out that’s kind of like watching a pot of water boil on the stove…but slower.

To distract myself from our inability to do the one thing that REALLY needed doing, I turned to the one farm job that is best done when the ground is damp: pulling weeds by hand. Who said waiting can’t be fun?

A less urgent, yet pleasant “task.”

The day was sunny and not too hot, about 65 degrees, and the honey bees were having a major nectar-drinking spree in the Dutch white clover in the lane next to the garden plot. Stepping out of the shed in the still of the afternoon, we could hear a gentle hum as they worked away, sucking up clover nectar and then bee-lining back to the hives to pass it on to others who would dehydrate it into storable honey. I tucked in my pants so as to avoid an accidental bee up the knee, and also to gain “farm style” points.

Stylin' pant tuck
(Did you know that I organized the Farm Fashion Show act at the Farmer Talent Show this winter?)

I had my eye on the garlic patch. We planted 5 beds of garlic last fall, and we mulched most of them with straw to keep in the warmth and moisture and to keep down the weeds. Despite our best efforts, some pesky Canada thistles have infiltrated the beds and are mooching that warmth and moisture.

Canada thistle
Wikipedia informs me that these nasty buggers are also called, hilariously, “Cursed thistle” and “Lettuce From Hell thistle” – and that they don’t originate in Canada.

My dad found me some leather gloves on the work bench and I tucked in my t-shirt to avoid that terribly inconvenient lower-back sunburn, touched my toes, and went to town pulling thistles. They came up nicely, mostly with at least 8 to 10 inches of root attached.

As I worked, I noticed quite a few brilliant red ladybugs in the area. (Wikipedia now tells me that ladybugs are not bugs. Nothing is as it seems on the farm.) The, ahem, Coccinellids were all on the thistles – none on the garlic. Looking closer, I realized that the thistles, especially the smaller ones and those growing in bunches, were covered with tiny green aphids, and the ladybugs were eating them. Beneficial insects at work on the farm! Hooray for biodiversity!

"Ladybug"
Not a true bug, and I don’t know whether it’s a lady.

As I bent to tug at the next thistle, I started thinking about this combination of organisms: the host plants, the pests, and the beneficial predators. First I wondered whether we had let the thistles go too far – they were growing aphids! Would those aphids move to our tomatoes and peppers, which were already weakened by the cold and damp growing conditions? Then I wondered whether the thistles might be attracting the aphids away from the garlic, or even away from the nightshades (tomatoes & peppers). Then I considered the ladybugs…surely with all these aphids to feast on, the ladybugs must be multiplying. Maybe as a result of the aphid plenty, which were a result of the thistle plenty, which were a result of my procrastination on this prickly job, the beneficial predatory ladybugs would be plentiful and ravenous by the time our vegetable crops needed help fending off aphids.

So…does that mean that maybe I should leave the thistles, so that the aphids can multiply, so that the ladybugs can multiply? And come to think of it, dandelions are a great source of protein for honey bees. And another farmer told me that lamb’s quarters are good organic matter for building soil tilth. And Japanese beetles seem to prefer velvetweeds to the leaves of most of our crops, and milkweeds feed monarch butterflies, and mustards fumigate the soil between dry bean crops. Maybe I never have to weed again!

Dandelions in last year's garden
Honeybees love dandelion pollen.

Let’s just say that after this I felt pretty good about only pulling the thistles that were actually in the garlic beds and leaving the much tougher ones in the rows. I’ll get them later with the mower…and in the meantime, they’ll help me raise ladybugs.

Ironweed (giant ragweed)
The giant ragweed has to go, though – it makes me too itchy!

-Molly.

Update, February 2014: Maybe I was wrong about the giant ragweeds. Check out this article about its strengths from Gene Logsdon’s blog: The Irony of Giant Ragweed.

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