For those who have been following our progress in the Green Acres Neighborhood Garden (GANG) (it now has its own page on this site here), you may not be aware that this year has been WAY different from the six years prior. This year, Rebecca — who has been gardening organically for 40 years, is learning permaculture, and now in her second year as GANG Garden Director — decided to do an experiment: we would plant our annuals as usual. But this year we would let them and whatever “weeds” that spring up around them grow wherever and whenever they like.
In other words we would deliberately create what even other permaculturists might see as a “buzzing booming confusion” (read: garden gone to seed; garden gone wild), but that she sees instead as a “cooperative” — among plants, insects, birds and animals. To let all of nature run riot in the garden and observe what happens. To knowingly not “grow as much food as possible” this year, and instead let that food be, at times, even sunk inside a profusion of other volunteer plants, many of which we cannot even name, but all of them have become, by this time, quite familiar!
“Okay,” she said yesterday, having just returned from two weeks on the west coast, “the weeds have now done their thing. It’s time to chop them back.” She had left with our only instructions (besides harvesting what lettuces remained, plus squash, beans, kale, tomatoes, and cabbage) to just “cut off seeded tops of weeds and keep chopping back on either side of the paths to keep them clear.”
Needless to say, I was glad we were about to harvest the experiment! It had me a bit worried! Geez! “What would the neighbors think?”
So here we are, as of yesterday, before I began, at her instruction, to begin to pull up all the “weeds.” Except for clover and radish cover crops, and except for weeds with seeds, I was to “pull, chop and drop” everything in place in order to continue building soil.
Here’s the potato bed, before I got to work on it.
Here it is afterwards.
The tall stuff in front? It’s mallow, and Rebecca told me to leave that, too. And that volunteer squash plant. And the surprise melon that must have come up from compost. (Last winter we composted in a trench we built into the side of that bed.)
She also told me this morning that she is now going to go back through the potato bed and cut back the cover crops, clover and radish, so that they can continue to grow and fertilize the soil. And she is in the process of drying some of the medicinal “weeds” — mint, dandelion, plantain, dock — for tea.
So it may look wild, but it’s “managed” wild!
Her purpose has been manifold. Not just to cooperate with nature, but to encourage “dynamic accumulators” (like poke weed and dock) to fertilize the garden beds by bringing up minerals from deep within; to learn more about perennials (that we call weeds) — which ones are medicinal and/or edible — and begin to work with them consciously; to see which annual food crops like to live amongst other plants and which decidedly do not. We have discovered that kale and cabbage do fine crowded with other plants,
but that peppers and lettuce feel smothered. It’s rather like people; which ones are individualists and which ones like to live in community? Which are decidedly dominant, no matter what? Squash! Here’s squash in one of the long hugelkultur beds. And notice the poke, front right. That’s pretty dominant too. Neither plant seems to mind being crowded.
As a matter of fact, take a look at this Grandmother Poke. A definite centerpiece for this year’s garden.
Leah had planted some edame beans. Here’s a pepper next to them, with “weeds” cleared from around it.
Then there’s the elecampane, which has volunteered in one spot for five years. I’ve been chopping and dropping the leaves on beds to fertilize them, but Rebecca said the root is a medicinal, and she needs to read up on it.
Here’s the plant.
Elecampane is an herb with a rich history. As far back as Roman times, this herb was commonly used for indigestion. According to Herbalist Tammi Hartung, Roman scholar Pliny recommended elecampane to life the spirits. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs mentions that Helen of Troy is said to have had a handful of the plant when Paris stole her away.
It is interesting to note that some of the nicknames for elecampane; scabwort and horseheal, came from the early belief that it cured many ailments on animals. While researching this article, I could not find any recent experiences using elecampane in such a manner.
Used around the world, in China it is used as a treatment for bronchial and breathing issues. Here in America, this herb is also used for respiratory problems. It would be a good herb to consider when making cough drops, or sore throat syrups. American Indians used the plants for lung ailments as well. A modern use would be to make a simple tea from the roots, and drink it to help sooth stomach cramping and a remedy for a cough.
This morning, Rebecca, here next to another poke plants, and sporting her new coolie hat — “it fits on top of my dreads” —
— is joined by Cyrus, our new woofer from Puerto Rico, and his new friend Aleah, to continue the business of ending, or at least changing from one phase to another, this summer’s grand experiment.
P.S.: “Next year,” Rebecca assured me, “we’ll probably grow twice as much food.”