Lessons in Gardening with Weeds

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Are you in a battle against weeds? A lot of the articles I have read about weeds argue it is important to know what kinds of weeds you have in order to effectively control or combat them. But I would also argue that it is important to understand why they are in your garden in the first place. Their presence tells a story, and I have come to learn that they cannot be beat. We must join them!

Since owning this farm, I have learned a lot about weeds, how to manage them and how to get completely bamboozled by the little stinkers! Weeds in the country are brawny and bold. They will not stop or pause for much. I have come to understand why it is that farmers use herbicides, because stopping a weed from doing its job is next to impossible.¬†That’s right, weeds have work requirements, and contrary to popular belief, their main duty is not to aggravate humans! I try to empathize! Weeds do a great job protecting our top soil from eroding. Weeds spread low and wide often to do this. Other weeds send down long tap roots to bring minerals up out of the soil, and some weeds deliver nitrogen to nearby plants. And we all know, bees love their flowers!

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Here we see the spread of dandelion, crab grass, clover and chick weed all working together to cover unprotected soil.

Of course, my vegetables have a hard time growing with too many weeds as neighbors, so I do have to work at taming them.

When we first moved here, our first line of defense against the weeds was the mower. Mowers are very handy machines that are quite effective at keeping weeds at bay. Continuously cutting them back often causes their demise. If not complete death, they are at least stunted or camouflaged as lawn.

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Weeds in the gravel driveway!

This Spring was early which gave the weeds a jumpstart. By June my gravel driveway was completely invaded with weeds that had nestled in between the small rocks and set roots. What do you do, weed your driveway? I figured there must be an ecological perspective¬†about how to manage this problem. I need the driveway to give support to the cars or they would squish down in the soil when it rains. In my quest for an answer, I read an article about seeding runways in Alaska with fescue. That seemed to be the answer to my problem. I seeded the driveway and now mow it very short. It hasn’t completely filled in yet, but it actually looks very nice – a little hard to find the driveway from the road – but visually attractive. The weeds can still be on the driveway, but they will be camouflaged by grass. I can live with that.

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Driveway after seeding (first year).

But what do you do about the weeds that are in the cracks, under trees and in other hard to reach places? Well, in the city a layer of landscape fabric and 4-6 inches of mulch usually does the trick. Out here, that’s laughable! I found out the hard way that weeds in the country simply pop right up out of landscape fabric no matter the thickness or industrial strength. Mulch also poses a problem in that its little crevices are the perfect place for all the airborne seeds to land. One year after mulching in the country, you will likely find a whole slew of dandelions, burdock, thistle or crab grass just to name a few. Mulch is really just compost feeding any happy seed trying to grow in it. It seems to me that anything that will cover and fill in quickly is key. Our farmhouse gardens have these plants growing like living mulch and they do a great job making the landscape look attractive and weed free.

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White blossoms, loves shade, doesn’t spread overly quickly…no idea what it is.

 

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No idea what this is called.

 

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Violets cover the perennial bed between Lilacs and Mock Orange bushes.

 

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This stuff looks like Queen Anne’s Lace when blooming in June, but it’s low-growing and does not have a tap root like the wild carrot. Anybody know?

In my quest for weed management, I also learned about energy displacement. Take burdock for example. Burdock sends down a deep tap root and foliage that resembles rhubarb. If you let it grow, in the late summer it has spiny little flowers with a pinkish purple hue. These lovely spiny flowers dry out and become the burrs that cling to your dog’s fur as they run for a stick. But, if you know how burdock grows, you will know that it takes two years to flower. The first year it spends its time making a huge tap root and lovely foliage. The second year the root grows again and by mid summer, it will send up a shoot where the seed heads will form. If you cut it right around the time it is trying to seed, you kill its energy supply. You can also effectively kill it by chopping burdock off just below the surface of the soil – basically slicing the top off the tap root. The last week in June or first week in July has jokingly been dubbed, “Burdock Eradication Week.” I spend the week with a sharp shovel or edger jabbing the huge foliage leaves off the root. I have not completely eradicated the burdock from my property, but with careful management like this it is doable. Cutting back the burdock provides a huge nitrogen supply for my compost!

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Pretty burdock flowers!

Thistles on the other hand! What the heck! I get that these guys are 1) prolific, 2) tenacious and 3) bringing minerals to the surface, but they will beat you off if you move into their house!

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Thistles in mass where potatoes once grew. This area has raised beds with at least four inches of straw to cover. We laid industrial grade landscape fabric under six inches of wood chips last year. This year, thistle mass despite black plastic!

 

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The LOST Garden – completely overrun with amaranth and thistle.

And, I apparently moved into their house. Last year we built our second permanent raised bed circle garden and enjoyed one year of perfection. The garden was a beautiful addition to the property and I had lots of fun with the extra space. This year, however, is another story. Our warm winter, very little snowfall and early spring allowed for the weed seeds to get a head start, and the thistles celebrated! Last year I kept them smothered in straw, green manure and garden plants. This year they had a homecoming party before I even got into my galoshes to check out the gardens. I tried in vain to pluck them into submission, but by the end of June I had to quit. I shut the gate on their house and will not return until next year with a new strategy in my back pocket.

These guys need the old-fashioned till and dry treatment first. I’m thinking constant cultivation will help sprout, dry and kill a few of these buggers. Then I’m hoping buckwheat as a cover crop and its allelopathic tendencies will help prevent lots of seeds from germinating. To help keep the soil covered and not invite a new crew of weeds, I will till in the buckwheat and seed with winter rye. That will help smother out the little rascals in the fall and spring. Once that gets tilled in, I will have the added benefit of improved soil. I may even repeat the whole process again with another round of buckwheat and rye before I even consider planting another vegetable garden in that spot. Don’t I sound smart! Watch for future “eat crow” episodes where I again honor the weed! Any suggestions besides, “Hey, Sarah! Use Roundup!” are welcome.

So, what have I learned about living in the country? First, I have learned a little about how to manage weeds, and that there is a whole lot I don’t know! More importantly, I have learned to find ways to live with them. It seems that understanding their purpose has helped me feel better about coexisting.

 

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Spring at the Farm 2015

This gallery contains 12 photos.

I’m here again for another summer – finally! Spring came early this year, so it almost feels as if I’ve crammed a summer’s worth of work into the March, April and May weekends. Projects are plentiful to say the least! … Continue reading

First Year Garden

Maiden Rock, Wisconsin the second week of May… Trees were barely open, the grass was short but bright green and sleet-snow fell from the sky.

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The following day was bright and clear. Our farmer neighbor brought in the tractor to plow under the winter rye in our new garden and implement composted manure from his steer. We let that rest for one week. We chose this site in front of the barn for our first garden as it had been the paddock. Our hope was that the soil would already be fairly fertile with nearly thirty years of horses on the area. The soil in the part of the world is a silty loam that drains quickly.

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The following week we dug and moved a MILLION pounds of soil to form our “no-till” garden beds. These will be added to each year with layers of mulch, compost, leaves and grass clippings. The first layer was straw and grass clippings to hold in the moisture and allow the beds to rest again.

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The following week, “Superman,” as one of my friends refers to my husband, installed the fence while I planted all the seedlings started in March as well as all the seeds from the seed box in the farm office. We’ll see if my intensive tomato trellising plan for the fence works!

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In just a couple of weeks, this land went from barely Spring to FULL-BLOWN Summer complete with 90 degree days and weeds popping up left and right! My work for the summer is clearly defined – weed eradication will be the name of the game! My tools: one pair of gloves, a strong back, and the dream of a goat, some chickens or a duck! Fortunately, my seeds and seedlings are a bit ahead of the weeds, and I’m ready with mulch! The garden was entirely planted by May 25th this year.

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The picture above was taken the first week of June. As you can see there are two beehives behind the garden. We’re taking a dive into beekeeping as well. We refer to the bees as “The BEE!” If we don’t use the singular, my dad, the beekeeper, might end up bringing 25 hives to our land!

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Our Father’s Day garden popped with radishes, collard greens, green onions and mustard greens. Tonight’s salad will include a bit of arugula!

By the end of June, it was jammin’ all of the above with the addition of baby bok choy, basil, peas and lots of green tomatoes!

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Vegetarian Perspective and the New Farm

We bought a farm!

This is actually old news, but I’m finally getting around to share this with the world. First let me introduce you to the country getaway-renovation project-to keep me busy-house! 15 acres and a few outbuildings is definitely a foodie fantasy, of course the incredible views were highly motivating, but the light and potential of the farmhouse are ultimately what sold me. To the west, huge windows look across a ravine to the neighboring farms on the ridge, to the east we have five-mile views of the Lake Pepin and Rush River Valleys and the whole place is surrounded by the pastoral rolling hills of this “Driftless” area of Western Wisconsin. Our place sits on a hill with ample windows to the west and south allowing for flooding sunlight throughout the day. In the city, rays from the sun are blocked by our neighbor’s two and a half story homes and close proximity.

House Day of Closing

The house

View of Neighbor

Our neighbor to the south

Well House and Ravine

The overgrown hill looking out to the ravine

Our Road and Views

View of Lake Pepin and Rush River valleys

While the stinkiest house we have ever renovated, I could immediately see the potential. The house was originally built by a homesteading family in the late 1880s or early 1890s. It stayed in that family until 1986 when it was sold to a young couple. They set to renovate the place with new windows, an open floor plan and new paint, carpet and other basics. In 2003-4, after divorcing, the woman decided to make some big changes to the house by building an addition that would accommodate two new bathrooms, a mudroom and a laundry room. Unfortunately, she fell on hard times, many projects were left unfinished and eventually she lost the home to foreclosure. We were the purchasers.

While we feel extremely grateful for what we have acquired, it is hard to think about the previous owner and her dreams for this place. One day last summer she tentatively stopped in to introduce herself. She was very emotional, but shared her story with us which ultimately gave us a deeper appreciation for the land and the home. We learned that she loved animals and had a couple of horses. She even created a riding arena behind the garage with highbush cranberry. The bushes are 14-16 feet tall now and form a perfect rectangular arena. Poplar seedlings had overpopulated the space, but once Jeff cleared them out, the arena became obvious. If she hadn’t told us about that space and it’s purpose, we may never have discovered it. After the horses died, the land went fallow, burr, thistle and other perennial weeds took over, so we’ve had our hands full with clearing, and I anticipate many years of maintenance and management.

South View

South side with perennial bed

House Day of Closing

Southwest view

North Exterior

North side addition

West Exterior

West side view

These pictures were taken the end of June on the day we closed. I was thrilled to find lots of perennial flowers, flowering bushes and fruit trees. It was obvious that somebody loved gardening as much as I do. However, the gardens and plants were nearly impossible to see for the invasive grasses that have taken over the beds. The farm seemed so overgrown that we thought it had been abandoned for many years. We were surprised to find that the previous owner had only moved in February, and now understand how pernacious these country weeds truly are!

Peonies Buried in the Crab Grass

Peonies in the grass

Hosta and Roses

Hosta and Roses

Pink Peonies

White Peonies

White Peonies

Light Pink and Yellow Peonies

Weigela and Highbush Cranberry Mess

Weigela and highbush cranberry

 

Mock Orange

Mock orange

Yew, Hosta, Spirea and Smokebush

Yew, hosta, spirea, smokebush

Maple Baby

Sour Cherry

Iris and Crabgrass

Iris

Everyone asks if we’ll have animals or grow crops, but what we’re going to do with it is yet to be seen. We have lots of ideas and tons of ambition so anything seems possible. What we do know is that we have 15 acres to renovate, rebuild and restore. We closed last June with the intention of renovating the house as a country getaway. While others would have dug into the land right away, it was more important to me to first create a peaceful and relaxing space. Here are the before pictures:

Kitchen to Livingroom - Day of Closing

Looking into the living room from the kitchen

Kitchen Cabinet

The old kitchen cabinet – I save this for later!

Window to Porch from Kitchen

Old window looking out to porch

Window to Addition - now removed

Blocked off window never removed after north side addition added

Heat Vents and Beadboard Ceiling

Main floor has beadboard ceilings and heat vents

Wood Stove Pad and Wall

Wood stove pad and heat-tiled wall

Large Timber Beam

Large timber beam between kitchen and living room

Office to Livingroom View

Main floor room to become office

Office - Day of Closing

Another view of the office where the desk will go

Beam and Looking to Kitchen

View of beam looking into kitchen

Master Bath Doorway

Master bath doorway

 

Master Bedroom

Master bedroom

A Good Reminder When All Runs Off Electricity Here

A good reminder!

Lofted Space to be Bedroom

Lofted space to become bedroom

Loft and Stairs

Loft and stairs

Stairs and Exit Sign

Stairs and exit sign

Six-Inch Pine in Master

Six-inch pine original to master bedroom

Master Bath and Bedroom

Master bath and bedroom

Master Closet and View to Loft

Master has double closets!

Office and Wallpaper

Main floor plaster never finished – this is future office with wallpaper

Original Fir Floors

Main floor has fir floors

New Windows and Victorian Trim

New windows and Victorian trim

Bottom of Stairs & Fir Under Living room Carpet

Bottom stairs show fir under living room carpet

Two Steffes Units Heat in Winter

Laundry room and mud room addition heated with Steffes electric units

Laundry Room, Bathroom and Closet Addition

Mudroom closet in addition

Laundry Room

Laundry hook-up

Main Floor Bath

Main floor bath

Vent for Electric Basement Furnace

Vent for electric basement furnace

Kitchen Sink and Bay Window

Double sink – maybe move to summer barn kitchen?

Porch Door to Kitchen

Porch door to kitchen

Workbench and Kitchen Window

Workbench, window and door to kitchen

Porch Door to Yard

Porch door to yard

In addition to a lovely house, we have a few choice outbuildings that one day will gleam and shine. Right now they are rather battered and bruised.

Garage

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ImageI’m excited to post the “after” pictures of all our projects. We’ve been here for just over 9 months and have accomplished quite a bit. In addition to renovating much of the house, we have started seedlings for a summer garden, have plans to trench the electric lines, we will finish off the deck and screen porch we started last summer, start a colony of bees, and begin plans for a large-scale permaculture farm. This summer my challenge will be to find a way to live harmoniously with the weeds!