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Weeds in the eye of the beholder

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By Lee Einer

Weeds. We hate ‘em. It’s really a statement which is true based on definition of terms. “Weeds” is not a term which is meaningful in biological terms.

A “weed” is simply a plant we don’t like. So when we label a plant a “weed,” we are actually communicating more about ourselves than we are about the plant of which we are speaking.

When I was a teen, my father got the gardening bug. I was delegated the task of roto-tilling the back yard, an adventure which convinced me that our soil was best suited for growing large rocks - there seemed to be more of them every spring.

Anyway, once I had completed the annual spring rock harvest, we planted the usual suspects, carrots, squash, peas, etc. They  grew with various degrees of enthusiasm, but what beat them all, hands down, were the weeds, which sprung up with a vigor that verged on the diabolical. I could whack them all down, filling several garbage bags, and they would be back,hip high, seemingly in no time at all.

This was back in the day when Euell Gibbons gained some degree of notoriety with a best-seller called “Stalking the WIld Asparagus,” which was a book on how to identify and harvest wild edible plants. My father got hold of a copy, and we discovered that our “weeds” were lambs-quarters and purslane, or as we would say in these parts, quelites and verdolaga.  It took only a couple of experimental evening meals to convince us that the “weeds” we had been battling were more delectable than the veggies we thought we were protecting from them.

So these veggie volunteers made an overnight transformation  from  weeds to  delicious, nutritious greens. A miracle!

These days, quelites comprise a minor part of the volunteer vegetation springing up in my back yard, and verdolaga, which I crave, is also in short supply.. Bindweed is abundant, and there are other plants which I do not even know the name of. But these days, I don’t think of them as weeds so much as plants I have to work with to ensure their proper function.

In the language of permaculture, we tend to classify plants by their function within ecologies and plant guilds. Some plants have long tap roots, which extend deep down in the soil. These plants absorb nutrients from deeper down in the soil than other plants can reach. They use those nutrients to grow foliage on the surface, and they thereby serve multiple functions - their leaves and stems, when they decompose,  redeposit those mined nutrients at the surface of the soil where other, shallow-rooted plants can make use of them. We call these “nutrient accumulators.” They’re a good thing. And as an added bonus, their root systems tend to break up compacted soil and contribute organic matter.

Other plants generate a great deal of foliage which can be regularly whacked down to contribute mulch. They’re called mulch plants.

What I have in my backyard, I would at one time call “weeds,” but now I recognize them as nutrient accumulators and mulch plants, which actually help my soil. I just need to whack them down about this time of year so they can feed my soil and so they do not become habitat for the dreaded grasshoppers. I used to thing of this as weeding, and did not particularly enjoy it. Now I see it as mulching, and it seems like a more productive pursuit.

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There’s a lot of general knowledge available about permaculture, but there’s not a lot of practical permaculture knowledge available about what specifically works in Northeastern New Mexico.

It is an oversight which cries out  to be addressed. And so I am doing so.

I have created a Wiki website, at www.nenmpermies.wetpaint.com, so that we can share what we have learned about permaculturing in this bioregion.

The fun thing about a Wiki is that it’s not like most websites where you visit as a passive observer. You can do that if you want, but if you sign up to the site, you can also become a co-contributor, editing pages, adding pages, posting photos, joining in discussions. A Wiki is a participatory website, and I am looking forward to your participation.

Lee Einer is a certified permaculture designer and the Optic’s feature editor. If you have questions or comments on green topics, feel free to e-mail him at features@lasvegasoptic.com or call him at 425-6796.