11 July 2011

Eat Your Weeds!

If you've ever chosen a packet of Fat Hen, Chick Weed or Nettles from the choices at FIG, then chances are you've seen this entertaining label on the packet you took home. This post is a long over due one, but despite my neglect in bringing you this post, I really wanted to still share with you the tour we were blessed to take at Michael Champion's farm in recent (YES! It still JUST classifies as RECENT... only JUST!) times.

You've gotta love Michael Champion. He really is a true Champion! NO pun intended... or maybe! :) With his quick wit, unique sense of humor and the tireless work he does to promote and motivate organic farming here in our Mountainous regions on the Coast - he really does deserve to wear proudly the name 'Champion'.

Now, I'm a bit new to all this permaculture, bio-dynamic and organic farming bizzo. We've been eating organics for quite a few years now and grow our own little patch with organic principles, but I'm not too clued up on all the in's and out's of this sustainable way of farming and all the inspirations/indications that come along with it.

So... imagine my surprise when I first came across Michael Champion's property. The path that meanders from the main sheds along and out the back of the property to the farming space is quite gorgeous. One may be forgiven for thinking (just for a moment) that they're in the European forests as they wander through pines, spot wild pine mushrooms and bounce along on a carpet of soft cushy brown pine needles underfoot. It's quite a serene little track.

Then you round the corner and come up upon the farming space. "Well, my, that's quite an overgrown little patch" I quietly think to myself. "Where does he find the space to grow all our food amongst that wild forest of WEEDS?" Now of course I kept my comments at this point to myself ;) Michael explained a bit about his farming techniques and I was really impressed at this principle of allowing the space to 'go wild' during it's rest time - and harvesting at the same time from this space - edible weeds! Brilliant!

Another brilliant thing is the weeds themselves. Seriously - these things are very, very smart. They are rich in a concentration of nutrients which work in brilliant ways to naturally rebalanced soil eco-systems. Permaculture Research Institute of Australia has a lovely page about the wonder of weeds and says "Weeds are grossly under-appreciated lifeforms. They are, by definition, plants that are not valued and proliferate with no human work at all. Since they are not valued, they are free. Since they proliferate, they are very concentrated sources of bulk organic matter. Since they are plants, they contain all the major and minor plant nutrients, in a good ratio."

Geoff Lawton, a permaculture teacher, gives some wonderful information on the site 'EcoFilms', in an article titled 'A Permaculture Perspective on Weeds'. In every square meter of soil, I am amazed to read, there is up to 2,000 potential germination seeds of weeds. These little weeds are very smart - and do you know which out of those 2,000 seeds will germinate? The one's that are going to best re-balance and put back into the soil, whatever is lacking! I told you SMART! So - you really have to think that when people see weeds as foe, it's the very smart farmer who works in harmony with these little intelligent folk, and realises that the TRUE farmer's friend - is indeed the humble WEED!

In his article on EcoFilms, Geoff gives an overview of various examples, to illustrate which weeds will germinate in particular conditions to re-generate the soil environment it finds itself in.
• Burnt landscape; Fire takes away all the potassium in the soil. If one stands back and watches after a fire has depleted an area, you would notice that among the first re-germinating plant life is the humble little weed. And not just any weed, but the weeds which have long, straggly roots. These long straggly roots harvest potassium from deep down and force it up to the surface.
• Compacted soil; When all the air is knocked out of the soil, the smart little weed that is sent forth to germinate from his weed community in these conditions, is often the dandelion or other similar deep tap rooted weeds. Their mission in life - to simply decompact the soil. The weed springs forth, thrives and when it dies back, it leaves in it's wake, a long tap root system, which is the perfect inroad for air, nutrient and water to journey deep into the soil structure and bring new life to the compacted matter.
• Overploughed soils; The weed that makes it's centre stage debut in this situation, are the graceful folk with the fine root system. In a soil environment of loose, crumbly soil susceptible to erosion, this tiny little dancer holds the soil particles together.
• Overworked soils; It's commonly known that in overworked and intensively farmed soils, nitrogen is one of the main nutrients majorly depleted in these soil environments. So of course, the weed to germinate in this condition is the nitrogen fixing weeds; peas, beans, legumes. Their roots contain a root attachment bacteria which is high in nitrogen, OF COURSE!

And, there is one time when weeds will NOT germinate! Yes, occasionally they do have no place, and when that place happens to appear, you know what, you won't even have to worry about weeds - because if they have no use.... they just DON'T GERMINATE! Want to know where you won't find weeds? In rich compost hummus. Where there is a perfect balance of all nutrients, soil condition is impeccable and it is then that the tireless working little weed seed rests. Because his work here, as they say, is done.

 The farming folk at Champion's use a stirrup hoe and the gas burning technique to remove small weeds that germinate amongst the active planted beds. Whilst Michael works in harmony with the weeds and allows them to move in and do their thing during the resting stages, the weeds do need to be managed and reminded gently, to work in harmony with the farmer when it is his time to use the bed that the weeds have restored during rest. Michael likes the long handled stirrup hoe as it is easy to use, effective and kind to the body of the farmer, being able to be used from an upright standing position. This particular brand of stirrup hoe Michael uses, he pointed out was his favourite amongst what is available on the market, as the edge of the hoe has no point that protrudes out past the flush edge of the hoe. Often this is the case with many stirrup hoes, which can easily damage newly planted and establishing seedlings.

Such a wonderful farm tour. We thank you Michael for kindly and warmly opening up your space to show us where some of our locally grown food is produced. You can visit Champion's website and take a look around the wonderful information available on the site. In the blog section, there is an interview with Michael regarding organic farming and also a current post on those wild pine mushrooms that were recently on offer in our choices.

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