Episode 325. Loving your soil – the ecology of weeds

I’m going to focus on the three principles of the Fukuoka method, as I have applied them in my systems. I’m in process of changing homes and so a review is helpful for both your narrator and I hope, my listeners.

The three principles are:

  1. No digging,
  2. No weeding &
  3. No bare soil.

Back on episode 17 of the Organic Gardener Podcast, I was being interviewed by Jackie, the host, and I brought up the idea of no dig gardening. This was something new to her and, I suspect, to many of the listeners.

The idea goes back to observations of Nature. While it is true that some animals do dig, pigs, rabbits and so on, the vast majority do not. This means normal processes of soil formation rely upon material being layered on top of existing soil. I’ve spoken elsewhere of the soil profile on the Monaro where I lived for seven years where the opposite effect was observed. Instead of topsoil being built up over time, clearing of tree cover, ploughing and overgrazing led to topsoil from up hill moving downwards, smothering and destroying the original life sustaining ancient topsoils.

What I’m advocating and have practiced, is the use of organic matter as a sponge on top of the soil, as we find it. The best material I’ve ever used was bedding from the goat shed. It was filled with droppings and soaked, at the lower levels with urine. The bedding material itself varied from straw, oaten straw at the time, to spilled feed, lucerne and meadow hays to false bracken. 

This material was allowed to accumulate over six months and varied in depth from 30 to 50 cm. (About a foot to a foot and three quarters. This I hauled onto the garden beds in Spring and Autumn after harvesting. These beds were then immediately planted with seedlings raised separately. I also had a worm farm going and would toss a couple of handfuls of worm casting landen material on top of the goat bedding. 

In the Autumn the beds were relatively warm as the material decomposed and in the summer the extra heat boosted germination rates too. 

After the first year I broke the rules and dropped a spade into some of the beds to see what was going on underground. The beds had been started on a yellow sandy soil with relatively large grain sizes that drank water and didn’t retain any. The bedrock was sandstone. 

The small exploratory holes revealed a colour and structural change. The soil was now a rich humus black, was perfectly moist and chock a block full of earthworms. I have never used a spade in the garden since. The system works and I see the evidence in the plants.

Now to no weeding. The idea behind this is as follows. By starting with clean material for the garden beds, I am not importing weed seeds and by layering on top the soil, I am smothering any extant weed seeds. By planting closely together, I am denying any weeds sunlight. If after all these steps a weed appears, I simply leave it alone. Most garden weeds are the sort that colonise bare soils after a glacier melts. They are, usually, deep rooted or have a ground level rosette of leaves. These two characteristics mean two things. One, minerals held deep within the soil/subsoil will be pulled to the surface through the tap root and become available in the garden after the weed dies and two, the rosette of leaves is protecting the soil. 

The way the layering of material works is that these weeds never get the opportunity to set seed before they are buried under the next layering of the garden beds. So rather than seeing weeds as a problem I see them as a useful addition. 

Now if the land you’re taking over is covered with blackberry or thistles or some such nuisance, a stock or mechanic approach in preparation is required. Thistles need to be slashed just as the seed heads start to turn purple. This stops them throwing up new seed heads which occurs if cut too soon and if cut too late the seed is viable. This is mainly dealt with by burying the topsoil with the garden beds. Cardboard, newspaper or any other organic matter goes down first and then the, in my case, goat bedding. Stable manure also works. The key, I think, from my observations, is the manure content. 

Blackberries require several slashings. I have used a domestic lawn mower to clear an acre of the things. Blackberries store excess energy and starches etc in their roots. By continually slashing them the roots are weaken to the point where they die. Slashing also deposits organic matter on the topsoil, win/win.  I had to slash five times over a summer to remove them from the system. Hot, dirty work but the soil responded. I’ve also used Damara sheep, on a different property to continually graze blackberries to the same effect. This I prefer as a solution as it doesn’t involve fossil fuels and deposits manures. 

There is an alternative solution to spraying for all weeds. We just need to understand their growth cycles and there place in the ecology of plant succession.

That being the case, principle number 3 becomes obvious. No bare soil. Bare soil, in Nature, is a result of tree falls in a forest, wildfires and the effects of glaciation. If we understand these conditions, we can see weeds populating the bare surface to protect the soils and begin the process of building them.

The best way to duplicate these conditions and call in the natural responses to bare soil is to dig, is to plough, to turn the layers of the soil. If we don’t do that we are already ahead of the game, using succession ecology to our advantage rather than creating the conditions we do not want.

Let us all create the situations we desire rather than the opposite in our gardens and paddocks.

And with that I’ll finish for this week. Remember: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you for listening and I’ll be back next week.



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email: jon@worldorganicnews.com


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