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Snip! Gardening :Weeds & My Conversion to Root Wrangling

I'm not obsessive about weeds. Most of all, in regard to them, I'm lazy. 

I may spray (vinegar+borax+salt) to murder them on the paths and gravel surrounds, but among the veg I'm tolerant because I know if I pull-a-weed I am sure to remove more than I planned.

If you are planning to pull, I say, do so only after good rain.

But then, why pull at all? 

I've not found a weed* that cannot be drowned in mulch or smothered in some form of fabric. Since I'm importing weed seeds into my garden every other day when spreading grass clippings, I do know what I'm talking about.

I turn the weeds on themselves such that they suffocate their own siblings.

Weed on weed.

Generally, I'm getting weeds where I can't mulch -- like where the carpet edge I lay out as pathway meets the garden 'beds' (such as they are). But elsewhere, weeds seldom raise their heads above the covers.

Even the running grasses(as in Brisbane 'lawn')  with their tenacious root systems will die off and shrink back after many months of mulching.

Patience is all.

But weeding as a pastime is something I haven't been able to avoid in the school garden...That's because we are running to different gardening protocols than my own outback. So I got the team  a Cyclone Courtyard Cultivator / Hoe  (pictured right) and it makes for light work. I was looking for a hoe with slicing action  undercut via a shallow blade,  but this long handled hand tool from Cyclone works a treat. You can't see it clearly from the image , but the head has two optional counterposing tool sets: fork and blade. The ergonomics and efficiencies seem much better than your full length handle hoe.You can work quickly with a steady technique as the pivoting at the hand allows for easy targeting and shallow soil disturbance.

At home I've used  another soil disturber tool  -- the Ho Mi Little Hoe  (Asian Hand Cultivator/pictured left) -- but it is demanding both of energy and earth. I tried to strap this to a longer handle but its action approach doesn't work at that distance.

Outback--in my place -- my norm has been to use a trowel to dig plant out holes...and a pair of scissors.

While I use scissors to cut twine for trellising, I also use scissors to trim greenery. I may revert to secateurs to trim back trees with their woody stems, but I'd be lost without my Fiskars scissors.

And here's the drum, the irony: I now use my scissors to weed. Indeed when a plant I don't want to live is 'existing' above the mulch layer, I cut it off at its base with my trusty pair of Fiskars. The plant -- weed or vegetable -- is decapitated, while the the roots remain in situ and undisturbed..

And once cut, the same tool can be used to chop up the stems for mulch.

Does this approach work? So far so good.Any certified nasties that play the zombie and come back  as walking dead, I simply cut off again.

In the weed cutting community -- as distinct from the weed removing one -- sickles are all the rage.There are many sizes of sickles to choose from but I find the pivot arc they require too broad a swing for my garden beds. With the small ones , the flick-and-drag action I also find a tad conducive to RSI.

Scissors are too --and secateurs are even worse (except for those with rolling handles)-- but with scissors you get to target your action to specific plants. So long as the tissues are soft it's easy: snip! No wasteful actions.

One of the reasons we sentence our vegetable gardens to beds and rows is so we can weed between the plants. If/when you go obsessively polycultural like I have, you don't have the luxury of 'order' among the green things, let along 'spacing'. Intervention is much more complicated as so many different plants are cheek to jowl. 

So you want to get in, snip...and get out. Like a barber after a nose hair.

After coming from a pulling habit, the transition to snip! gardening is a hard ask. But I had an epiphany early last year when  asked to weed the beds at the Green P Farm in Deagon. By the time I'd completed my allocated task, I'd uprooted a good percentage of the vegetables  in the row.

So I now say to myself, " In this glorious age of  microbe farming you gotta respect the grass roots -- even when they're dead."

Especially when they're dead.

Let sleeping weeds lie.

It took me a while to get a handle on this logic but I have learnt so much by studying Rotational Grazing: art and science. 

I tells ya, herbivores know.

The pieces fitted together much more for me by comprehending 'grass' (aka 'weeds')  in a paddock  rather than trying to comprehend vegetables in a garden bed.

Trimming weeds at their base may seem a shallow response to the problem of their infestation, but there is method in the any green keeper knows. 

Indeed, what you want to become is a root wrangler.

*'not found a weed': maybe Wandering jew or trad(Tradescantia albiflora) is an exception.

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Comment by Dave Riley on June 17, 2016 at 9:06

Given that I'm always adding weed seeds to my garden beds because I layer mulch with 'grass clippings' from wherever, my garden should be a weed hub. But it's not.

I have few weeds -- because I mulch deep -- and snipping those that come up seems to deal with most of them. 

I've noted that new beds will be infested with couch like grasses. But these don't like to be mulched over, and die back over a six month period.

Thereafter I noted that the nastiest of weeds seemed to be imported with horse manures.So I stopped layering the soil I planted with manure directly.I now manure (with mulches) the paths and walk over that. 

I also note that my weakest attribute is where 'beds' meet path -- the edges -- and the irony is that I can deal with that better by also mulching the paths and suppressing any sense of border between the two.

Consider a track in the bush. Its integration with its surroundings is seamless but it still functions as a track because it is walked on frequently.. It was a light bulb moment when I realised that I could foster a better garden by mulching deeply all its nooks and crannies with brush and grass cuttings rather than relying on non organic materials. 

I also did some homework and all this preciousness about walking on the garden (or the grass!) is a bit misplaced. Trampling is a key attribute of soil ecology because as soon as it wets up again, the profile recovers. 

Daily traffic will compact the soil of course -- look at cattle tracks on a dairy farm (example at right)-- but why dedicate so much space to thoroughfare transit when you need to traverse it only occasionally.

My guess is that it is a product of the the tyranny of the wheelbarrow which demands so much criss cross and roadway width.

I've shifted to the Parisian 19th Century gardeners.. Consequently I have more space to plant in.

[Inspiration: As I've noted before, my grandfather's garden was traversed via stepping stones -- you stepped 'over' the plants!]

Weeds are so opportunistic they cannot help themselves. The joke's on them too: once snipped they make great mulch. 

But one golden rule: attend to your weds before they seed. 

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on June 15, 2016 at 16:13

There's probably some fine-tuning with what you cut and what you yank out. I assumed if you cut the roots just under the crown, that would be it. But thinking about Comfrey and Lucerne with their thick roots, if you want them out then they have to be dug out roots and all.

I have some horrid stuff here - it's a mint but with a pink flower, rough stem and a god-awful stink. Thanks to my non-gardening neighbour :-\. I'm figuring on removing the roots and binning the plants or I can see it surfacing, surfacing.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 15, 2016 at 15:55

Many plants, including weeds, are just as likely to come up again after rain if the roots remain viable. That's my assumption. 

Go look at your neighbour's lawn...or running bamboo.

But they need photosynthesis (sun on leaf) to thrive and stay alive ... also, I guess, if you decapitate them again they have a limited zombie option. 

Unlike cats I doubt they have nine lives.This is why sheet mulching works.

If you check out Rotational Grazing the amount of chomp is crucial to the grass' growth pattern -- that and the frequency of grazing.

The alternative of turning over the soil-- even by up rooting --  is notorious for activating seeds.

I weeded this week -- after the rain -- with a pair of scissors -- and had to snip all of 10 weeds. I have to slap my hand if I have an urge to pull a weed -- and I do have those urges (after all I'm only human) -- but so long as I only pull the  buffalo like grass -- a true matrix in my soil -- I'm ahead. That stuff it like spaghetti and when I pull on a thread I can disentangle its roots  from up to a couple of metres of soil.

Comment by Dianne Caswell on June 15, 2016 at 13:53

Hi Elaine, they are coming up from the rootstock I thought they would not if I cut them just under the soil, maybe not all weeds can be treated this way...

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on June 15, 2016 at 10:52

'Coming back' does this mean re-shooting from the rootstock or new plants appearing? Former means chopping into the rootstock so there's no stem left. Latter are from seeds.

Comment by Dianne Caswell on June 15, 2016 at 9:49

Well I am still Root Wrangling and since the rain there are even more weeds. I bought myself the new

Burgon and Ball Weed Slicer and couldn't be happier with a weeding tool. It is so easy to use and when you pull back on the tool the weeds come tool.

Now I think I must be having a problem that I have some weeds still coming back such as Cobblers Pegs and other Woody Weeds does this mean they are not the weeds to snip (Root Wrangle), or do I simply need to go deeper. Anyone had any experience with those? 

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on May 1, 2016 at 17:49

Found the resulting regrowth to be bitter and not worth the garden space. Suspect you'd need to add some fertiliser to help them along.

When taking leaves eg Silverbeet, Lettuce I use my fingers to break the stems off as close to the main stem as I can rather than cut. Read something about it but it sounds more like an opinion rather than results of any observation or survey.

Comment by Dianne Caswell on May 1, 2016 at 17:26

Using the principles of Snip Gardening, can anyone tell me - Do you cut your Lettuces, Cabbages etc. below the soil and leave the roots in when you are harvesting.

Comment by Dave Riley on April 28, 2016 at 20:41

Heres' an aside: I respect the ability of the soil microbes to handle any amount of stuff that enters the soil...and while I don't make light of compostable toxins  like print dyes, paper glosses, some plastics  and such -- I take the view that  that's our sentence while these materials are in circulation.

It's up to the microbes to work out what they'll do with them so I use them as mulch.

 That doesn't make me a fundamentalist organic gardener -- but the substance i distrust the most, ironically, is water --specifically  town water with its chlorine and chloramine additions.

These chems are designed to kill microbes..and they sure kills fish.

But we dowse our gardens with them every day. I don't oppose the additions (as I value my own ready access to potable water) but soak your soil with that stuff and you are deploying bactericides.

We don't have a choice but it suggests that maybe the rain or  tank water is your best ally.

But then if I was using spear pump water from the aquifers below me I'd be really pouring a lot of sulphur onto my patch...and whatever. 

It is amassing isn't it, how keenly a garden will grow after heavy rain and how desultory it may remain with tap water?  I'm sure it is a microbial effect not just H2O.

Comment by Dave Riley on April 28, 2016 at 20:21

The Soil Food Web folks use different ferments -- depending on the soil -- aside from the soft touch protocols of no dig. 

I take the view that you treat the soil as you would your own gut...but I'm not expecting a quick change impact. 

As a matter of interest, among the folk I'm collaborating with, I've just published a useful article by Alan Broughton  on The effects on soil biology of agricultural chemicals.

He writes:

The long-term use and overuse of nitrogenous fertilisers acidifies soil and burns up organic matter. Increased use of inorganic fertiliser, particularly nitrogen, use does not lead to an increase in soil organic matter over the long-term, instead causing a reduction. The nitrates stimulate microbial communities that feed on nitrogen; these communities use up readily available soil carbon to balance their diet then start decomposing more stable forms such as humus. As they do so the soil loses its ability to hold nitrogen and the nitrogen that is surplus to the plants’ requirements leaches, causing water pollution, or evaporates as nitrous oxide which is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. At the same time the soil hardens and becomes more acidic, providing worsening conditions for beneficial microorganisms. Water holding capacity is also reduced. In the long-term, after 10 or so years of regular applications of anhydrous ammonia or urea, soil acidification has increased in many cases and microbial biomass decreased.


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