By mid-June, even our high-mountain farm in Taos County—way up at 8,100 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains―is in full swing. The garlic is two feet tall; the potatoes have all poked their dirty noses out of the soil. Lettuces are small and sweet. The peas are sending tendrils up their trellis. And the whole field is carpeted in a shimmer of pinkish green―a lovely carpet of pigweed.
Any farmer who isn’t Roundup Ready will tell you that weeds are on of their biggest issues. New Mexico’s high and dry climate means we can (sometimes) escape some of the plant world’s worst bugs. But we have a wonderful variety of pernicious weeds.
Here at Boxcar Farm, we have a particularly severe problem with weeds at least in part because I, one of the two primary keepers of the fields, have a guilty and quiet fondness for them. While other farmers spend hours with their hoes, put black weed mat everywhere, cultivate between rows and generally declare war on the weeds, I sneakily head out to the fields to admire the little green shoots of annual buckwheat sprouting near the beans. Last summer, I actually got a bad case of weed envy―my farmer friend Ric Gaudet had some gorgeous little red morning glories growing all over his pepper patch. I liked the flowers as much as the peppers (well, almost).
So, despite my best efforts to play by the rules and get rid of the weeds, I never seem to make much progress. Pigweed, for instance, is a marvelously impressive little plant. When it germinates, it sends out little plant poisons into the soil to prevent other weeds from sprouting. Who can resist a plant with such intelligence? Plus, a mature pigweed is downright delicious before it flowers―like asparagus. Only easier to grow.
Pigweed’s close cousin, lambs quarters, is another problem in the field. But it makes a great spinach substitute, and frankly, the spinach didn’t germinate very well because we didn’t get all the pigweed out of that bed. It’s so delicious that you have to leave a little for next year.
Purslane? This sweetly lemony little succulent is better than any salad green I know. I never pull out purslane.
Last year, one of our most difficult weeds kept hiding its basal rosette from our hoes. I discovered that it is actually shepherds purse (Capsell bursa-pastoris), a weed that is commonly used as a medicinal plant by herbalists as an agent to slow or stop bleeding. When some herbalist friends heard I had shepherds purse in my field, they begged me to leave some so they could come harvest at its proper stage (which is, of course, after it’s basically gone to seed). Dutifully, I left the shepherds purse alone, but the carrots didn’t seem to mind.
Over the years, as we’ve moved our fields and our farm around, we’ve faced different weeds. Some of my favorites are the early spring weeds, like the wild mustards that are probably partly crossed with my kale crops, and which are incredibly tasty. I’m a huge fan of dandelion and cringe with pain to hear of urban lawn-keepers attempting to get rid of this delightful and tasty piece of sunshine.
But I don’t just save the edible weeds. I like the pretty ones too, like the wild sunflowers that sprout up along the roadside and whose seeds accidentally found their way into our lower field (oops).Then there’s that gorgeous grass. I don’t know what it is, but it’s an annual grass that forms really big clumps. They are easy enough to pull out, but when they make their delicate seed heads, they are so pretty and turn the field into a fairyland, so I like to leave some there. You know, just a little bit. Last year, though, it took over the parsnips and I had to finally take it out.
Some of our weeds were introduced by us, like the field peas and the buckwheat we planted as cover crop that keep coming back because I never seem to pull out all of them, leaving just enough that it will come up again next year in unexpected places. After all, the bees love the buckwheat and the kids love to eat the pea shoots, which taste just like snap peas. (And remember that row of peas I planted over in the purslane patch? It’s not doing so well.)
Of course, there are some exceptions. I really do hate Canada thistle from the depths of my being, and I’m really happy the bindweed has limited itself to the edge of our driveway so far. I could do without that wild tomatillo, which sort of stinks.
But it hardly seems appropriate for a market farmer to allow this weed insanity to continue. The little lettuce heads need some room to breathe. Just as a journalist, say, has to weed out the falsehoods from the truth, it’s our duty as farmers to get rid of all this pigweed for the sake of the squash. So this summer, we’re really planning to get out our hoes and go to work.
We are dedicating the whole month of June this year to weed patrol. We’ve invited as many friends and strangers as are willing to come spend some time on our war against weeds. Volunteers welcome. Just don’t touch the purslane.