By Newman Turner
Excerpted from his book Fertility Pastures
The best way to deal with a nuisance is to turn it to good use, especially if it is not easy or economical to get rid of it. As a student of herbs for animal health and soil fertility, I am sure this is the right approach to weeds. Consequently, for some years I have used much of my land and time in experiments on the utilization and control of the common weeds of the farm. Such experiments meant first encouraging the weeds to grow in sufficient numbers to different stages of maturity, then using them, and later controlling them in various ways. In spite of some rude comments from my neighbours, I have been able to learn that practically every weed which we regard as a pest, can be managed in such a way as to make use of it at certain stages of the rotation and to eliminate it at others.
Couch is about the only exception. For, though it has valuable medicinal properties, being a tonic to kidneys, bladder and reproductive system, with anti-sterility powers, it doesn’t readily share a field with other crops. It prefers a virtual monopoly of the soil, and therefore if ever it is to be used it will probably only be as a separate permanent crop and not in conjunction with other domestic crops; and that may quite well be a possibility, for I believe the most persistent things in nature are persistent for a good purpose if only we can find it. But our task at present is to be rid of it, and the only really effective way to do that is to have a summer fallow—a practice which lost favour during and since the war. But if couch has no other purpose than to make us take a summer fallow now and then, it has a value. I still believe the biblical sabbath year is an essential of good husbandry.
Creeping Thistles, the next most troublesome weed, can be used and at the same time eliminated in a silage crop. A lucerne mixture is the best for this purpose. Thistles are a good source of protein and also have a beneficial effect on the breeding capacity of animals. A district officer of the Agricultural Committee told me that the highest protein silage he had seen was made from a mixture predominantly of thistles. A lucerne mixture sown on a thistly field will eliminate the thistles in three years of cutting for silage two or three times a year. But the thistles should be allowed to grow nearly to maturity each time before they’re cut, for the destruction to be complete. Thistles in grassland can also be cleared by allowing them fully to grow and mowing in July. Most of us encourage our grassland thistles by cutting them too soon and so encouraging the root development.
Nettles are one of the richest known sources of protein in nature, and for this reason of all weeds the nettle offers probably the best possibilities for development as a commercial crop. Comfrey, the greatest yielder of protein, is already accepted as a farm crop, thanks to the recent researches of Mr. Lawrence D. Hills and the Henry Doubleday Research Association. Nettle hay is well known as a food for goats, and I have made excellent silage for cows from a mixture of nettles and comfrey. As with thistles, nettles may also be destroyed when and where necessary by repeated cutting at maturity—not during the earlier growing stages which, as with thistles, strengthens the root system.
Comfrey is a subject in itself. It is now being used increasingly for pig and poultry feeding and as silage for cattle, being perhaps the heaviest yielding ‘weed’ in existence when properly cultivated. My present farm is infested with the Russian variety which was used extensively here, during the 1890’s, to feed a large stud of horses. I am developing it now for cattle silage and compost material.
Docks are valuable as deep-rooting suppliers of minerals and trace elements, but in very limited numbers: for docks so quickly get out of hand. Again, they can be eliminated by cutting at maturity—just before they go to seed. And, believe it or not, even the disc harrow can destroy both docks and thistles if it is used thoroughly enough. The discs must be used alone and not in conjunction with the plough. I have destroyed a complete carpet of thistles by repeated discing until the young thistles were reduced each time almost to pulp. Docks can similarly be destroyed by cutting up the growing crown, while it still grows, leaving the root to decay in the ground. It is when the dock is brought to the surface by ploughing and then cut into pieces with the disc harrow that it is multiplied. Of course, the safest and surest way with docks is the sheer hard labour of pulling or digging—a costly job these days.
Persicaria or Red-Shank is another weed that makes good silage— and mowing once before it seeds will get rid of it. I have used and eliminated persicaria in two ways: by sowing oats and vetches and cutting the mixture of oats, vetches and persicaria for silage, just before the persicaria seeds; and by using the persicaria as a green manure on an unsown field— i.e. allowing it to grow to a leafy stage then discing it in as a green manure—repeating the operation three times between April and September. The same treatment is effective with Fat Hen.
Charlock, though it is a nuisance in a corn crop, makes good silage for milk cows—especially mixed with lucerne or vetches; and it can easily be controlled by taking a silage crop. I have even rid a field of charlock, which swamped out a crop of kale, by cutting it and carting it to the cows in place of kale. In autumn, before they have tasted the real kale, they will eat it wilted—though they won’t readily come back to it after kale.
Weeds, like Chickweed and Groundsel, have provided me with thousands of tons of green manure for discing in between crops, and being annuals they rarely become a nuisance.
The tendency to destroy all weeds indiscriminately, especially by means of poison sprays, is a policy of despair now that the buckrake and green crop loader have made silage-making—a sure method of controlling weeds—so easy. Good husbandry surely demands a more intelligent study of the utilization and control of these sources of fertility and health. I am continuing on my present farm experiments on weed utilization and control begun at Goosegreen—and I may say that I start with a wonderful array of well-established crops of many varieties!
About the Author:
Frank Newman Turner was a visionary. He founded The Farmer, the first organic quarterly magazine “published and edited from the farm,” won the Great Comfrey Race, initiated by Lawrence D. Hills in 1953, was a founder member of the Soil Association, and became the first president of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), now the world’s largest organic horticultural association. He later became a leading medical herbalist and naturopath and published magazines promoting natural health care and organic principles.
More By This Author:
Herdsmanship, an in-depth look at the cornerstones of cattle longevity, which could be the key to success in breeding and reproduction in cattle.
Cure Your Own Cattle, a how-to guide for holistic and natural cattle care.
Also be sure to check out Newman Turner’s Classics Collection, featuring all four of his timeless books.