Dancing With the Weeds



It is fashionable now to see who can come up with the most damning information about herbicides and I take my turn at that pastime too. But those of us who grew up on farms when only the hoe and the cultivating shovel stood between us and the avenging weeds, the arrival of 2,4D was more welcome than Santa Claus. Weeds are what drove so many of us to the cities. No city slum is any worse than the space between a brush-choked fence row and tall corn when you are scything  weeds there in August. No city street pavement is as hard as clay soil when the hot sun hardens it after heavy rain, especially when as a boy you are trying to push a wheel cultivator through it. No city traffic jam can equal the feeling of powerlessness that comes over you when staring at the rollers of an old corn picker choked tight and fat with weeds.

Before agriculture, there was no such thing as weeds. The plow invented the weed. As humans increased and multiplied, so did weeds. Those who battle them on a grand scale today adore the great god Monsanto who came down from the heaven of science to save us. But not even gods are a match for weeds and now we face a grim world where we have a choice between killing them with chemicals so powerful that they might kill us too, or going back to those seemingly primitive times when nearly every human spent time wielding a hoe.

A hoe, used wisely, can become an instrument of peace and tranquility, not slavery. But most farmers made the same mistake John Henry, the Steel Drivin’ Man of folklore made. They tried to use their muscles to compete with the piston engine. They hoed, and made our children hoe, all day and into the night. Inevitably the children fled to town. FFA changed from standing for Future Farmers of America to Farmers Farming Alone.

Fighting weeds in the beginning of farming was something of an art form and not so back-breaking because many people “made light the task.” In the early Middle Ages, without metal-bladed hoes, the first agriculturists used a forked stick in one hand and a hooked stick (called a weed hook) in the other. The idea was to avoid bending over so much.  Advancing across a crop field, the farmer used the forked stick to push down the top of a weed and pin it to the soil surface until, moving forward, he could step on it with one foot while his other foot was holding down the weed he had previously pinned to the ground. That weed he would pull out of the ground by hooking it close to its base with the  weed hook in his other hand. Thus he would glide forward: pinning down a weed ahead of him while simultaneously hooking and pulling out the one behind him already pinned down. As he did so, he left the pulled weeds in neat mulch rows for the later harvesters to walk on as they cut the grain. The whole process required practiced skill and an athletic sense of measured balance.  Dorothy Hartley wrote in her fascinating book Lost Country Life (1979) that this rhythmical action “was perhaps very like a swinging dance.” To make sure the work did not get too oppressive, the weed dancers were allowed generous noontime breaks for napping, so old medieval records reveal.

With the hoe, another kind of athletic and artistic skill came into play, then as now. To avoid being “backbreaking drudgery” the knowledgeable farmer or gardener hoes when the weeds are only just emerging from the soil or even before they appear. Not only is it much easier to destroy the weeds at this stage, but it means that the soil remains in a loose condition, easy to slide the hoe through. Astride a crop row or between two rows, the hoer falls into a rocking rhythm that is also sort of a swinging dance. In this way, a considerably large plot can be kept clear of weeds with only an hour or two of work every day.

If somehow hoes become our herbicide of choice today, the garden farm could hardly  grow beyond the size that a family of hoe wielders could handle in a few hours every day, with plenty of time for a noon day nap, etc. Lots of etc. The number of garden farmers would increase until they could produce enough food to “feed a nation.” Weeds would become a great boon,  an effective job creator.

I am being facetious, of course. Sort of. In the same vein, I fear that the end of herbicides would not mean the end of agricultural oligarchy as I would like to see happen. The plutocrats would continue to hold on to most of the land by employing robots instead of human workers to hoe the weeds. Properly programmed robots should easily be able distinguish marestail from corn.

In either case, buy stock in companies that make hoes.


We are farming the permaculture way here in Malawi, which means no-till, removing weeds shortly after they emerge and a thick layer of mulch as you can manage to discourage weeds germinating. The mulch also keeps the soil cool in our hot summers, moist in our long dry seasons, prevents wind erosion and water erosion with our very hard rainfall and returns the nutrients to the soil. We also prevent any weeds from flowering and seeding near cultivated fields. Legume cover crops help build up fertility! All cultivation is done by hoe. While most farmers are on small, maybe 2 acre farms, some large farmers do exist (one Zimbabwean farmer farmed 3000 hectare – over 6000 acres), who sold their tractors and combines as too expensive to run profitably and use hired day labour for planting and harvesting! After farming this way the number of weeds have decreased dramatically, but eternal vigilance is the password!

I wonder what the farmer would be doing while the robot is weeding? Driving back and forth to the store to buy new batteries for the robot? Or working in the city to make the money to buy the spare parts for the robot. . .
And if you do not dance with the weeds (towards the knee replacement and back surgeries as my farmer says), then you never know if you have the right weeds growing there, what are the weeds telling about the soil, sweet or sour, what beneficial bugs are weeds attracting and why, etc. Unless of course, the robot is so smart and can report back on the condition of weeds, soil, and insects, and all that. I’d rather dance with the weeds than read a computerized report. 🙂
We picked raspberries last week and were quite happy that rows were unweeded, because there was just enough lambs quarters to make a good nibbling lunch of lambs quarters and raspberries.

We know that good sound traditional farming practices including crop rotation and mechanical weed control can produce food crops without dominance by “weeds”. The idea is weed control not eradication. For me farming is just an ecological disturbance that gives favor to the plants of my choice. Fall plowed old sod has so few weeds that a timely single cultivation can produce a corn crop or any other row crop. Then after two years of row crops put the land back into small grains, simultaneously back to sod and graze it one year as fallow throughout a 7 year rotation and repeat. For folks that haven’t seen modern use of traditional cultivation tools and animal power here is a video of our efforts doing exactly that to grow our non gmo, organic open pollinating 87 day corn:

I love your wit about how labor saving rescue chemistry is credited with changing FFA to mean Farmers Farming Alone… bitterly true. Efficiency is measured in man hours instead of calories of energy invested for calories of food produced. If we measured efficiency by a mile per gallon caloric exchange concept U.S. ag would be the worst in the world…

If a piece of ground won’t grow a good crop of weeds it won’t grow good crops either.Weeds are healers of the soil and being able to ‘read’ which weeds one has and what it means to have have a certain weed growing in aboundance will tell you much about your soil.

    Agreed! A lot of weeds arise due to needs of the soil.

    I’m especially leery of pulling deep tap rooted weeds. They are bringing up stuff the soil needs. Rather, I cut them above the crown before they seed, and mulch them in place. Or put them in my four-legged composting machines. (“Thistles! Yum!”)

In the “good old days” of the family farm did weeding ever get to the point where the weed seed bank was depleted and therefore weeds less of an ever present impending disaster? The summer I started a garden on a 50’x50′ patch of weeds I soon discovered the wonder of the seed bank. The supply of weed seeds seemed endless. Year after year one crop of weeds destroyed would, one or two weeks later, be replaced by yet another booming crop. After 6 years of assiduously removing every weed before it could go to seed I reached a fairly livable plateau of weed-removal effort. Oh yes, they still appear but I no longer seem to spend more time weeding than anything else!

We were those kids hoeing the feilds from dawn till dusk all summer as well as hand husking the corn in the fall on my grandfathers farm. When we got older and left the farm my grandfather called us lazy and created a little cart to spray the weeds in the rows with 24d. I inherited the little cart as well as the horse harness and hand tools of the farm. I did not get the farm. It is now a forest . . I Do have a small organic homestead where I grow my own foods and ho,e till as well as mulch, to deal with weeds. I also sell weed seed for those who want to grow such things as nettle, dandelion and burdock! I also eat them and make medicines with them.
MY vote is not for robots…. let them farm on mars ….. :)Sharon

Dorothy Hartley book is a favorite of mine… and pretty thrilled to see you mention it here. Your views of agriculture are always interesting… Stay well.

THere is nothing like foxtail or morning glory vines wrapped around the snapping rolls of the old #7 new idea one row picker or nightshade inside of a combine.When yu have had a combine filled nose to *sshole with weeds and had to crawl in to take a pocket knife and cut them out almost makes me think twice of going back to organic gardening and farming.THe fact they are coming up with organic approved herbicides and methods of rolling cover crops so you can no till crops organically gives me hope.Rotary hoeing and cultivating can do a reasonable job of controlling weeds when they are small. The tricky part is later in the year when the crop is too high to cultivate but hasnt canopied over enough to shade out late weeds. Thats when the foxtail loves to sneak up on you.Lots of praying among non church goewers when hoping that clump of foxtail goes thru the combine!!

Maybe rather than fighting all the weeds, we should leave them alone (for the most part) and they’d stop trying to re-multiply in even greater amounts. Many weeds are helpful (to hold the soil together) and many are actually medicinal/edible.

I’ve never seen a field of anything growing and living that doesn’t contain weeds and they BOTH seem to thrive just fine. It almost angers me that we think we need to spray poisons onto them and then when it doesn’t work and we’ve created super-weeds, we are angry with the weeds!! Holy socks.

I’ve also seen farm equipment with tall GRASSES growing up into places it shouldn’t be, as well as weeds. The grasses need to be cleared away in order to use the equipment just as much as weeds would have to be cleared. It’s six of one, half dozen of another, IMPHO.

I’m afraid we’re too far into monoculture madness and chemical dependency to change much there. But a weeding robot? What a great answer that would be!

Marsha- Queen of Buzzard's Glory SE Ohio down by Salt Fork Lake September 30, 2015 at 10:28 am

Gene, I’m 62 and have been growing as best I can since I was 22. I finally learned that, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon. I save urine in a five gal bucket and when people ooh and ahh over my great garden I dare not tell the the source of the nitrogen. I wanna tell them that if they stand still too long, I’ll compost them. Even with no-till, up here on the nearly naked spine of an old Appalachian foothill ridge here in SE Ohio, I have to make my own soil every year. Speaking of hoes, check out a thing called a ‘Ho-Mi’… ancient Korean implement. Put that baby on a long handle and you have my go-to gal. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading. Be well. Marsha

I love the idea of the weed dance. I must have two left feet as weeds and I do not dance well.
I believe weeding is where curse words were born. Just as you told in your blog this day there have been many a time when those weeds *almost* got the better of me. Thank goodness for the power of a good expletive.
I believe my sister once stepped into the swing of hoe and got a bad cut on her leg. My sibs and I always believed she did it on purpose just to get out of weeding. That backbreaking work will force you to extremes.

I had to laugh at your title Gene as this year, once again I think the weeds won the dance. Too many cool nights equalled slow germination and by the time the vegetables and weeds germinated, we were into the swing of cutting our hay. Oh well! There is always next year and we still have enough to eat.

I do wonder what it would take to make a system where people are recompensed well for their labour in the fields and yet others not working in the fields are able to afford the food. Still mulling that in my mind often enough

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