Reading Weeds to Identify Your Garden’s Needs

Bedded down for winter

After pulling weeds and tending to plants all summer, it’s tempting for a gardener like me to hang up the hoe as soon as the last bunch of kale is gathered and the last tomato is picked–or frost-bitten, as is often the case in Montana. Finally, a break from the daily maintenance of a 52-foot plot!

But before stowing away all of my implements for the winter, I have a few final tasks to tend to. In a plot like mine, sewn on soil that is far from ideal for planting, it is critical to take measures to improve the soil a little bit each year so that its clay-like, calcium-poor quality will gradually transform into a carbon-rich, nutrient-dense bed for my fruits and vegetables.

This past May I attended a soil seminar by international specialist Nicole Masters, who has been consulting with a local rancher in my area to improve the health of his grazing range. I gleaned numerous takeaways from Masters’ workshop, which focused on practices engineered to get carbon back into our soils and out of the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. Most of these practices must be implemented well in advance of planting in order to reap their benefits, making fall just as important a season for gardeners as spring and summer.

During her seminar, Masters discussed the critical role that carbon plays in retaining moisture and nutrients in our soil as well as the consequent decline in fertility that occurs when topsoils are mistreated, as they commonly are in industrial agricultural operations (not to mention the disruption caused by urban and suburban land uses). In the middle of the last century in Montana, where I live, soil carbon levels hovered around 20% whereas today those levels linger between just 1.5 and 2.5%, resulting in reduced moisture and nutrient content. No wonder we are not getting enough minerals such as magnesium in our systems for healthy sleep!

Masters shared numerous soil-building practices that can help reverse this trend such as minimizing tillage, herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers and replacing them instead with natural soil amendments such as organic compost, compost tea, cover crops, fish meal, manure, mulches, and lime, all of which provide food for the microorganisms that play a critical role in soil health as well as add the nutrients necessary for plant growth (man-made amendments simply furnish isolated minerals without feeding soil organisms). Much of this I already knew; I bed my garden down with leaf and grass clippings every fall (as shown in the photo above), underneath which I leave the remains of any plants I pulled up. The clippings and plant remains feed the earthworms and microorganisms beneath the surface throughout the winter. In the spring, I add a handful of organic compost along with each seed that I sow.

But one thing I DIDN’T know before attending Masters’ seminar was how to read the weeds in my yard to determine just what types of soil amendments I should be adding to my soil to correct its unique imbalances. According to Masters, every weed species has evolved to thrive in very specific soil conditions, a fact that can be a boon to gardeners rather than a bane. By identifying the weeds in our plots and determining the types of conditions that those weeds thrive in, we can learn a great deal about the types of soils we are dealing with.

As for me, the dandelions, Canada thistles, lambs quarters, and scouring rushes that populate my plot indicate that my soil is low in calcium and phosphorous and high in potassium and magnesium (most soils in eastern Montana actually have the opposite problem: they are too high in calcium and too low in magnesium). Note that just because a soil is high in a particular mineral doesn’t mean that the mineral is necessarily available for plants to absorb; without a healthy balance of soil organisms, minerals remain bound up in an unavailable form.

So how did I read my weeds? I purchased a publication Masters recommended entitled When Weeds Talk, by Jay L. McCaman. The text includes table after table detailing the conditions in which hundreds of species of weeds thrive (you can likely find similar information online). The downside to the publication is that it doesn’t include images, so I purchased a copy of Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies, which has the pictures and descriptions I needed to identify my weeds.

To identify the weeds in your own yard, you can talk to neighbors and friends who have lived in your area for awhile; to other gardeners and farmers; and to extension agents from your state’s university system. If you don’t live near an extension office, you might be able to mail specimens of your weeds to the nearest extension office for identification, which may or may not entail a fee. Once you identify your weeds and figure out what they tell you about the nutrients (or lack thereof) in your soil, you can develop a plan appropriate for your own plot’s improvement.

After identifying your garden’s needs, I recommend doing a Google search for organic or natural soil amendments, making sure to include the specific nutrients you need in your search query. In the search results you’ll find options for purchasing amendments online as well as gardeners’ tips for making your own amendments at home. As for me, I discovered that saving up all of my eggshells throughout the summer, boiling them (to kill any potential salmonella), air-drying them, then crushing them and adding them to my soil in the fall will fix calcium back into my soil by spring (the microorganisms and earthworms need about three months to break the eggshells down and release the nutrients). I keep a jar next to my sink so that I can store my eggshells there after rinsing them out; once the jar is full, I boil the shells then dry them on a cookie sheet in the sun (you can do this in the oven as well). Once they’re dry, I crush them in my fists and add them to a tub full of crushed eggshells that I build up during the winter, spring, and summer.

In a few weeks, once nighttime frosts set in and my kale finally kicks the bucket, I’ll work the crushed eggshells into my soil and cover my bed with a layer of leaves and grass clippings to feed the earthworms and microorganisms that will work their magic throughout the winter to make my soil just a little bit better next spring than it was in springs past, thereby making my fruits and vegetables evermore nutrient dense.

How to Sleep Like a Baby

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If you’re like me and the other one in three Americans who have trouble sleeping at night, then this post is for you. I’ve spent countless hours lying awake at night, seething with jealousy while my husband snoozes soundly beside me, having entered a deep sleep the minute his head hit the pillow.

For the first time in my life, however, I’m finally finding myself able to fall to sleep quickly and completely, staying asleep for up to six- and seven-hour stretches at a time. I’ve been so amazed by my turnaround that I wanted to share the lifestyle changes and healthcare practices I’ve implemented that I believe have made the difference.

Here are some of the adjustments I’ve made over the past few months that have contributed to my newfound ability to fall to sleep and stay asleep:

  • Eliminated technology (computers, cell phones, television) in the hour before bedtime and unplugged my router at night;
  • Dimmed the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime;
  • Eliminated meals and snacks in the two hours before bedtime;
  • Used magnesium lotion after showering;
  • Practiced oil pulling 3-4 mornings per week.

The way I spend my time and the atmosphere of my house in the hours before bedtime seems to make a huge difference in my ability to fall to sleep. I used to lie awake for an hour or more mulling over to-do lists and other concerns after lying down at night, but since implementing the first three changes above I’ve found it much easier to quiet my mind and drift off to sleep. I’ve also found that reading a book–even just a few pages–before bed helps to take my mind off of any personal concerns I may be pondering, thereby clearing space for sleep to take hold.

Since we don’t have dimmer switches on the lights in my house, after the sun goes down I only turn on lamps rather than overhead lights. I do this to mimic nature’s day/night cycle, which is intimately connected to our own circadian rhythms. Bright lights after dark can disrupt those rhythms and contribute to sleep problems. When I floss and brush my teeth before bed, I turn on a cheap, low-wattage reading lamp I’ve placed in the bathroom rather than the blinding vanity lights above the mirror.

For those of you who simply can’t give up your computer or cell phone during the final hour of the evening, there’s an app you can download that causes your screen to emit the wavelengths of light appropriate for the time of day that you’re using it (specifically, it eliminates the blue wavelengths in the later hours of the evening). You can download the app, called f.lux, here. Given the rising concerns about EMF radiation in our homes, unplugging your wifi router at night is a good idea as well. The more like nature you can make your sleeping environment, the better.

According to this article by Dr. Mercola, eliminating food during the hours before bed not only facilitates falling to sleep but also reduces the number of free radicals (damage-causing electrons) in your body. Mercola writes,

If you consume more calories than your body can immediately use, there will be an excess of free electrons, which back up inside your mitochondria … These excess electrons leak out and wind up prematurely killing the mitochondria, and then wreak further havoc by damaging your cell membranes and contributing to DNA mutations.

This information was compelling enough to convince me to finally quit snacking before bedtime, a bad habit I had maintained even though I knew it was likely making it more difficult for me to fall to sleep at night.

Magnesium supplementation has been another important piece to my sleep puzzle. I actually started applying magnesium gel to my legs during pregnancy, when I’d get restless leg syndrome. Magnesium has long been known to help sore muscles, but many don’t realize that it is also essential for restful sleep. According to Marek Doyle,

Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA receptors, which exist across all areas of the brain and nervous system. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter that the brain requires to switch off; without it, we remain tense, our thoughts race and we lie in bed staring at the ceiling.

Exactly what would happen with me! You can find magnesium sprays, gels, oils, and lotions at most health food stores as well as online. You can also take a warm bath in a cup or two of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate),which you can find pretty much anywhere, to increase your intake of magnesium. Oral supplements are also available, but the beauty of dermal applications is that your body will absorb only what it needs so you won’t need to worry about overdosing (not to mention the fact that numerous studies have shown multivitamins to be virtually ineffective). Since magnesium deficiency is fairly common across the board due to the ever-depleting soils of industrial agriculture (meaning it isn’t present in sufficient quantities in our food), I add epsom salts to my daughters’ bath once a week as well.

So what about oil pulling? What is it even? Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice from India in which one swishes a teaspoonful of oil around in the mouth first thing in the morning (before any food is ingested but following a small glass of water) for 10-20 minutes. Virgin sesame, olive, or coconut oils can be used (I use coconut). The practice supposedly draws toxins out of the body and can also reduce plaque and gingivitis according to this article from the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. I started the practice after my mom reported that it did wonders for her ability to sleep at night. She does it every morning but with little kids that can be difficult, so I shoot for 3-4 mornings a week and I believe it does make a difference; if I forget to do it for too many days in a row, I’ll start waking more in the middle of the night and having trouble falling back to sleep.

So there you have it: a handful of helpful practices to make your nights more restful so that you, too, can enjoy the peaceful sort of deep sleep we associate with “sleeping like a baby” (the mangy munchkin models this greatly, doesn’t she?). Sweet dreams, everyone…