In Shakespeare’s day, if you were trying to keep a large garden in order, you could hire yourself a ‘Weeder Woman.’ There are written accounts of such women being paid for their duties in the garden – always, of course, way less than their male counterparts. They straddled the boundary between cheap labour and skilled worker. Their job involved continuous bending over the beds and then heavy lifting, as piles of pulled weeds were transported to the compost. But the women were highly prized because they had the skill and expertise to identify and pull just the weeds, rather than the carefully sown and nurtured plants that the gardeners had planted.
We all know that weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place. We have nothing against anything growing – it’s just that if we let everything do its own thing, weeds are much, much, stronger than our cultivated varieties of flowers and they act like thugs and absolutely take over, leaving no room for our carefully nurtured floral beauties.
In the intervening 400 years since Shakespeare’s time, gardeners have tried to come up with ways of dealing with the perennial problem of eradicating weeds. Mulches are effective in smaller gardens but what to do on field scale?
Scientists came up with ground cover fabric, tightly woven black polypropylene membrane that covers the soil while cleverly allowing water through to hydrate the plants. Seen as a revolutionary labour-saving product, horticulturalists have used it to cover billions of acres of prime growing space throughout the world. By suppressing weeds, it helps farmers grow healthy strong crops – but at what cost to the environment? The black sheeting never biodegrades, and although it can, in theory, be used multiple times you can never dispose of it. Our descendants will surely find it lingering in landfill sites for millennia to come.
Herbicides were another brilliant scientific breakthrough. Initially conceived as chemical weapons during the Second World War, they were further developed in the UK and USA as weed killers. Farmers found that if they sprayed their crops with these magic substances the pesky weeds perished, while their precious harvests thrived. I understand the expediency of keeping your growing areas weed free, but at what price to our planet? Our soil has suffered seventy years of unregulated chemical exposure and we are only just beginning to understand the devastating consequences to our environment.
Right from the start of my journey as a flower farmer, I knew that sustainability was at the core of everything I was doing, and so I have tried, not always successfully, to avoid the black plastic sheeting that has become synonymous with market gardening, and I have never used a herbicide. I did once try a blow torch thingy to blast some particularly annoying weeds, but ended up covered in soot with the scorched docks almost laughing at me. Anyway, blow torches run on paraffin, so they are not really an answer.
And so, to today. Nothing much has changed, and weeder women are still an absolutely essential part of organic gardening. We employ a team – maybe not all of them women – to help us keep on top of our flower beds. They expertly keep the soil weed free so that our carefully selected and propagated plants can thrive.
The plastic sheeting, paraffin weed torches and chemical herbicides are all in the farmer’s tool box because they save us money, and saving money means the consumer can buy cheaper fruit and vegetables, and flowers are affordable.
Here at Electric Daisy Flower Farm we are proud members of the Living Wage Foundation and we make sure that we look after anyone who works with us on this piece of earth. We believe our sustainable approach to gardening and our ethical treatment of colleagues will produce the best flowers. They may be slightly more expensive to the consumer, but just think how fast you will go to heaven for making the right choice in buying our organic bouquets.
We will stick with our gang of weeder women, how else should we keep those thugs out of our beds . . .