Capeweed – love it or hate it?

Capeweed - pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?
Capeweed – pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?

We’re often asked what we think of capeweed, which is often seen growing in great abundance all over the countryside (and our farm) in spring.

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know we’re generally big fans of weeds (we even wrote a short course about it called Learn to Love Your Weeds,) but does the same apply to a huge monoculture of one weed?

A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard
A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard

Capeweed germinates in autumn and winter, so is most evident in spring, dying off in summer – and that creates a problem right there, because where you have an over-abundance of capeweed, you end up with bare ground in summer – which is a terrible thing for the soil.

It’s basically a weed of cultivation, pastures, lawns and disturbed areas. Stock will eat it but don’t like it (and the woolly seeds can cause impaction), it can taint milk and where it’s the dominant feed, nitrate poisoning of stock is possible.

Sounds terrible doesn’t it?

A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers
A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers

But the problem is not the capeweed itself. It can actually play a useful role in covering bare soil and keeping it cool, attracting bees, and – when part of a rich biodiversity of plants – filling a niche in the ecosystem.

The problem is the soil – and even more importantly, the practices that have led to soil and diversity imbalances that result in this kind of destructive monoculture.

A carpet of capeweed is a stark visual reminder that whatever we’ve been doing to the soil is all wrong! It’s an indicator of acid soil, compaction and can be an indicator of waterlogging or salinity.

It’s telling us to sit up, take notice and change our practices immediately.

We need to get more organic matter into the soil, rebuild a wide diversity of plants, and particularly focus on including plants that will stay green throughout summer.

The work of eminent Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones (www.amazingcarbon.com) tells us that bare soil should be avoided at all costs as it heats up to at least 60C in summer, which causes it to rapidly lose moisture, kill soil microbes, and contribute to climate change!

So, that’s the long answer!

The short answer is that while a mooculture of capeweed (or any plant) has its drawbacks, it’s a fantastic indicator plant, a good bee attractor, and can be a very useful member of a healthy biodiverse garden or pasture.

Diversity, soil, and the amazing Christine Jones – a vollie’s view

Alistair and Tess on the farm
Alistair and Tess on the farm

Hi, I am Alistair Tuffnell and I’ve come up to Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op for a few weeks to get some experience with Tess and Ollie on their dairy farm.

On Tuesday this week I went with Tessa, Ant, Katie and Hugh to the Dr Christine Jones workshop.  

Straight away I was surprised and captivated by the stats and facts that Dr Christine Jones was stating.

Fifty percent of USA males are infertile due to (my understanding of what Christine said) their gut microbiome being deficient because of really poor diet and a lack of diversity of plant species.

Autoimmune disorders such as autism are rising exponentially today and this is highly related to and (my understanding is it is) even caused by a lack of plant species in our diet.

We humans need to get at least 20 plant species in our diet weekly. A person who eats industrialised meat will have the same gut biome as a person who is on antibiotics. And so on…   This led into Christine making the point that we live in a microbial world, ‘microbes can control the world, microbes are smarter than biogenetic scientists’.

We need to coordinate them more in our soils.  Agriculture is about food – ultimately grown in and from the soil – and at this point in time our food has never been less nutritious.

Since colonisation in Australia there has been a staggering mineral depletion in our soils but according to Christine ‘our soils are not mineral deficient but are deficient in microbes’.

Christine defined soil as ‘weathering rock materials (sand, silt, clay) that are in contact with plants’ – so bare ground must not be soil!  

Dr Christine Jones explaining how bare soil contributes to climate change
Dr Christine Jones explaining how bare soil contributes to climate change

There was so much information presented and I am sure I missed much of it with my novice soil and tiny farming experience but some of the things Christine talked about stayed with me. Such as the presence of green plants are the most important factor of soil health. That water vapour from bare ground (we can’t see it) is the main driver of climate change. That plant root inputs build soil 30-50 times faster than compost does – it is the chemical signals of the microbial process that make plants so intelligent.  

I walked away from the workshop thinking diversity, diversity, diversity – in what to eat and in what to grow as cover crops.

To improve our soils I understood Christine recommended to grow about 20 different cover crops according to the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, which I don’t understand but I can look at her website to try. www.amazingcarbon.  

7 Steps to a Simple Worm Farm

Hugh with hands full o'worms
Hugh with hands full o’worms
Photo: Biomi’ Photos

This week we’re talking about worm farms, and the huge capacity of worms to turn “waste” food into a rich source of nutrients for your fruit trees.

You may not appreciate just how awesome these tiny creatures are, but they are truly incredible waste-munching machines, and a worm farm is one of the simplest and most useful things you can add to your garden to rapidly increase soil fertility with absolutely no cost!

Do you have a worm farm? And if not, why not?

Ella with her brand new worm farm at one of our workshops
Ella with her brand new worm farm at one of our workshops

Lots of people think it’s complicated, messy or expensive to set one up, but it doesn’t have to be – there’s no need to buy a ready-made worm farm.

Or you might have tried to have a worm farm but ended up with a pile of sludge, or all the worms either died or mysteriously disappeared – all common problems, but simple to avoid when you know what worms like!

Here’s how to make a simple and inexpensive worm farm at home that will provide the right habitat to keep your worms happy.

  1. Get a suitable box – a simple polystyrene box with a lid will do, and you can probably get one from your local organic or fruit and veg shop, or possibly even the supermarket if you don’t have a greengrocer nearby. Put a drainage hole in the bottom if there isn’t one.
  2. Line the bottom of the box with a mix of shredded newspaper, aged manure or similar.
  3. Mix all together, and wet thoroughly – it should be about 10 cm deep in total.
  4. Add a handful of compost worms (note: don’t use earthworms, as they have different feeding habits and won’t be happy in a worm farm).
  5. Put the lid on the box (pierce a few air holes in it first), and keep your worm farm in a spot with an even temperature – not too hot or cold, and not in direct sun.
  6. Feed the worms regularly, but not too often (be guided by how quickly they are eating the food you’re giving them), and make sure they don’t dry out.
  7. Dampen them every few days if they seem too dry, and collect any excess liquid that drains out the hole in the bottom. This is worm juice, and is fantastic liquid fertiiser that you can dilute and use on your garden. Worms don’t naturally produce liquid, so you’ll only get this worm juice coming out of the worm farm if there’s an excess of liquid going in, but be careful not to add too much water (and make sure the drainage is adequate) or you can actually drown your worms. 
Worm food
Worm food

Download this short course for more detailed instructions for building your worm farm (including a video), learning about worms in your soil (and the difference between them and compost worms) and trouble-shooting any problems that might arise.

Enjoy the lovely “black gold” your worms produce – the finest compost/soil conditioner you’ll ever see!