I've been doing it all wrong! I forgot - The Bradley Method

I've been doing it all wrong. Or at least half wrong. My intuition told me it was best to get rid of weeds where they hadn't gotten a hold first. Nip an infestation in the bud. That was right. My intuition also told me it was best to thoroughly eliminate all weeds everywhere, all at once. I thought, well, if I get them before they set seed, and get them all, they won't come back next year, or not so much. That idea was not only wrong -- it was counter-productive, and unachievable, besides.

I've been having uneasy feelings that things weren't working. I cleared out the weedy grasses, and their place was taken, not by natives, but by major infestations of spurge, chickweed, chervil, and a handful of other bad characters from out of town.

What I've learned is that wholesale weed removal rips off mother nature's skin, like a bad case of road rash. It disturbs the soil and lays it open to the sun - creating ideal conditions for the next plague of weeds.

Here's the "before" picture from today's weeding session, in an area almost totally covered by chickweed and spurge (you can click to see closer). This area is at the bottom of our property on the northern side, where we took out the huge bay trees just over a year ago.

You could actually call miner's lettuce a weed, too. Dominance of a single species is one characteristic of a weed, and they have certainly sprung up in abundance this year. I thought it was because of the wet winter, but now I'm not so sure.

The wholesale slaughter method looks godawful when you're done. Here's the after picture:

The miner's lettuce is so brittle, it is really hard to weed around it, and as I say, I am not sure why I bothered, since it's behaving in a weedy way, except to leave something native growing there.

There is a blooming Cynoglossum grande, Hound's Tongue, in both pictures. In the before picture, there's a blue flag near it as a marker. In the after picture it's a third in and a third down. To cheer us all up, here's a close-up of its pretty blossom:

It was coyly turning its blossoms aside - here's another view:

A neighbor here has a patch of these that comes back each year - I only ever seem to get one, but it does come back year after year. They are perennials that disappear in summer. I love those big floppy hound tongue leaves, the sturdy panicle rising in the center, and the cheerful blue flowers. If you want to grow this in your garden, Jepson says to give it sun or part shade, good drainage, and some summer water. It is a woodland plant, not a chaparral dweller. But Yerba Buena nursery says it makes an excellent choice for dry shade, such as under oaks.

But let us return to the question of how to get rid of weeds and restore the natives -- I have now found a proven method that not only results in effective restoration, but also resolves my immense and ongoing frustration at not being able to keep up with the weeds. With the Bradley method, you can only progress as fast as the natives regenerate. I love that.

I should confess that I have refound this technique. I read about the Bradley sisters a few years ago. They came up with their method while restoring bushland near Sydney, Australia. Somehow I just forgot about them. I think I panicked, or just let perfectionism take over. But now I so totally get it I won't ever forget. I'm going to close by sharing it with you, and I hope you will remember it always too.

The Bradley Method is very simple. This description is lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia:
The aim of their work was to clear small niches adjacent to healthy native vegetation such that the each area will be re-colonised and stabilized by the regeneration of native plants, replacing an area previously occupied by weeds. The Bradley method follows three main principles,

1. secure the best areas first
2. minimise disturbance to the natural conditions (e.g. minimise soil disturbance and off-target damage).
3. don't overclear, let the regenerative ability of the bush
set the pace of clearance

(Bradley 1988).
I urge anyone engaged in habitat restoration to read this very readable article on the method, and how the Bradley sisters came up with it, here: CalEPPC News Fall 1997. One very encouraging quote from one of the sisters is this:
My sister takes the dog for a walk on most mornings, and I do the same in the afternoons. On these walks we might average, between the two of us, about three-quarters of an hour spent actually pulling up weeds.
Three quarters of an hour a day to restore forty acres - maybe half an hour a day would do for my property. Nibbling away, like a little mouse, year after year, till one day - ah! restoration has been achieved!


Randy Emmitt said…
Brill ant! I think I tend to work on the bradley method more than i though.
NellJean said…
I know I'll never get all the chickweed, so I just pull the biggest and boldest where it crowds desirable seedlings. This year's target is artillery plant, appearing in places I've never seen it before.

I was reading my own blog last night to see what happened spring, 2008. There was a big gap where I was ill, resuming with the news that chickweed had died out in the hot sun while I couldn't get outside.
Anonymous said…
When I was weeding the paved driveway this afternoon, I was thinking about writing a blog about how I do that...
I don't pull everything that grows in the spaces between the paving-stones, but I make a selection: I don't want dandelions, annual meadow grass and chickweed there, but self-heal, birds-eye pearlwort and even the non-native (and nearly indestructible) yellow sorrel is allowed to grow there.
When I only weed the unwanted species, the 'allowed' species can take the opportunity to spread, and after a few years I have a low growing (and thus not untidy-looking) vegetation on the driveway, that only asks for an occasional session of weeding.
Great post! Lately the only thing I've pulled is that blasted broom, and that's all about minimizing soil disturbance so you don't wake up the dormant seeds in the soil. Easier said than done for sure.

Thank you for solving a mystery for me too! I've been trying to figure out what a plant was down at the base of a steep slope. It's pushing up a flower spike, but the flowers haven't opened yet. However, after digging around your site, and CalFlora/Jepson, it IS Hound's Tongue! Mystery solved! Thanks for posting that!
michelle said…
Thank you for this post! There's all sorts of invasive weeds around my garden and natives as well. It seemed like such a daunting task to get rid of the foreigners, but with this method it actually seems possible.
Jo said…
What a good idea!

Could this method apply to fenced suburban yards?

The problem is that I don't really have "good" areas to help take over the "bad" areas ... so I've just been mulching after weeding instead. Would seeding some plants help instead (and what kinds)?
Gail said…
Now that sounds like a plan to nibble away the problem weeds...I probably won't get rid of the vincas in my lifetime! But it's worth while to try. gail
Country Mouse said…
Nell Jean - Maybe if I take to my bed my weeds will go away too - ha! fat chance. Glad you are well now at any rate.
Anne Tanne - funny how on your micro scale, cracks of the paving stones, something similar is working - leaving some things there, "tipping the balance" in their favor.
Curbstone Valley - you have my sympathy for the French broom. Sometimes I look around our hills and just sigh - so much is messed up. But the natives are surviving. Enjoy the hounds tongue.

Jo, with fenced yards the situation is often different - there is no seedbed of natives waiting to come up if you remove their more domineering competition. I also have a fenced off small yard, and today we did the cardboard and mulch solution on a stubborn corner - don't hate me, but I'm killing off the calla lilies. They are invasive here with no irrigation or anything - and boy do they take over. I'm giving my sister some in a pot and the rest are toast. I hope! So then we'll cut holes in the cardboard and plant something there - but we have fencing work to do first. It's always something.

Thanks all for dropping in. Through the week I'll be sure to spend some time in your blogospheres, but today I have to get back into the garden. The enclosures around my baby shrubs keep the deer out - not only are the shrubs protected, so is everything else within the three foot diameter of the enclosure. Also I have to - well there's always something else to do so I better get to it and stop rabbiting on!
Town Mouse said…
Well, I don't know. There are really two approaches to this. The first one is the Bradley method, and it assumes that the good guys will eventually crowd out the bad guys if you do enough damage to the bad guys. I just wonder whether we have enough locally native (and a little bit aggressive) good guys

The other approach is to hoe or dig under the bad guys, and then distribute a lot of good guy seeds. Like maybe the Larner Seeds erosion control package.

My personal experience has been that some soil disturbance can also help the plants you want. When I did my front garden remodel, I asked the gardening with native group whether they thought I should have some redwood compost tilled in or not, the vote was fairly evenly divided (I tilled, in the end).
Christine said…
Yeah, but it's so darn satisfying to have a big, ugly patch of weedless dirt in the yard!
This is a great idea, though. I wonder if throwing wildflower seeds that usually grow best in disturbed soil would be a good start to allow the natives to come back.
Kate said…
Great tutorial! I plant a lot of perennials who are so tough they actually weed themselves. Six Hills Giant Catmint is a goodie for that purpose. It drapes over weeds, shading them and killing them without me having to do a lot of hard work.
Lynne said…
Very good advice- now I can see why some of my strategies worked in the back yard, and others did not. In our damp rain forest, cedar bark mulch seems to sloe down the weeds long enough for the native plants to move in. Birds help, they're great at planting seeds from the Green Belt behind our yard, and from the neighbours' yards. Some very interesting things pot up!
Thanks for visiting my blog - I've discovered yours!
Country Mouse said…
There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. I believe the Bradley method will mostly work for me as there is a rich variety of natives here. I do intend to introduce some locally native things too, but it is fascinating to see what crops up. I have more of a botanical than a gardening interest in the potential of the place to regenerate itself. On the other side, I noticed a huge bulb type plant with a big white inflorescence starting to bloom. I've seen one in a riparian area, but this has appeared on a dry sandstony area. I have yet to ID it. Maybe I'll go do that now!