Whenever I thought of service-learning, I would usually only connect it to just volunteering. Going out into the community to lend a hand, and help out with no expectation for financial gain whatsoever. Hearing about the service-learning requirement for this biology class, I thought I just had to go out and just get hours for cleaning up somewhere with an organization. However, upon reading the rubric for this project I came to gain a better understanding of what was required of me. I realized that service-learning isn’t just about volunteering to do something, but to learn from the experience, and gain more understanding about topics and see a bigger picture of previously acquired knowledge. With that in mind, I performed my service-learning with the Mecklenberg county park and recreation department.
The Mecklenberg county park and recreation preserves and maintains over 200+ parks and facilities covering almost 20,000 acres of parkland. They have various units, one of which is the Division of Nature Preserves and Natural Resources. The Division of Nature Preserves and Natural Resources established in 1993, aims for the protection and conservation of the parks designated as Nature Preserves and the overall biodiversity of the county. Their goal is to protect the county’s biological resources and natural areas while providing opportunities for environmental education, nature-based programs, and outdoor recreation. They also restore habitats for endangered and threatened plant species, monitor diverse wildlife populations, and conserve natural communities such as bottomland hardwood forests and native grasslands.
They are funded by grants, donations, fees from environmental education and outdoor recreation programs and services, and the Mecklenburg County property taxes.
I initially reached out to them after seeing a flier for a project called “weed warriors”, which was intended as an opportunity to connect with people and nature, all while helping to remove invasive species. However, they needed help at a garden and so I agreed and ended up working at the Ezell Farms Community Gardens. I had initially pictured a small garden but upon arriving at the location, it was more like an actual farm. It was sectioned into plots, each one allocated to a different person who planted crops and altogether they all tend to the farm as a whole. The task assigned to myself and other volunteers was to weed and clear out 3 particularly overgrown plots. The owner of the plots had been unable to visit the garden in a while and so the plots had become overgrown with sprawling tomato-like plants, pigweeds, and other kinds of weed.
It is a known fact that when a garden is not properly tended to, unwanted plants such as weeds would begin to grow and compete with the other plants for mush needed resources. Being able to frequently remove these weeds, would create a much more conducive environment with less competition for the useful plants. Weeding is important not just to maximize nutrients but also growth space for intended plants. It is also important because when there is an abundance of weed on a garden or farm, there is a possibility of camouflaged pests and diseases that would affect the crops. On the garden, the other plots had various thriving plants, with fewer weeds in comparison to the unattended plot. The unattended plot became a breeding ground for not just weeds but rodents. These rodents would go on to be a threat to the other plots, making it a need to clear out the plot. There were also different kinds of pests that were uncovered in the soil as we cleared the plot. To clear out the plot, we had to dig out the root of the plants, uproot them and load them onto a wheelbarrow. We did this for each of the plots we were assigned to clean up. While clearing, we were told by the other adults on the farm, that it is very important to pay attention to the roots of the unwanted plant. This was because merely cutting off the stem of a plant and leaving behind the root is not effective to get rid of the weed. A weed would have less chance to grow back or take more time to grow back when the roots are completely uprooted compared to just cutting off the stem.
An important part of the plants I was able to relate to a topic in class, was the different roots and stems I saw on the farm. The tomato-like plant we cleared out, grew in stolons, and the pigweeds had erect stems and had thorns on them which stung quite a lot. Most of the roots were adventitious and spread out, with the pigweeds having very branched reddish taproots. The adventitious rooted stolons were particularly hard to uproot because they grew in a group-like manner. We had to use shovels to dig up a shared major root, then with shears, we cut up the stolons into separate pieces. The pigweeds were easier to uproot as they grew as individual plants and just required more care due to their thorny stem. After learning about roots in class, it was even more interesting to see the different plants on the same plots, having very different root types and stems and being able to thrive together. I was able to conclude that this difference in growth, was their way of maximizing the nutrients they shared. The pigweeds grew upright and had direct access to the sun, therefore their alternating oval-shaped leaves, while the tomato-like plants had leaves that were slightly larger since they were on the ground and had other plants towering above them.
Weeds are known for their notorious tendency to grow wherever and whenever they wish, and this habit almost always proves to be disadvantageous to crops. In agriculture, weeds are a major pest and pain to farmers as they compete with crops for sunlight, water, and other nutrients. These weeds even serve as breeding grounds for other pests that threaten the growth of the other plants around them, leading to the death of these plants and in turn loss of money for the farmers. Beyond being threats to crops, environmental weeds, undesirable as they are even invading our beaches, bushlands, waterways, and threatening our natural environment as a whole. Their invasion also leads to the death of native plants and often the animals, birds, insects and other creatures that depend upon them. This loss would then result in further declines in local biodiversity.
Every country has plants that are native to itself, and sometimes when there is a change or introduction of a new species, there is the possibility of a tilt in the ecological balance and overall biodiversity as a result. In a country like Australia, environmental weeds are pegged to be one of the major threats to the natural environment, most especially invasive species which are more than always, exotic plants. Almost all of Australia’s native vegetation communities have been invaded, or are vulnerable to invasion by exotic species that could result in changes to the structure, species composition, fire frequency and abundance of native communities. The exotic species would begin to outcompete the native species, and since the growth of weeds is usually hard to control, they would take over the area. In turn, the composition and ecosystem of the area would be subjected to change. These invasive plants would be almost impossible to control as they are also very excellent at surviving and dominate wherever they find themselves in. Just like the overgrown plots, I helped clear, which had been left unattended for only about 4-5 months, weeds have a strong ability to grow in abundance over a short period. This is partly due to them being able to adapt to any condition.
The most commonly known used method of combatting these invasive species are; the use of herbicides and manually weeding them out. In small gardens, weeding is much more common, while in larger-scale areas, spraying herbicides is the easiest way to get rid of the unwanted plants. Using stem injections is also a way to combat weeds. However, these chemical control approaches tend to affect the soil by lowering the pH and tainting the crops grown on them. This, in turn, affects the consumers of these crops. For this reason, the safest way to remove weeds is by clearing out the land by hand removing or crowning.
The growth of weeds in our environment is one that cannot be stopped. Weeds just as bad as they are, also have some benefits to them. Weeds are nature’s way of covering bare soil. An exposed soil surface is at risk of losing organic nutrients and `erosion. The growth of native weeds helps replenish organic matter, restore soil life, absorb, conserve, and recycle soluble nutrients that would otherwise leach away, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also provide habitat for insects and animals. Weeds are also a source of food for grazing animals.
However, since weeds cannot be completely eradicated, their damage can be reduced. At the Ezell farm, the people make sure to frequently remove weeds as they grow, and along the bare paths that are susceptible to their growth, they would pour stones. It is also important to take into consideration, the roots of these weeds, as any plant has a high chance of re-growth if its root is left unpulled from the soil. Mulching is also an effective way to keep weeds from growing as it also prevents exposure of the soil surface. As for invading species, it is important to know that humans’ movement, is the most associated cause of introducing new plant species into an environment where they ultimately take over. Being careful not to plant something foreign, which could later become problematic to native plants is a way to reduce the chances for the occurrence of invasive species.
When I was younger, my grandparents had a farm, and I remember my grandpa frequently going to the farm and picking out little plants which turned out to be weeds. With this service-learning experiment, I am able to better understand weeds as plants, that are as undesirable and toxic, as they are useful. Weeds are always going to continue to grow and if better care is not taken, it could become quite burdensome. This is why as a society it is important to understand the different plants around us, the ones that are beneficial, and the ones that are harmful. Paying close attention to our gardens and farms and spending time to plant beneficial trees as we aim to make a greener planet, and leaving less room for unwanted weeds.