Many gardeners spend considerable time cursing the unpropitious and unwanted arrival of weeds. Some even go so far as hating them, declaring an all out war with chemicals like Round Up, or organically ripping and tearing at them with abandon. It is the way we were raised.
However, things can be different. While weeds aren’t necessarily always in our garden plans, they can serve a purpose, several purposes actually. As gardeners and lovers of nature, greenness, animals, diversity and all things to the like, we must learn to look at weeds differently.
In fact, weeds are only considered “bad” because of how humans interact with them. They grow where they aren’t sown, where we don’t want them. They are often winningly competitive, peskily persistent and willfully disobedient.
But, they are not all bad. In nature, there are no “weeds”. All plants have their roles, and if we can start to see the good in our weeds, perhaps they’ll be welcomed additions, or at least visitors, to our gardens.
Lots of Weeds Are Edible
The common practice for most weed warriors is to yank the offender right out by their roots and discard them as quickly as possible. Those with garden green dispositions might throw them into compost bins so as to make good use of the organic material. But, the point is they are not generally looked at as something for the kitchen.
That, however, is a mistake. Many of the plants we call weeds are edible, and in our fury over where they’ve decided to pop up, we’ve lost sight of the fact that we could have them for lunch. Indeed, we should have them for lunch, as many common weeds — dandelions, salsify, purslane, water(and land)cress — are also packed with serious nutrition.
Weeds Are Good for the Soil
Despite being a bane to other plants, competing for water and sunny spaces, weeds often have a positive impact on the soil. Weeds pop up because conditions are unbalanced and in need of repair, and many unwanted plants are actually pioneers, hardy survivors that’ll come into poor situations to slowly restore broken ecosystems. Soil is key.
Nature uses “weeds” to a good end. When soil is bare, weeds cover it and prevent erosion from wind and rain. Weeds, like comfrey and wild amaranth, have deep-tapping roots that mine minerals from far beneath the soil surface, making them available for other plants. Those deep-tapping roots are also great for breaking through hardpan soil, which opens up new avenues for less powerful roots.
Weeds Indicate Conditions for Cultivation
Many a gardener spends a great deal of time fretting over soil conditions and pH balance, and with good reason, different plants have different soil preferences. Weeds, being plants, are no different. Therefore, learning to recognize what weeds grow nearby and then what conditions these plants prefer can be very helpful in determining what crops (or ornamentals) might do well cultivated in the area.
Weeds indicate soil conditions. Dock, foxtails, and willows are signs of swampy soil (Try sunflowers, alfalfa, or rye). Chicory and mustard suggest compacted soil (Think brassicas). Dandelions, sorrel, and stinging nettles point out high acidity (Plant blueberries, rhubarb, and potatoes). Thistle, lamb’s quarter, and stinkweed show up in sweet soil (Cultivate lettuces, beets, onions, asparagus, etc.). Rather than trying to change what’s there, growers can use weeds to choose what’ll work best with what’s around.
Weeds Encourage Biodiversity.
Lawns are some of the worst monocultures out there, and our constant war on weeds within them only contributes to the planetary problems created by these agricultural nightmares. Weeds create diverse plant life, a necessity for sustainable ecosystems, so to pull them or poison them out of our lawns is simply to fight against and impede nature. Biodiversity keeps the system healthy.
Additionally, weeds are great attractors of beneficial insects, like bees and butterflies. They summon pollinators and predatory insects, which help other plants succeed (and produce) and keeps pest numbers down. More insects equate to more birds, and on and on the environmental diversity spreads. In some ways, weeds start the process. Healthy forests begin with pioneering weeds.
So, sure, in our gardens, sometimes we must battle with them. We can’t very well have a lot of weeds taking over our tomatoes or garden peas, but we can also recognize that these plants play an important part in natural systems and can play a vital role in our gardens. Indeed, weeds might actually be a good thing to have growing.
Lead image source: Elena Elisseva/Shutterstock