Weeds are coming into their own in these days of foraging and gardening. No longer are we looking at them with the scorn that they have had to endure for decades, but now we are recognizing their value as food, as medicine, and simply as plants. Though weeds have carried the reputation as unwanted competitors in lawns and gardens, that has been a gross misrepresentation. The fact of the matter is that weeds are telling us something.

When we consider what lawns are, better yet, what they aren’t, then we can begin realizing what the weeds are telling us. When we consider what we have done to our gardens, then we can begin to understand this botanical to and fro. The thing is that weeds don’t just pop arbitrarily, they arrive to set things right. By and large, they are indicators that something isn’t working, and quite innocently, they are trying to fix it. We just need to listen to what they are saying.

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What Weeds Are Telling Us

Nature moves towards forests, so when we try to keep neatly trimmed lawns, weeds are innately trying to repair the overly manicured system. Disturbed soils are in danger of erosion and drying out, so when we till the earth for a garden, uncovering a patiently waiting host of seeds, it’s the fast-growing, reparative ones that try to move the system back to stability. “Weeds”, more lovingly referred to as pioneer plants, are just doing what they were designed to do, and it’s our unnatural practices that cause them. In fact, it’s us who have deemed these particular plants — many of which are edible, medicinal and highly nutritious — weeds.

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Weeds can tell us about a lot. They can tell us about soil pH levels, conditions, and types. They can tell us about the nutrient profile, what minerals might be in abundance or which seem to be lacking in an area. They can tell us about moisture levels beneath the earth’s surface. These things, in turn, can tell how we should amend soils or which plants would better thrive in our particular setting, and using that information to pick the crops we grow can make the difference between producing easily or struggling to get any food to the table.

Why We Need to Listen

Sensibly, if we see an abundance of weeds, if we are buying weed killers (please don’t buy weed killers), then we are missing the point. The weeds are telling us that the lawn isn’t how things should be done, that mono-cropped grass expanses aren’t stable, productive systems. They are telling us not to till the earth because that valuable topsoil is going to wash away in the next rain or blow away with the next gust. If we simply attack the weeds and don’t listen, they’ll keep coming back because they are just doing what comes naturally: Healing nature.

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Certain weeds can give us very specific information. Weeds with deep tap roots, like dandelions, hint that soils might be compacted, or those that spread out quickly, like crabgrass, may demonstrate soils need to be covered. Plantain or sheep sorrel tell us that soil might be acidic, and other weeds, such as goosefoot, signal a more alkaline soil. If we read the signals they are sending, then we can test our soil and decide to move it in the direction we need. Cornflower can indicate sandy soils, wild garlic likes heavy clays, and cattails need a lot of moisture. Thistle says soils are possibly deficient in iron and copper, whereas ferns often occur where soils have been burned and lack phosphorus. All of this information can be very helpful.

How We Can Change Our Weed-Hating Ways

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We can change our attitude towards weeds. We can start by turning our lawns into productive gardens and/or accepting that one type of grass isn’t the ideal. A healthy lawn isn’t one that requires an abundance of fertilizers and weed-killers, costing us more to maintain than it would to landscape the whole thing into a food mecca.

In gardens, we can look at weeds for their positive attributes. If our garden is as full as it should be, a thick mix of plants filling all the natural niches available, weeds won’t need to fill it for us. If they are there, that means the garden probably needs expanding or the soil likely needs amending, so we can pull them from around our productive plants and put them in the soil, roots exposed, as mulch. Then, old weeds will help to prevent new ones from arriving. In other words, we have to learn to help the weeds do their job then they’ll move on to work elsewhere. Eventually, if we follow the lead of the weeds, these systems will regulate themselves without spraying any chemicals.

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Lead image source: Pexels/Pixabay

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