Saturday, May 24, 2014

Weeds Can Be Good

I was taught the idea that weeds were bad. Pull them out and throw them away, cast them out of the garden. Or spray them with herbicides. Evil weeds. I have since put those ideas aside. 

Decades ago I use to try to keep my little garden looking pristine and weed free like I saw in those fine house magazines. Even Organic Gardener showed weed free bare soil between rows of weed free plants. So I emulated those examples. more. 

Not all weeds are easy to control, but I don't see the need to spend most of my gardening time pulling weeds or hoeing. I don't go crazy if some weeds escape my weed control methods. Eventually they will be conquered. My goal is just to keep their numbers and size down so at they don't interfere with the veggie production. 

In fact, sometimes weeds can be good! So what good is there in weeds? 

1- soil indicators. Certain weeds thrive in nutrient poor soil. So if you see lots of them around and in your garden area, then it's an indication that you need to focus on soil improvement. Others indicate regularly dry soil, such as mullein.
 Robust, lush dandelion indicates fertile soil, but thin leafed small dandelion indicates a need to improve the soil fertility and moisture. Healthy looking plantains indicate acidic soil. The list goes on and on. As you garden you come to notice what the weeds are telling you. 

2-living mulch. Some weeds stay low and spreading. They actually help shade the soil surface. But too many of them can start robbing your veggies of soil moisture and nutrients. So there's a balance to be had. 
       (Woodsorrel being used as a living mulch.)

3-soil improvers. When your leave a field fallow for a year, the weeds take over. Then you come along and till that field again and discover that your veggies do so, so much better. The plowed in weeds decompose, putting nutrients back into the soil. Certain plants we call weeds are nitrogen fixers, thus improving the fertility of soil. Shallow rooted spreading weeds help shade the soil, help prevent crusting and erosion. While tap rooted weeds improve drainage. 

4- compost additive. Young plants are full of moisture and nitrogen. By putting young weeds into your compost pile, the pile will do much better. But sometimes the pile needs brown, dry stuff so old dead weeds can be added. If your pile runs real hot, then old weed seeds won't be a problem. But if you run cool piles, then exclude any seed heads. 

5- mulch. Good old chop-n-drop technique. Use a hoe, sickle, knife, whatever to chop the weeds and let the pieces drop where they are. The dying weeds then become a mulch. 

6- fertilizer tea. Soak chopped or bruised young growing weeds in a bucket of water overnight. Then use that water on the veggies as a soil drench or foliar spray. Some weeds are better at this than others. You just need to experiment with the weeds that are common in your area. 
              (Weak weed tea ready to use.)
7- pest control and trap crops. Certain pests tend to flock to particular weeds prior to attacking your veggies. In my own area I notice that whitefly hits the nasturtiums first, giving me a heads up to watch for whitefly in the garden. Plus I can attack the whitefly more aggressively on the nasturtiums than I would on my veggies, thus getting them under control faster. Back on the mainland I used the wild rose, a horrid weed, as a trap crop for Japanese beetles. Then there are some weeds that pests won't touch. I haven't experimented with it yet but I wonder if I ground those weeds up in a blender would the water make a good pest deterrent? 

8- food. Some weeds are edible. Some we can eat (dandelion, nettles, purslane, and lambs quarters to name a few). Many others are appealing to various livestock. Very importantly, weeds are needed for a healthy wildlife population. Many birds rely upon weed seed and buds, or the insects that are attracted to certain weeds. Other wildlife animals rely upon what we call weeds. 

9- herbal medicine. Some plants that we call weeds are useful for herbal medicines. I'm not well versed on this topic, but I've seen plenty of plants listed in herbal medicine books that I thought were just "useless weeds". 
           (plantain, used as herbal medicine)
10- bee food source. Many weeds are actual valuable food sources for bees. Dandelions come to mind, but there are many others. By allowing "bee weeds" to stay, bees will be attracted to your garden. 

11- habitat for beneficial insects. Several of what we term "good bugs" rely upon weeds for part of their food source and lifecycle. Without the weeds there aren't enough "bad bugs" around to feed upon. And some butterflies are rather specific in their dietary needs, such as the monarch butterfly relying upon milkweed. 

12- source of natural dyes. Nowadays most people aren't even aware that our great grandparents/aunts routinely collected certain weeds for their dye properties. 

13- fiber for paper, twine, art. Today's fiber artists are still aware that certain weeds are useful for making artisan papers. And many can be used for various artwork purposes. The making of twine and rope from certain weeds was once common knowledge on farms, but I doubt many farmers in developed countries could manage the task anymore. 

14- tinder. Select weeds were popular for starting fires. Others for storing embers. 

15- building. Though thatching of rooves and walls is not a lost art, it is not as common as it once was. Skilled thatchers are aware that certain weeds were used in the thatching and weather proofing process decades/centuries ago. 

16- soap substitute. A few plants that most people consider weeds can be used as a soap substitute. 

17- livestock bedding. Until this past century or so, cut weeds used to be gathered and stored for winter livestock bedding. Accounts described how to choose those weeds that livestock wouldn't eat so that the bedding wouldn't be consumed. 

18- pest deterrents. At one time people used a variety of select weeds to ward off pests in the house, such as fleas, weevils, etc. 

19- flowers. Many weeds produce lovely flowers. A little vase with assorted wildflowers can brighten up the kitchen table or bathroom sink. 


  1. 20. Weeds remind us that their name really means "a plant that's in the wrong place". There - neat and tidy 20 item list!

  2. Thanks! I like that definition of a weed.