Nothing can put a damper on a gardener’s spirit like weeds. What starts out as a promising season can end up an entangled nightmare. While it’s easy to grab a bottle to spritz away the problem, more and more gardeners want to steer clear of toxic chemicals. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep the situation under control. No matter what type it is, a weed, after all, is nothing more than a wild plant growing where you don’t want it, usually in competition with cultivated plants. Weeds are unwanted because they don’t produce the tomatoes, beans or corn you want to grow in that space. But they are not the bad guys.
Many weeds are edible, and are a valuable addition to your kitchen. For example, chickweed is all the rage in nouvelle cuisine. Its delicate foliage is perfect in salads, and it packs a powerful punch of vitamin C. And while having nettles going wild in the garden might seem like a nuisance, once you learn to make ravioli out of the stinging leaves you’ll wish you had a larger patch. This “superfood” mellows out as soon as you cook it (although you’ll want to wear gloves when harvesting) and is rich in vitamins C and E. When a weed is something you use, there’s not as much pressure to eliminate it. Just be sure to know precisely the weed you’re dealing with before you add it to your plate.
Besides adding variety to your menu, weeds are valuable indicators of soil deficiencies, and they can also provide remedies to the situation that benefit both the soil and their leafy neighbors.
Those with large roots can improve soil tilth and some add important nutrients. Common mallow is a good example with its deep taproots that drill through compacted soil. The large leaves add a considerable amount of biomass to the soil if you pull or chop the plant so it can decompose back into the area. The taproots of dandelions aerate the soil and bring calcium up to their leaves, which ends up in the soil if you allow them to stay. Even bindweed has a positive side. It thrives in hardpan, alkaline and low-quality soils, so if you’re having a big problem with it, take the infestation as a sign that the soil needs improvement. Those deep roots pull nutrients to the surface, which will be assimilated if allowed to compost. Many weeds also attract beneficial insects. A field of dandelions makes for very happy honeybees, and, in general, pollinators prefer a variety of plants, making “weeds” a welcome addition to the mix.
Know ‘Em, Control ‘Em
The best place to go for weed identification and information is your local Extension office. Many counties have a Master Gardener program where volunteers are available through the Extension office specifically to answer such questions. Bring the weed itself, or at least a photo, and explain the growing conditions. This doesn’t mean the botanical lingo of everything green needs to roll off of your lips, but at least you should have an idea of the life cycles of various weeds. Once you know the weeds you’re dealing with, you can formulate a plan to control those causing problems, ideally in a way that lets your garden benefit from their good qualities. Annual weeds, such as pigweed and lamb’s quarters, are the fast-growing ones that reseed by the end of the summer. They die by the end of the year, but the seeds continue the cycle. Biennials complete their life cycle in two seasons. The first year there is moderate growth, and they form seeds the second season. A couple of examples are great mullein or common mullein and wild carrots.