Fact: weeds are everywhere and we won’t win. They’re adaptable and versatile and there’s a weed for every site. Sometimes we help them thrive with our bad gardening practices, such as cutting the lawn too short, and heaving chemicals on everything we don’t understand.
Weeds reproduce by seeds, roots and stem pieces. They can crawl under a wall, through a window casing, even through a foundation. They can grow in an impossible crack, on a rock and in places nothing else will grow. They can play host to disease and pests that plague the vegetables we’re trying to cultivate. Pokeweed can host cucumber mosaic. Queen Anne’s lace hosts carrot rust flies and chiggers. Horsenettle and other plants in the nightshade family give shelter to insects that attack crops in the same family – like tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Then there are plants that are poisonous to other plants, to animals and humans such as poison hemlock and white snakeroot that when eaten by cows, causes them to give milk that causes milk sickness – Abraham Lincoln’s mom died from this.
Then there’s the good side to weeds. No, really! Weeds also play host to beneficial insects and butterflies. Many tiny “good” bugs prefer the small flowers on weeds and spend at least part of their lifecycle there. Weeds are great erosion control, fire healers, toxin absorbers. No matter what, there’s at least one weed that will adapt and thrive.
Some weeds are as pretty as any cultivated plant and are much tougher. Lots of weeds are edible and very nutritious: lambs’ quarters, garlic mustard, shepherd’s purse, dandelion, etc. Did you know that dandelion is the first blooming food for honeybees? And dandelions are one of those plants that has multiple purposes.
Weeds are good indicators of soil conditions. Thistles, knotweed, goosegrass, annual bluegrass and white clover indicate compacted soil. Quackgrass, puncturevine and red sorrel indicate sandy soil. Buttercup, nutsedge, plantains, curly dock and ground ivy indicate poor drainage. Pigweed and lamb’s quarters indicate fertile soil. Some weeds are also great “tillers” of the soil. They go deep, breaking up hard clay and bringing up nutrients buried down there, making them available to the mycorrhizal fungi to convert to food for roots. We’re learning more all the time about this amazing process.
Then there are those “weedy grasses” that folks who have flowerbeds hate to find growing, like Bermudagrass, crabgrass and Johnsongrass. Yet, the farmers who run livestock love these plants. They’re excellent nutrition for the animals. I’m deathly allergic to poison ivy, but it’s a good food source for wildlife, and I love wildlife.
So, what to do? We should learn to identify and try to discover the beneficial things they do. Knowing that all things that are growing have a purpose, the better part of wisdom is to find that purpose and utilize it.
To ID them, look at their flowers. Color, shape and size is pretty distinctive. Next, check the leaves. Are they long, serrated, hairy? Grassy weeds are difficult because they look so similar. Check the stem. Is it straight, upright, prostrate, fuzzy? Other distinctive markers are fruit, root and seasonal foliage. Some weeds have a specific range or condition it thrives in, which can narrow choices for you.
How do we control them, at least to some degree, without poison? Many weeds die out with hoeing, pulling, cultivating, and flaming. If you want to make a garden or new bed area, a good method is solarizing, or covering the ground with a sheet of plastic, weighted down, and leaving it for several weeks. After doing any of these, you can put thick layers of newspaper or cardboard then cover with mulch. Many weeds will be killed this way, but don’t be surprised at re-sprouting, especially of perennials. Don’t give up; they’ll get weaker and die out. Weeds in the lawn do poorly when they’re shaded by tall lawn grass, so cut the grass at 3 1/2-4 inches.”
I guess a “weed” is in the eye of the beholder, and like everything else, there’s a bad and a good side. Depending on the circumstance, it could be very helpful and valuable. Next time you go outside and look at your yard, instead of seeing how the weeds have taken over, try to figure out why that particular weed is growing where it is.
There’s a really good book on this: “Weeds, Guardians of the Soil” (Amazon). It can change the way one looks at what was once a hateful subject.