Laura Dean Bennett
I think Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of a weed makes a lot of sense.
In 1878, he wrote: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
And, I’ve also heard that a weed is just “a plant in the wrong place,” in which case, any plant growing where you don’t want it, could be called a weed.
Botanists tell us that the ancestors of every common garden plant were once considered weeds.
They may aggravate us at times, but some of the best gardeners know that not all weeds are bad.
Weeds can be helpful partners in a flower or vegetable garden.
Most plants that are native to a certain locale are almost always beneficial to that particular ecosystem.
It’s the non-native plants that are usually the problem.
If weeds are doing better than your lawn or garden plants, it’s usually a sign that something’s wrong – they’re tattletales about unhealthy conditions or nutritional imbalances in the soil.
And they don’t just tell you about a problem with your soil – many weeds can improve poor soil.
They enrich soil through their continuous life cycles of growth and death, which adds organic content and basically, fertilizes the ground for free.
Weeds can help keep topsoil in place and they draw up water and nutrients from deep in the ground, which can benefit other nearby plants.
After pulling weeds, turn the soil from underneath to help distribute valuable nutrients and minerals to surrounding plants.
And then, you can add the nutrient-rich weeds to your compost pile when you dispose of them.
Many weeds are natural pest control agents. They can keep harmful bugs away and attract beneficial bugs at the same time.
Wildflowers are particularly good for this.
Queen Anne’s Lace is considered a weed by many gardeners, but it can make a wonderful addition to many gardens. It forms nice borders in a flower garden and makes for pretty, hand-picked bouquets.
The bouquets will drop tiny pieces around the vase, so don’t try to keep them more than a day or so.
Queen Anne’s Lace isn’t just beautiful to look at, it also attracts helpful insects that prey on harmful insects.
In year’s past, weeds like purslane, dandelion and lamb’s quarters were called “greens,” and they were commonly consumed as an important, and free, source of vitamins.
These days, these greens have made it onto the menus of fancy restaurants as health food.
Spring is the perfect time to get a little extra vitamin C in our diets with some greens in our salads.
Purslane has a lemony flavor similar to watercress. It adds a nice crunch to salads and sandwiches, and it’s packed with Omega-3 fatty acids.
Dandelion is chock full of vitamin C and medicinal properties. It’s said to help stimulate the liver and “clean” the bloodstream.
You can eat the leaves – although they are a little bitter – and I’ve enjoyed eating the yellow flowers. They are delicious when fried.
My yard is full of dandelions. When they are in bloom, I enjoy seeing the goldfinches feasting on them. I understand that honeybees like them, too, and that lots of other birds such as grouse and turkey enjoy their seeds.
Lamb’s quarters is good for keeping away harmful insects.
It’s good to eat and as nutritious as spinach. We ate it raw in salads when I was growing up, but it is even better, I think, when sautéed with a sweet marinade.
Goldenrod lures away harmful insects from your garden and the leaves and blossoms can be applied to broken skin to speed up the healing process.
One of my favorite weeds is clover. It has pretty leaves and flowers, and it’s soft to walk on.
Honey bees are drawn to clover. It makes, to my mind, the tastiest honey.
Of course, if you have a lot of clover in your lawn, you’ll want to keep shoes on when the clover is blooming or you’re liable to get stung.
Clover attracts earthworms, and it’s good for putting nitrogen back into depleted soil because of the nitrogen rich bacteria in its roots. It also retains moisture around its roots and the roots of its neighbors.
Clover in your yard may keep the rabbits away from your garden, as it is one of rabbits’ favorite foods.
Clover is high in protein and although humans don’t usually eat it, we could.
In the garden, it’s a good companion to plant alongside cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, corn, cucumber, squash, melons and gourds.
But don’t grow clover near tomatoes, eggplant or peppers.
Mugwort can grow quite tall – four-to-six feet in height – and it can be invasive if you don’t control it, but it absorbs heavy metals from the ground and is great at stopping erosion.
I’ve heard that weed tea makes the best compost material and liquid fertilizer.
Weeds, especially perennial ones like dock and thistle, are an excellent source of nutrients because they have deep tap roots which draw up lots of nutrients into the plants.
You can put these nutrients to work for you in your compost pile.
In the spring, your compost probably has lots of “browns” in it from all that dead winter debris. Fresh green weeds and warm spring weather will jump start your compost pile.
But if you want to really get all those nutrients out of your weeds, make some weed tea.
You’ll need a big container like a plastic garbage can or make a smaller batch in a five-gallon bucket.
Wear gloves and gather up all the weeds you can.
You can use whole plants, leaves, roots and all.
This is a good use for all of the crabgrass you can pull up out of the yard. You can even leave the clumps of dirt attached to it.
You’ll want to store the container somewhere where you can’t smell it because the smell of rotting vegetation will not be pleasant.
Fill your container with water, to a level at least 12 inches over the plant material.
Stir weekly and let this concoction stand until it is a fermented stew of stinking, rotted material.
It will take between 10 days or as long as four weeks to be ready to use.
You will have made the best fertilizer ever. It will smell horrible, but the smell will soon abate after you put it in your garden.
To use, dilute the liquid (about one-part weed tea to four-parts water) and pour the “tea” directly into your flower or vegetable garden.
You can use it at any stage of growth – on and around flowers or vegetables.
Weed tea is especially good for tomato plants.
Strain some and put it in a sprayer for leaf feeding and watch the plants green up overnight.
When the weed tea is gone, throw the stinking residue of weed material on your compost pile and make another batch.
You can also see why the benefits of weeds makes them good to keep around.
The more we learn about many a so-called weed, the more we may come to see them as more friend than foe.