Weeds. We've all heard the saying, "One person's weed is another person's wildflower, " (Susan Wittig Albert), but who are we kidding? If the gardener didn't plant it, it's a weed. And seriously, we've spent our gardening careers pulling them. Why would we allow some to stay in the garden? For several reasons.
Weeds are the plant that keeps barren soil in place. Think of how much topsoil hasn't eroded or blown away due to the presence of weeds. If you have a bare spot in the garden and the weeds growing there aren't noxious (ivy, poison ivy, etc.), consider letting them stay to help with run-off, but don't let them go to seed. Their purpose isn't to take over, only to be helpful while they can.
Some weeds (dandelions, thistle, Queen Anne's lace) have developed taproots that reach far down into compacted, clay or hardpan soils, breaking up the soil and creating room for root growth and air exchange. If you till them into the soil, the nutrients they accumulated are beneficial to topsoil. They also act as a wick for water from deep reserves. Leave a few every few feet in your more compacted areas of the garden. Again, don't let them go to seed.
Some weeds attract beneficial pests to the garden and even repel a few non-beneficial ones. Studies aren't conclusive, so experiment on your own, but Queen Anne's lace is said to be a host for ladybugs, and milkweed repels wireworm. Use lambs-quarters to lure leafminers away from your spinach, and dandelions to draw honey-bees. And, it bears repeating, don't let them go to seed. (You're getting the point of it by now.)
Weeds are good indicators of what's happening in your soil. Remember, all weeds like good, nutrient-rich soil, but when you see chickweed, knotweed, dandelion and nettle, the chances are the soil is compacted and nutrient deficient. Weeds can help identify soil issues, and often changing your fertilizing program gets rid of the weeds. Check here to see what your weeds are telling you about your soil.
Five Weeds that Can Be Beneficial
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Annual or perennial: Annual
Indicates: Overly rich, moist soils, though it can be found in compacted soils.
Benefits: Accumulates potassium, phosphorus and manganese which fertilizes the soil when it decomposes
Edible: It can be used in salads and is high in Vitamin C, and B.
Best way to get rid of it: Hand pulling.
White Clover (Trifolium repens)
Annual or perennial: Perennial
Indicates: Low fertility, low in nitrogen.
Benefits: Clover is a nitrogen fixing plant (Nitrogen fixation: read about it here.).
Edible: This one is edible, but should only be eaten fresh or dried. Taste ranking is low.
Best way to get rid of it: Hand pulling, cultivation, application of mulch. Add more nitrogen and less phosphorous when fertilizing.
Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)
Annual or Perennial: Neither, it's a biennial, meaning it completes its life cycle in two years. Blooms the second year.
Benefits: It attracts butterfiles and other beneficials to the garden.
Edible: It has many medicinal and edible uses but it is commonly confused with deadly hemlock. Better to know how to identify it correctly first. Read here for more information.
Best way to get rid of it: Do not allow it to go to seed. Cut off all seed heads.
Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)
Annual or Perennial: Perennial
Indicates: Compacted soil. Poor and low fertility.
Benefits: Tap root breaks up soil. Accumulates sulfur, calcium and manganese, which when tilled under fertilizes the soil.
Edible: It is primarily used for medicinal purposes.
Best way to get rid of it: Hand dig it out, including the tap root. Keep a healthy, aerated lawn and garden. Do not allow to go to seed.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Annual or Perennial: Perennial
Indicates: Compacted, hardpan clay soils.
Benefits: Clay buster, and it accumulates potassium, phosphorus and calcium. Attracts pollinators, ladybugs, parasitoid wasps and lacewings.
Edible: Medicinal and edible.
Best way to get rid of it: Hand pull, but the entire taproot must be removed. This weed really requires an herbicide for full removal and if the infestation is bad enough.
Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.
B.B. Barns serves all of Western North Carolina, Tennessee and upstate South Carolina.