I work at one of the country’s premier retail garden centers. The founder has been promoting organic gardening practices for over 40 years, and his business reflects it. We have an “Information Desk”, where staff help customers with questions from “How do I start a garden?” to “How can I increase the CEC of my soil?” Some of the questions are hilarious. Some of the questions make you want to suggest the customer go to Walmart and get some plastic plants. We take a lot of pride in our efforts to give the correct answer, and we don’t hesitate to point customers to other resources if we aren’t sure.
This time of year, the number one question is “What do I do about the weeds in my yard?”
We have lots of answers, we emphasize lots of organic ways to control them, and we have some very good tools that help you with weeds without breaking your back.
However, the more I’ve been gardening, dealing with poor soil and lack of water, the more I think the proper answer to the question “What do I do about weeds in my yard?” is “Why bother?”
Nature abhors a vacuum. Nature gets seriously pissed off with bare ground. Seriously. She finds lots of plants to cover the ground, most of which we consider weeds.
No matter what actions we take, weeds will appear. Weeds like dandelion, which can blow in from a breeze. Countless weeds that are deposited, fully fertilized, by birds pooping while foraging or passing through. Sometimes, we’re the cause of our own weeds. Plantago major, commonly known as Plantain, was called “White Man’s Foot” by Native Americans because the seed stuck to the shoe and was found where ever the new settlers had traveled.
We’re never going to be able to eliminate weeds. And that’s a good thing.
Many “weeds” are edible. Nutritious too. One of the garden’s most common weeds, purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is one of the highest land-based sources of Omega-3, plus a ton of other nutrients and vitamins. Lambsquarters, or Chenopodium berlandieri, is an annual plant that can be used as a grain or eaten as a leafy vegetable. (I should note that the seed heads are loved by the local birds. They are almost like crack to my cockatiel Tiki and my Quaker parrot Moco).
Weeds are also indicator plants. In most cases,weeds are no different than the plants we “intentionally” plant. They have an environment they thrive in. Take one of the nastier weeds, Burr Grass, or Cenchrus longispinus. Makes small, round, spiny little seeds that stick to clothing or can puncture through your skin and cause you to say words you wouldn’t share with others. It thrives in low-fertility soil, especially soil low in nitrogen and calcium.
Chickweed, Cerastium, tends to show up in fertile soil. Black Medic, Medicago lupulina, and Bur Clover, another type of Medicago, tend to show up in soils low in nitrogen. Good observation of your weeds can give you some good reads on what your soil is missing.
And weeds do a lot of work for us. Take the common dandelion. It is a tap-rooted plant, with broad leaves. The tap root grows deep, in even poor soil. Much like Diakon Radish, it keeps caliche loose, and the broad leaf keeps the soil covered like a lid, keeping in the water. Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule, is an edible and is a great nectar and pollen plant for bees, especially since it blooms very early in the spring when most flowers are still dormant. ALL of the weeds provide ground cover and act as a mulch, keeping water in the soil, keeping the soil in place, digging deep to loosen the soil.
I just recently mowed my own back yard, a small space where my dogs get to run and do their business. It is the richest, lushest green I’ve seen in many years of living at my current place. But there isn’t any of my normal turf grass in it. That is still dormant. The only green is a wild mix of weeds. But without them, bad soil would get worse, our run-off would cost us even more water, the smallest slope would result in terrible erosion, and most importantly, my dogs would have constantly muddy paws that would track into the house.
So, maybe the weeds aren’t as nasty as we think.