Content originally published in the Evening Echo in May/June 2003(ish); uploaded here after reading and commenting on a post on weeds over on Peter Donegan’s horticultural blog
Weeds! At this time of year they’re everywhere, and the very mention of them can make a gardener cringe. Keeping them in check is a never ending battle, and all too often it’s one that the weeds seem to be winning!
The things that make most of us hate weeds are the very factors that make them so successful in nature. They disperse effectively, grow quickly, propagate at an alarming rate, and seem to thrive anywhere and everywhere. People go to extraordinary lengths to eradicate weeds. Fire, noxious chemicals, organic poisons, all of these are utilised by gardeners in their repeated attempt at botanical genocide. But the weeds return… they always return!
Surely there has to be a better way?
Weeds are really just plants in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you look more closely, our common garden weeds are actually pretty amazing plants. Most are colonisers: front line troops in nature’s constant battle to reclaim waste ground and bare earth. In nature they play a vital role, preparing soil for more long-term species that will eventually take over, laying the groundwork for a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.
So why don’t we make use of these traits in the garden?
The problem is that most of us are pre-programmed to see weeds as a bad thing, and the quest to eradicate them becomes all-consuming. If we could just look beyond our initial preconceptions, and think about working with nature, we could perhaps harness some of the weeds’ successful traits and use them to benefit our gardens.
We regularly remove nutrients from the garden by weeding and harvesting. Obviously we can’t keep taking things out of the soil without putting something back in if we want our gardens to stay healthy. This is where weeds can come into their own.
Many weeds make excellent “green manure”. For example, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) are deep-rooted species which are extremely effective at drawing nutrients from deep in the soil where they are unavailable to other plants.
By allowing these “weeds” to grow in certain areas of your garden, cutting them back regularly, and using their nutrient-rich leaves as compost material, organic mulch or to make liquid plant feed, you can return these valuable nutrients to the topsoil, enriching it and helping your garden plants to thrive. Comfrey (Symphytum sp.) is sometimes grown specifically for this purpose.
Other common weeds have properties that make them excellent companion plants. Weeds are usually native plants, and are particularly attractive to native pollinating insects, which benefit our garden as a whole. Some of these insects, like hoverflies, have larvae that feed voraciously on garden pests, helping to keep our garden plants pest-free too.
Some weeds, like clovers (Trifolium sp.), make superb close-growing cover-crops, a sort of living mulch that doesn’t leave any room for other weeds to grow, and clovers have the added benefit of fixing nitrogen from the air and making it available to neighbouring plants. Others, like Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), actually repel common garden insect pests, helping to keep them away from other plants in the vicinity.
And let’s not forget that a number of our weeds constitute valuable food crops in their own right, if we could only see them as such.
Take the humble dandelion, for example. Every part of the plant is edible. Young leaves make an excellent salad green, or they can be boiled and eaten like spinach, flowers can be battered and fried, made into jam or used in wine, and the roots, when roasted, dried and ground, make a great coffee-flavoured, healthy coffee substitute.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture dandelions are more nutritious than broccoli or spinach, contain more cancer-fighting beta-carotene than carrots, and provide a rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine, riboflavin, lecithin, and dietary fibre. Not, then, a plant that should be dismissed as a useless pest!
Finally, let’s not forget the importance of weeds as a refuge for wildlife. Weeds play host to myriad insects, which in turn provide food for other invertebrates, birds and mammals. Some are essential food plants for many of our more familiar butterfly and moth species, including the red admiral, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterfly’s, which lay their eggs exclusively on the stinging nettle.
Weeds have much more to offer in the garden than you might imagine… something it may be worth considering before you reach for the weedkiller!