Working Wisely with Weeds
Weeds are the fighters of the plant world. They are the pioneers, setting off in uncharted territories and cutting new pathways into lands bare and scorched. Then again, they, too, are sometimes the most firmly rooted, digging themselves deep into the fabric of the soil or spreading out far and wide. Perhaps that is why they are also the most misunderstood, the wild and wily, regularly showing up where they are not wanted then simply refusing to leave. Ultimately, though, the term “weed” is a human construct, and it is derived from our interactions with these plants.
Weeds can be a problem for many gardeners, with valid reasoning: They do compete with our chosen plants for nutrients, water, and space. However, the wiser amongst us know that weeds are not only useful but also often play a systemically vital roll. Now, this isn’t to say that we necessarily want them popping up all over our cultivated beds — a good dose of mulch and establishing ground covers can help with that—yet, with a step back, a sense of humor, and solution-oriented thinking, we may find ourselves appreciating rather than antagonizing weeds. At this point, they become less pest and more partner.
Not to mislead, working wisely with weeds will not mean that a gardener will never again find himself or herself hunched over a bed in horror, trying to get them by the roots, but once again, as permaculture encourages us, working with nature as opposed to against it will provide better results for both humans and the environment. “Weeds” the word may be a human construct, but the plants themselves are natural and have functional niches within the formation of ecosystems, not to mention a multitude of oft overlooked uses within our cultivation. It begins with how we decide to look at them.
Weeds are indicators.
Weeds are not scheming, vengeful beings. They do not show up in our garden beds, in lawns, across meadows, under trees because they are out to cause problems. They aren’t thinkers that way. We are. In actuality, weeds appear where they belong, where the ecosystem can support them and likely requires their services.
With this in mind, gardeners can use them as great indicators of how we might cultivate more efficiently. Weeds, diverse and individual, have different needs, be it a certain mineral or a specific moisture content or a particular soil condition, so when we see them somewhere we can assume that their needs are being met naturally. Using this information, we can then use that area to cultivate plants with similar needs.
We need only acquire a little knowledge of the weeds around us. For example, chicory or mustard might suggest compacted soil, so we should plant accordingly with things like cabbage, squash and pumpkins. Or, if there are docks and foxtails, or willows weeping, then the soil is going to be saturated regularly, so perhaps try water hungry plants like bananas, taro, or watercress. Dandelions and sorrel suggest high acidity, suitable for perennial producers like blueberries or rhubarb. And, on it goes.
If we plant what the weeds tell us to plant, rather than try to change what’s naturally there, we increase our chances of success.
Weeds are stewards of the soil.
Despite their reputation as nutrient thieves and their tendency to crowd out weaker vegetation, weeds are actually good for the soil in the long run. As they indicate growing conditions, they are also doing corrective work to less than ideal soil. When weeds arrive, they do so as an early stage to reestablishing departed ecosystems, and that begins from the ground up.
To the chagrin of many a farmer, weeds tend to be hardy plants. They are survivors, prospering where others perish. When the soil is bare, compacted, dried out, concreted, sprayed with herbicides or whatever else we might try, weeds push through, working to reestablish a sustainable ecosystem, be it a jungle, forest or prairie. Then, when the system is restored and healthy, the weeds give way to other vegetation.
Weeds improve the soil in several ways. Obviously, they add to the biomass, living and especially dying atop the earth, slowly building up a new layer of rich topsoil. They also act as a ground cover when the ground is bare, and these covers prevent the soil for drying out and eroding via wind and/or water. Then, there are plants like comfrey and wild amaranth with driving taproots that mine minerals from deep in the soil, beyond the reach of other plants, putting them back into the nutrient cycle.
If we recognize the positive impact of many weeds, like permaculture’s little darling, comfrey, then our soil will be all the better for it.
Weeds promote biodiversity.
Weeds, more or less, are defined by their tendency to disturb agricultural systems, often monocutlures, that humans have put in place. In the pursuit of pure grass lawns, homeowners curse the arrival of unwanted greenery, or in that patch of tomatoes, gardeners uproot the other plants that have found a spot to grow. But, we know that ecosystems are diverse arrangements in which plants and animals depend on variety.
To constantly fight the arrival of weeds is counter what happens naturally, and eventually, nature will win out. Over the last century, weeds have been temporary abolished by chemicals; nevertheless, they do return, not to mention how destructive for plants, animals, and humans this type of agriculture is. Plus, without some semblance of the diversity weeds (and polycultures in general) provide, the ecosystem falters, becoming more susceptible to disease and infestation and requiring constant inputs from outside sources to revitalize the soil.
Weeds also provide habitat for valuable wildlife. Their flowers summon and sustain pollinators like bees and butterflies when our cultivated plants don’t. Their large leaves give shelter to pest controllers like frogs, lizards and snakes. The increase and variety of insects, good and bad, attracts more birds. Weeds covering bare soil protects soil life, and the decaying organic matter of fallen weeds feeds the microorganisms upon which the entire system relies.
If we are striving to have a successful, self-sustaining gardens, weeds work on our behalf to maintain biodiversity, filling the gaps that remain from our interference with nature.
Weeds are food, too.
While ornamental gardeners no doubt have their own hoe to grind regarding weeds, as permaculturists, it is more often the cultivation of food that is on our mind. We are trying to grow something to eat, and in doing so, we do not want weeds interfering with our upcoming menu. But, what some of us fail to realize, or take advantage of, is that many weeds are also edible and extremely nutritious.
Like many other wild plants, a good portion of weeds are edible, but we’ve simply ceased using them as food. So, as we fight to find space for our cabbage and lettuce to grow, we might actually be removing and discarding wild greens that provide more vitamins and minerals, offer more interesting flavors, and grow without any effort on our part. The number of weeds that work as food and/or medicine literally fills books.
So, if they are growing in abundance and we can’t seem to stop them, why not take advantage and eat them? Isn’t that the permaculture way? Purslane, stinging nettles, dock, broadleaf plantain, yarrow, kudzu, lamb’s quarter, borage—look, if the weed can be identified, then it is almost guaranteed to be good eating or have a medicinal use. For those of us trying to create our own sustainable food source, weeds can play a major role in achieving it.
If we are hoping to feed ourselves (and stay healthy), then weeds can add a lot of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and other useful things to our diet.
Undoubtedly, we’ve not all pulled our last weeds, but once we start to recognize the good side of them, perhaps they’ll no longer be such a bane. We can use them to gain knowledge, to improve our gardens, to feed ourselves, and to repair the environment. In this way, they are not a nuisance but rather a blessing, which sure makes seeing them pop up more digestible, both mentally and gastronomically.
Feature Photo: Weeds (Hermann Kaser)