Wisdom from Weeds

Wisdom from Weeds

We hear it from gardeners on a daily basis: "How do I kill these weeds?" When we see weeds in our yard and garden, we immediately want to wage war. Destroy! Eradicate the invaders! But if we step back and take a moment to learn what’s really going on, why the weeds are there, we may discover their presence to be very instructive.

One of basic laws of the land is that Mother Nature hates bare ground. If you don’t plant something there, she will. For most of our temperate gardens, native, naturalized and other seeds abound—when they settle on the ground and find a little moisture, they’ll sprout in time. A growing plant cycles nutrients from the soil, adds energy from the sun, and feeds microorganisms in the ground. When the plant dies, its decaying foliage and fruit return to the ground as organic matter—again, feeding the soil. It’s life, and it’s a good thing. Every living thing wants to thrive, and as plants are an essential component of the Earth’s circle of life, they will grow given the opportunity. In doing so, they support much more of the ecosystem than we can see—the micro and subterranean—along with exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen and cycling water. Picture a section of bare soil next to a planted patch. The bare soil dries out quickly, while the soil that’s covered with a canopy of foliage retains its moisture. The plants hold onto water and keep it in circulation. No plants means dry soil, water runoff, and potential erosion.

  Primrose underplanted with Baby’s Tears

Primrose underplanted with Baby’s Tears

Weeds have taught me to plant groundcover plants, especially in my perennial beds. I’m a big proponent of underplanting shrubs and perennials with ground-hugging plants. They cover the soil and often offer an attractive backdrop for the taller plants they surround. The alternative is spreading mulch around your plants to retain moisture and thwart weeds, but in my experience the weeds will still turn up. That means crawling around in splintery mulch to pull up the uninvited ones. No thanks!

  A shady spot with Sweet Woodruff covering the ground under Ligularia and Lungwort

A shady spot with Sweet Woodruff covering the ground under Ligularia and Lungwort

  Sweet Woodruff setting off some Hostas

Sweet Woodruff setting off some Hostas

If we accept that having a plant in the soil is better than not having one, let’s look at what the specific plants are telling us. One can surmise that if a certain plant is prospering, then the conditions are right for it. If you’re seeing a preponderance of one type of weed in an area, a tiny bit of research about that plant might give you insight into your soil and other conditions. For instance, I grow an amazing crop of Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) in my lawn and garden. I wondered why that plant in particular was flourishing. A very quick internet search told me that these plants thrive in heavy clay soil that’s poorly drained or even waterlogged. Ah ha! I need to condition my soil so it drains better. A simple fix would be to add organic matter in the form of compost, and/or plant a cover crop to break up the clay and add organic matter.

  Thriving in soggy soil is the healthiest Creeping Buttercup ever

Thriving in soggy soil is the healthiest Creeping Buttercup ever

Other examples of common weeds indicating soil issues include our friend the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). These thrive in acidic conditions, so you might consider adding some lime to sweeten the soil or planting acid-loving plants such as blueberries, potatoes, or rhododendrons, etc. One of the most frustrating weeds I’ve encountered is bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), which happily spreads across the ground and refuses to be removed. Its fleshy white roots can reach down to 18 feet, and any little piece of root will sprout a brand-new, vigorous plant. It turns out that bindweed loves compacted soil. I’ve seen it engulf an entire yard where the ground has been trampled, worn and neglected. A good solution for this type of soil would be to plant a soil-busting cover crop such as a deep-rooted clover. The clover will loosen the soil, fix nitrogen, and add organic matter. Bingo!

In the process of healing the soil, it’s not a bad idea to look at possible uses for your weed crops. Dandelion has long been used as a liver tonic. Its bitter greens and stocky root are edible and life-giving, chocked with vitamins and minerals, and the blossoms make a lip-smacking, floral wine. Other common garden weeds such as plantain, purslane, nettles and lambsquarter have comparable characteristics. A little research and positive plant identification might find you harvesting your weeds with gratitude!

One final redeeming quality that I get from dealing with weeds is that their presence bring me eye-level with my garden. Pulling the easily weeded spring crop of bittercress or shotweed (Cardamine hirsuta), a ubiquitous annoyance here in the wet Pacific Northwest winters, I find that I’m able to get up-close and personal with my landscape and garden plants. While weeding, I check in with emerging perennials, tiny-leaved groundcovers and other plants that are best appreciated at close range. There’s a lot to be said about a weed’s power to force you down on your knees where you can see, touch and smell your cultivated plants.

  Getting up-close to an emerging fern

Getting up-close to an emerging fern

  Appreciating the scent and smiling face of a ruffled Pansy

Appreciating the scent and smiling face of a ruffled Pansy

  Experience the magic in a miniature planting at close range—so much is missed at a distance

Experience the magic in a miniature planting at close range—so much is missed at a distance

Seeing your garden through different eyes may help you appreciate every plant regardless of how welcome they are. They can help you work on problem areas of your yard, re-think your landscape, heal your body, and honor your invited plants more fully. Accept your weeds as a blessing, as they all have much to teach you.

Author: Kat B.

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