Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Somewhere there’s an intrepid explorer halfway around the globe discovering some fabulous plant that grows in all climates and require no nutrients…nay it makes its own. This plant is resistant to drought and freak frosts. Pests freeze and turn to stone upon sighting this plant. The fruit it bears will cure what ails you from hangnails to male pattern baldness and its so delicious most people faint upon first tasting its delectable nectar.
But we aren’t going to talk about that plant.
I’m going to tell you where to find plants that accomplish all of this (well I exaggerated a bit!) in your own backyard. You might call them “weeds”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said of weeds: A weed is but a plant whose virtues remain undiscovered. A lesser mind might think that Mr. Emerson implies that weeds have no virtues but in fact he was taking a swipe at us for being too unimaginative to see the benefits.
Perhaps it’s in our nature to see conflicts where they really don’t exist. Weeds are something portrayed as having a mind of their own. If only we had a way to stop these invasive undesirable plants from taking over the garden, choking out the things we planted – Tomatoes from South America, Cabbage from the Mediterranean, and Carrots from Asia.
But what if we did find the virtue? What if these plants had some redeeming qualities that we could just perhaps exploit? Would fields of thistle pop up with farmer in tow, worrying over each spindly plant?
Probably not, but the virtues do exist!
Weeds Offer Support
Leading up to the dust bowl days in the Great Plains States farmers were taking a plow to the prairie grasses ripping them up to expose and loose the soil. This wasn’t the first or last time a group of people would consider something a weed right before it put the smackdown on their collective butts.
But we organic gardeners we are much smarter. We don’t use a plow we use a tiller. Problem solved right?
Roots like loose soil, it helps them spread and put more green matter on the plants. This is a self-defeating cycle. Soil is loose, plants grow fast, and loose soil can’t support growth. Sounds a little like our economic policies, huh?
Put a plant in compacted soil and it doesn’t grow well either but it won’t fall over.
Put a plant in soil with weeds and the roots intermingle. They run down paths where the other plant’s roots have died and rotted in the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi connect the roots, evening out nutrients, finding water and providing them to the plants.
I myself, a few years back, chopped the weeds out of my corn patch with a hoe and watched as the next storm and rain toppled the plants. My dad experienced the same thing this year with sorghum.
Weeds – What Plants Crave
Clover invades my garden almost every year and I love it for that. That may seem crazy but clover is a pea without pods. It is a legume that generates nitrogen within the soil due to the symbiotic relationship with bacteria called rhizomes that form nodules on its roots. It grows quickly which means that it can be chopped and the green growth can be used to nitrify compost or it can be worked into the soil as green manure. Plus my chickens will eat it.
Though its growth can choke out the plants it can help, Kudzu is also a leguminous plant.
Dandelion is another weed that we love to hate. But the long taproot that makes dandelions impervious also makes them excellent miners or minerals way down in the soil. When we “chop and drop” the greens or compost them we add minerals that might otherwise never surface. Nettles are another weed that can be used to activate compost.
Some weeds such as dandelion and clover also send out brilliant flowers that beneficial insects love to visit. Bumblebees love clover and they will patronize a particular patch of flowers over and again meaning you might not want to chop too much clover as it flowers. The flowers seem to provide easy access and are in close proximity most times. This helps the bees expend little energy as they gather up the pollen.
Honeybees are attracted to the color yellow and there is nothing more yellow than a field full of dandelion flowers. About half of my photos of bees in the garden were in dandelion patches. And while dandelions attract honeybees there are said to repel armyworms.
Weeds also help camouflage your garden. When a pest lands on your bare garden soil it simply has to walk, fly or hop to the nearest green thing and begin feeding to ruin your garden. Give them something to eat that you don’t care to lose. Weeds around the borders will keep the bad bugs there in a lot of cases.
If you want to improve the punch of your particular herbs you might consider keeping a nearby weedy patch. In recent experiments, stinging nettles were found to improve production of oil in peppermint and other nearby herbs increasing potency and flavor.
Or you can simply use the weeds to shade heat-phobic crops such as lettuce. You simply need to place them between the plants you want to shade and direction of the sunlight (southerly if you live in the Northern Hemisphere).
Weeds – It’s What’s for Dinner
If dandelions mine minerals that plants want might they also mine things we want?
Indeed dandelion leaves contain tons of essential vitamins and minerals such as A, C, K, calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. If you sauté young dandelion leaves with garlic, olive oil and bacon it is quite a treat. To boot, dandelion flowers (the yellow ones not the white fluffy ones) make a great wine if you can collect enough of the things. I personally cannot collect enough without my sinuses going haywire.
Purslane is another edible weed green. It also contains vitamin C and antioxidants but the real surprise is that it contains an Omega-3 fatty acid normally found in fish oil. Beat that lettuce!
Lamb’s Quarter and Plantain are also edible weeds that can liven up a dull salad with essential nutrients and taste.
Weeds Can Heal You
Disclaimer: Herbal remedies should be prepared and taken under the strict guidance of a trained herbalist or physician.
Dandelion greens are a diuretic and can be made into a detoxification tea. The roots contain taraxacin (a bitter substance which may aid digestion), choline (a liver stimulant) and starch-type substances (that may help balance blood-sugar). In addition, the white resin that the dandelion parts ooze when broken can help dissolve warts.
Yarrow can be used to treat wounds or relieve a fever. In The Illiad, Achilles uses it to treat the wounds of injured Greek soldiers. It has been found to control bleeding, prevent infection and promote healing. Word is still out if it is effective on arrow wounds to the ankle.
Nettle tea can treat bronchitis and bladder infections. Normally painful to the touch, topically it can be used to treat arthritis.
Even the lowly kudzu can be used to treat dysentery, high blood pressure and perhaps even alcoholism.
If you truly believe Emerson’s quote you will no longer see a garden full of weeds. Instead you will find a garden working in harmony with nature. And to hell with your friends who call you lazy. Sit back and enjoy how little you had to work to achieve so much.
My other stuff can be found at www.theselfsufficientgardener.com