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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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