With a title like that, I sure have a lot of explaining to do. But, before we jump in, let me assure you that I’m not suggesting you let your garden go completely to the flowering weeds; I’m only suggesting that you make full use of their wisdom before you eradicate them!
What’s a weed?
Weeds are plants that grow where we don’t want them to.
That’s the short answer, but here’s my favorite answer:
“(Weeds) represent human beings’ failure to master the soil, and they grow abundantly wherever people have made mistakes - they simply indicate our errors and nature’s corrections. Weeds want to tell a story - they are nature’s means of teaching us, and their story is interesting.”
Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer, 1899-1961. Author of Weeds and What They Tell Us © 1970
So, what’s so magical about these weeds? In my opinion there are three powerful reasons that we gardeners should leave flowering weeds in place, for specified amounts of time:
- Free food for pollinators. Today (early May) there is nothing flowering in my garden, except for ground ivy and dandelions - both flowering weeds - both of which are covered in bees! Further, there’s a huge bed of goldenrod popping up, which won’t flower until late summer. I’ve learned that if I leave the goldenrod in place, it will provide pollinator food at the end of the season, when most of my flowering plants have faded and the bees once again become desperate to find food. I always want my garden to be a haven for pollinators.
- Leaving weeds in place is a solid strategy for keeping nutrients and carbon stored safely in your soil. Weeds, like all rooting plants, help to prevent wind and water erosion, which prompts nutrients to wash away or evaporate into the atmosphere. Erosion is the enemy of healthy soil. Further, any green plant (not just trees) is storing carbon away from the atmosphere and in the soil where it belongs. In other words, as pesky as some weeds can be, they're never as bad as bare soil.
- Weeds can tell you what’s happening with your soil. Dr. Pfeiffer (quoted above) explains that if you're willing to be a bit observant, different weeds can alert you to changes in your soil, such as an increase in acidity or compaction. They can tell you that your soil is too wet or too dry, or that an area that you thought was doing well is starting to decline. All vital information for gardeners! If you know where your soil is headed, then you have the ability to intervene and make a change for the better.
We've had a lot of discussions about the wild bee hive outside of our office and whether or not we should offer them diluted honey or pollen patties. In early spring, flowering weeds and early tree buds (maple) are both food sources for wild bees. Ideally, you shouldn't have to feed bees, unless there is a weather emergency or crop failure.
Here are some quick examples of what our weeds are telling us and what we can do to improve the situation:
|Soil Type||Weeds Observed||Recommended Amendments||Recommended Cover Crops|
|Acid||docks, sorrels, knapweed||lime, sea minerals, and/or oyster shells||buckwheat and red or white clover|
|Compacted||morning glory (bindweed), nettle, quack grass||organic matter, such as compost, manure and/or humates*||long-rooted varieties, such as forage radish, mangel beets and alsike clover|
|Too Dry||mustard, cinquefoil, thistle||organic matter, such as compost, manure, and/or biochar||nutrient-building vernal alfalfa and vetch|
|Poorly Draining||joe pye weed, smartweed, horsetail||organic matter, such as compost, manure, and/or perlite*||long-rooted varieties, such as forage radish, mangel beets and alsike clover|
* Never work amendments into poorly draining or compacted soil until it has dried. This is a damaging practice that leads to cracked soil and hardened clumps, similar to concrete. Always wait until your soil has dried out.
Now that you’ve gleaned magical info from your storytelling weeds and you’ve devised an action plan based upon their powerful wisdom, it’s time to think about reclaiming your soil for your beautiful, cultivated plants!
In fact, the more intentional plantings that you make in your garden, the fewer weeds you should see overall. Your ‘wanted’ plants, when given a strong head start, can out-compete the weeds at every turn.
When you’re ready to eradicate, please consider this:
- Many herbicides, aka weed killers, also possess the power to harm other plants in your yard, including trees and shrubs. Think before you spray!
- Always identify and research your weeds to get the best advice on how to remove them. There are many examples of accidentally making your weeds a bigger headache by handling their removal incorrectly.
- Many weeds can be composted with great success, especially if buried deep in the pile - free nutrition for your soil!