Weeds, a gardener's nemesis and a dreaded chore to remove them. They can take over your growing space in a matter of days if you're not careful. Some can be seemingly indestructible with deep roots that you will never fully be able to remove. Others spread so rapidly across the surface of the soil that you might wonder what happened to the tiny seedlings you have been nurturing.
People have been led to believe that having weeds in your garden is a sign that you're a bad gardener. They are viewed as a sign of neglect or a sign that mother nature doesn't want you to have a beautiful garden. Why else would they be able to grow so effortlessly when your carefully tended vegetables fail to thrive?!
Weeds can be frustrating sometimes, there's no doubt, but what if I told you that these beliefs are all misconceptions? "Weeds" are very misunderstood and undeservedly get a bad wrap from most people.
Here are some things you might not know that will likely change how you feel about them. You may even find yourself welcoming weeds into your garden (and even your dinner plate) after reading this.
1. They tell you what your soil needs.
If you pay attention to the type of weeds that grow in your garden, they will tell you exactly what your soil needs. Any decent gardener knows that soil health is THE most important factor to having a successful garden. You can plant beautiful, healthy seedlings into the ground but if the soil is an unwelcoming environment lacking in nutrients, your plants will eventually fail. This is when weeds can swoop in and save the day. This is their way of speaking to you and telling you how to fix the problems with your soil.
When you see weeds such as dandelions, dock, or thistle (all weeds with deep taproots) it is an indicator that your soil is compacted and isn't getting enough airflow.
Certain weeds can also indicate an imbalance of nutrients. They will tell you if you have excess nitrogen or are lacking in calcium. Others will tell you if the ph of the soil is at an undesirable level or if the moisture content is too high/low.
If you pay attention to these clues you can take the necessary steps to remedy the problem before it's too late. Obviously it's ideal to notice most of these issues before you plant but it's still possible to fix some of them after your garden is established.
If you plan to start a garden this spring, now is the time to start looking at what weeds are growing in the area you're going to use, that way you can make an appropriate game plan on how to fix your soil.
2. They attempt to fix the soil themselves.
Nature doesn't depend on human intervention to take care of itself. Weeds start growing in order to fix the soil all by themselves. This process takes longer than most gardeners likely have the patience for, which is why I still recommend taking action to fix it yourself if possible.
When you see dandelion or dock, like I mentioned above, it means that your soil is too compacted. Their deep roots can grow through the hardened soil and help break it up. When they die off, it adds even more organic matter to the soil and allows for pockets of air and moisture in an attempt to create healthier soil for future plants.
Some weeds grow just so that they can add nutrients back to the soil when they die. Clover is a great example. Clover is commonly used as a cover crop because it adds a significant amount of nitrogen back to the soil. Most plants require plenty of nitrogen to grow, but instead of using it up, clover provides it for the soil, which can then be utilized by the next crop that gets planted.
3. Some weeds pop up just to tell you that your soil is doing great!
If your future growing area contains weeds such as lambs-quarter this is mother nature's way of letting you know that the soil is nice and fertile. Use the clues you're given to scout out a desirable area for planting. If they grow in an already established garden area then you know your soil needs minimal attention. You can take this into account when it's time to add amendments to your soil so that you don't overdo it.
4. They're trying to cover exposed soil.
Soil has a delicate structure and when it is left exposed for prolonged periods of time, nature will do its best to preserve it by covering it back up.
I want you to imagine a big field. Is it bare ground or does it have lush grass growing in it? Hopefully you imagined a big field of grass, but the reality is that a lot of farm land has eroded soil due to improper management. When soil is tilled, used without crop rotation, or over grazed by farm animals it goes from a fertile, living organism to dead, infertile ground.
Of course, nature does its best to prevent this from happening long before it's too late, but unfortunately is not always successful. One of the ways it attempts to prevent erosion is by covering itself. Soil likes to be covered, wether it's by grass, edible plants, or weeds, it needs protection from the elements. Soil that is left exposed is vulnerable to depletion of organic matter. The living organisms in healthy soil can't survive without protection.
This doesn't meant that you need to let weeds take over your garden, but you should be one step ahead and make sure your soil is always covered, wether it's by wood mulch, grass clippings, straw, or finished compost.
Protect your soil and it will reward you with healthy, thriving plants.
5. Weeds can be great companion plants in your vegetable garden.
Most gardeners know that plants can act as companions for each other. Placing certain plants together can help with pest protection, offer shade to smaller plants, aid in pollination, attract beneficial insects, and improve the soil content.
Just because something might be considered a "weed" doesn't mean that it is a bad plant to have in your garden. Certain weeds can help your vegetables thrive or even be edible! Lambs-quarter and purslane are common weeds that used to be regularly consumed and are actually more nutritious for you than most salad greens grown today.
In conclusion, weeds serve a great purpose in nature and should be appreciated for educating us on the needs of the soil, repairing imbalances, helping our plants thrive, and even offering nourishment for us.
Next time you spot a weed in your garden, instead of looking at it in disapproval, take a minute to decipher what it is trying to tell you. I think you'll find that with some practice you will be much more in tune with your garden and mother nature.