letting weeds grow

Weeds act like a kind of living “plaster” whenever soil is exposed, either by natural or artificial causes. As far as nature goes, bare soil is out. When soil is exposed to sunlight it’s not only the earthworms that quickly burrow back into the darkness. Millions of microscopic soil organisms are also exposed to the potentially harmful rays of the sun, so the sooner plant growth covers the soil over again, the better. Once you appreciate this perfectly natural reaction by nature, you start to see that weeds aren’t there to deliberately frustrate our gardening efforts; they are simply doing their job. Just as new skin forms after we’ve caught ourselves on a rose thorn, weeds help heal wounds in the earth. Look at it another way: it’s us who are causing the problem by insisting on bare, neat-looking soil – open wounds, if you like.

Left to their own devices, weeds also help to improve the fertility of the soil. They do this in several ways. Their roots bind the soil together, helping to improve its structure and create a more stable environment in which soil life can flourish. Those weeds with a deep taproot, such as curled dock, draw up plant nutrients from deeper in the ground, making them available to plants growing near the soil surface. Above ground, the stems of weeds help trap fallen leaves and other organic matter, which break down into the soil or are dragged underground by earthworms. And when the weeds themselves finally die – after weeks, months or years depending on the type of weed and its life cycle – both the leafy tops and the roots decompose into valuable humus.

Contrast these natural examples of bare soil with those created by man: ploughed fields and freshly dug gardens and allotments are obvious examples. But, left to nature, even these vast expanses of bare soil soon turn green with a multitude of tiny seedlings. Think of those wild, overgrown allotments or that jungle-like abandoned garden – these too were once bare earth. In fields, gardens and allotments, on lawns, roadside verges and sports fields, along streets and on paths and pavements, we are constantly battling to stop weeds from growing. All we are doing is keeping the healing powers of nature at bay.

Bare, exposed soil isn’t part of nature’s master plan. How many examples can you think of where soil is naturally found bare and with no plants at all growing in it? Good examples are beneath freshly uprooted trees, landslips, or where the ground has been charred following a heathland fire. In these situations bare soil isn’t bare for long; within days seedlings begin to appear and cover the ground with a miniature green forest. In a few months’ time the scar is barely noticeable. A year later you would never know it had been there at all.

As the soil becomes more and more fertile, different kinds of plants start to replace the “pioneering” weeds. In the UK a typical succession might see shrubs moving in to oust the pioneers by gradually shading them out, followed in turn by trees, which eventually push up through the shrubs, finally shading them out too. The leaves that fall from the shrubs and trees carry on the job of building soil fertility that was begun by those very first weeds that sprang up on the bare soil. Then, when one of these mature trees is uprooted in a storm, ripping open a wound of bare soil in the earth, the whole process starts again.

I know this is going to sound crazy to many of you, but I leave some weeds in my garden on purpose. This wasn’t always the case.

Another aspect you might not think of is that weeds act as food for problem bugs. This may sound like a bad thing – BUT – think of them as “bait”. If I have some aphids munching on my weeds, who cares? There are plenty of weeds, and they’re tough. These aphids provide a nice buffet for the for the beneficial insects that eat them. If for some reason my regular garden crops get stressed and the aphids decide to nibble on them, too, then the insects that eat the aphids will be on hand to keep them under control. Without the insects they dine on (the prey), beneficial insects won’t stay in the area to be ready when you need them.

Then I ended up doing a review of the book, “Building Soils Naturally“, and the author referred me to the online reprint of the weed guardian book. Around this same time I met a lovely lady by the name of Candy, who started teaching me about using weeds for medicine, and got started talking with another dear family friend about using weeds for food. All of this changed the way I garden forever. Since I’ve started learning about permaculture, I’ve discovered even more uses for wild plants and “garden volunteers”. Now, I’m not talking about letting weeds completely overrun everything. I am talking about putting weeds to work in the garden instead of despising them. Let’s get started!

I Hated Weeding.

I’ve tried planting planned ground covers in my garden, but with our short season and my crazy-quilt style of garden planting (I mix and match plants and companion plants to keep the bugs confused), I normally miss my window of opportunity for getting groundcovers planted at the correct time. Enter the self-planting groundcover – AKA weeds.

Have a bee sting? Put some medicine leaf on it. Seasonal allergies? How about a natural decongestant? Upset stomach? How about a soothing mint tea? Wild plants can be all these things and more. Almost all of the 40+ plants featured in the Weekly Weeder series have been used as medicine. Many of the plants we now label “weeds” were carefully brought by earlier settlers of an area to be used as food and medicine because there was no modern pharmacy. Almost all care was self-care.

What if I told you that I had a variety of “super spinach” that didn’t bolt in the summer heat, was 4% protein and had over 300 mg of calcium per serving compared to 88g for Swiss chard 93g for regular spinach? How about another salad green that has 300-400 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per cup, and seven times more beta carotene than carrots? Best of all, both of them might be volunteering for free right in your garden. Sounds great, right?

This soldier beetle feeds on goldenrod pollen. Their larva are predators that eat problem insects.

People have asked, “Couldn’t you have done something similar with more useful plants, like a Three Sisters planting of corn, beans and squash?” Yes, I could have tried this, but I think that particular arrangement works best when you have dent or flint corn paired with shell beans and winter squash, where everything ripens at the end of the season together. That way you don’t need to step on the beans and squash to harvest the sweet corn. I tried the arrangement once with sweet corn and pole beans and ended up strangling the corn. It was a mess and nothing did well.

They include, but are not limited to:

What About a Three Sisters Style Planting?

I clear the area where I’m putting in seeds or transplants, let them get well established, and then let the open space fill in with appropriate weeds. I got this idea from “Weeds: Guardians of the Soil”, where the author talked about how the corn growing with purslane covering the ground around it did better than the corn that had the purslane removed.

With the weeds, I harvest the greens with they are smaller, and then don’t worry about stepping on them when it harvest time for the corn. I dead head or otherwise clip them back before they seed out in fall. (The seeds are edible, too, if you have the time and interest in gathering them.)

This year I had another “ah hah!” moment as I was reading Gaia’s Garden. It turns out those weeds I was letting grow for the bees and for groundcover were also building the soil.

This is one of the first things I noticed when I started paying attention to weeds – they’re just as alive with activity as intentionally planted flowers. A bee doesn’t care weather a flower is planted or wild. Other beneficial insects such as lady bugs, tachnid flies, hoverflies, parasitic wasps and lacewings use wild plants for food and shelter. Weeds also provide pollen and nectar for our pollinators early and late in the season.

Weeds – Guardians of the Soil?

In a healthy garden, there will always be bugs. They’re a part of a healthy ecosystem. If plants are healthy and vigorously growing, a little nibble here and there won’t be a problem. If plants are stressed, that’s when you have serious damage and destruction. It’s all about balance.

For roughly each pound of fresh weeds, add 8 cups of water into a container with a lid, such as a bucket. Allow to sit outside for about two to four weeks (longer in colder weather). About once a week, stir well. Hold yer nose, ’cause fermenting weeds can be quite smelly. Do not touch this concentrated liquid fertilizer with your hands! Wear gloves. This concentrate will stain, and is difficult to remove from skin and clothing. Don’t wait too long to use your liquid fertilizer. After a time, the green brew will begin to change color to grey, brown, black and maybe even white. When it has changed color, it has been too decomposed to use as high powered fertilizer, but it will make an excellent addition to the compost pile.

The two weeds mentioned about are lambsquarters and purslane, both featured in the Weekly Weeder series. In the book, “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival“, Katrina Blair includes these weeks plus eleven more on her list of some the most nutrient dense, widely available wild plants on the planet. They’re generally mild in flavor, easy to identify, and food that will not only help you to “survive” but thrive.

Purslane acts as a ground cover and soil builder around the cucumber plants. As the cucumber plants grow, they spread right over the top of the purslane.

When I was growing up on the farm, we had a huge garden for fresh eating and preserving. With long, straight rows of veggies and paths in between each row, weeding was a never ending chore. My stepdad used to run the tiller up and down the paths, while the rows themselves were tediously weeded by hand. Inevitably by the end of the season, weeds that escaped the hoe would be overgrown and seeding out, to be tilled into the soil and start the whole cycle again. I dreamed of a garden without weeds.

Nothing wrong with weeds if you didnt live in an urban environment.

What is wrong with weeds versus grass? Why do people look at weeds as pest or something bad.

What is wrong with weeds versus grass? Why do people look at weeds as pest or something bad.

They are just as green as grass, they probably don’t need much watering. OK, they don’t have the uniform geometric shape as grass, but that should be OK. So I’m thinking on leaving the weeds that completely took over my backyard, and maybe cut them short once in the while. In the California drought, the traditional grass seems to be very environmentally unfriendly, and it may require more maintenance (my time) too.

What is wrong with weeds versus grass? Why do people look at weeds as pest or something bad.

Letting natural weeds grow in the backyard lawn, instead of grass? What is the downside?

What is wrong with weeds versus grass? Why do people look at weeds as pest or something bad.

Also understand a good majority of weeds are now non native species which allows them to bypass the environmental controls which keep native weeds in check. (Dallisgrass )

Letting natural weeds grow in the backyard lawn, instead of grass? What is the downside?

They are just as green as grass, they probably don’t need much watering. OK, they don’t have the uniform geometric shape as grass, but that should be OK. So I’m thinking on leaving the weeds that completely took over my backyard, and maybe cut them short once in the while. In the California drought, the traditional grass seems to be very environmentally unfriendly, and it may require more maintenance (my time) too.

Letting natural weeds grow in the backyard lawn, instead of grass? What is the downside?

Letting natural weeds grow in the backyard lawn, instead of grass? What is the downside?

Letting natural weeds grow in the backyard lawn, instead of grass? What is the downside?

The link here doesn’t seem to work, but they list the grasses on the left menu:

I think grass is a weed. Especially Bermuda grass, it gets into everything.

Problem with allowing weeds to take over is. yup more weeds for everyone in your area.

What is wrong with weeds versus grass? Why do people look at weeds as pest or something bad.

Grass is an American/British thing. Most other places don’t do grass. I lived in eastern Europe and they don’t do grass at all. They just go out a couple of times during the growing season, whack down all the greenery whatever is growing, and they’re done. Looks fine.

What I’d suggest is over-seeding with some native grasses. Then you can mow it every once in a while and it will look like a green carpet. The native grasses may be more drought tolerant than regular lawn grass.

They are just as green as grass, they probably don’t need much watering. OK, they don’t have the uniform geometric shape as grass, but that should be OK. So I’m thinking on leaving the weeds that completely took over my backyard, and maybe cut them short once in the while. In the California drought, the traditional grass seems to be very environmentally unfriendly, and it may require more maintenance (my time) too.

They are just as green as grass, they probably don’t need much watering. OK, they don’t have the uniform geometric shape as grass, but that should be OK. So I’m thinking on leaving the weeds that completely took over my backyard, and maybe cut them short once in the while. In the California drought, the traditional grass seems to be very environmentally unfriendly, and it may require more maintenance (my time) too.