Using Weeds Wisely

Young pigweed growing in the corn

Young pigweed growing in the corn

All this lovely rain we have had in SW Ohio in the last week has done quite a number on my garden. The corn looks great and seems to have grown a couple feet in the last few days. My clearance rack marigolds are recovering nicely. Unfortunately,  beans and potatoes look a little yellow, and the tomatoes and eggplant are downright wilted and sad. The weeds however, are thriving.  Boy, do I have a green thumb when it comes to weeds!

We all know it is important to weed one’s garden. Weeds like spurge or any shallow rooted perennial grass must be pulled as they will compete for nutrients and water with the desired plants. Weeds like quack grass can even inhibit garden seed germination. Weeds often grow bigger and faster than food plants and crowd them out of physical space. Weeds look untidy and give the impression of a lazy gardener. So how can one wisely use weeds?

Most gardeners either leave the garden soil bare between plants, or cover the ground with mulch. Mulch keeps the soil cooler and more moist than plain dirt. Newspaper used to make a fine cheap mulch, but it is harder to find enough for free these days.  I generally buy straw, but I have recently begun using weeds as mulch. I must be careful that newly pulled weeds don’t just re-root where I lay them, though. It helps to lay them out to dry and die a bit first. I also make good and sure there are no weed-seed heads that inadvertently plant more. Weeds work very well as mulch.

Weeds can also add nutrients to the soil. How can this be? We pull weeds to keep them from stealing nitrogen from our veggies! Weed mulch, however, will compost directly in the garden bed. This adds nutrients to the soil that previously weren’t available to the vegetable plants.  Consider some of the deep tap rooted weeds such as dandelion, lamb’s quarters, and red-rooted pigweed which are commonly found in our community garden. The taproots reach deep into the subsoil in a way that few vegetables can. The roots take up minerals and bring them to the surface of the garden. Pull the weed up and compost it while mulching, right in a garden row.

Weeds can also, believe it or not, make good companion plants. Lamb’s quarter is good for corn. Potatoes like dead nettle. Purslane makes a nice ground cover for corn. Sow thistle, though I don’t use it due to those pesky stickers, is said to aid tomatoes and onions. The mighty pigweed is said to be one of the best weeds for bringing up nutrients from the subsoil, as well as good for potatoes, beans, and onions. However, don’t turn your back on pig weed. It grows very tall and sets a million seeds. Well, ok, the 100,000 produced by one plant certainly seems like a million when they germinate in the garden!

I have used weeds as trap crops. The idea is to give insects something good to chew on so they leave your veggies alone. One year, insects chewed the heck out of the pigweed, and I cheered. Two birds with one stone! The insects ignored(almost) my garden plants and put a dent in the weeds! What could be better? Then I went on vacation. A week later I returned to four feet tall pigweed that needed a machete to cut down. If you use pigweed to aid your garden, be wise and keep it thinned.

It might be interesting to note that all the weeds listed here are edible. Saute lamb’s quarters like spinach. Eat purslane, also known as “land fish” due to its omega-3 fatty acid content, raw in a salad. Young sow thistles or dandelions are good in salad or sauteed. Dead nettle (called dead because it doesn’t sting) can be eaten in salads, steeped in tea, and used medicinally. Pigweed leaves are a nice edible green even during hot summers, when other greens become bitter. These weeds are all good to harvest as food from a garden. However, keep that trick they have of pulling nutrients up into their leaves and stems in mind when considering them as edibles. Don’t eat them if you find them wild in polluted areas or next to a road. Neither would it be a good idea to harvest these deep rooted weeds from a conventional agriculture farm. High doses of fertilizers and herbicides used render them unsafe to eat.

Weeds can take over a garden, look unattractive, and lower food yields. However, used wisely, even weeds can be beneficial to the home gardener. Consider each weed as an individual plant in terms of how it might aid the garden. Use some weeds as mulch. Deep rooted weeds make good compost. Low growing shallow weeds could produce shade for larger plant roots. Some weeds make good companion plants. Some can function as trap crops. Many are edible and considered good eating in spite of our supermarket prejudices. I do not like it when weeds bloom in my garden(too many future seeds!), but there is a satisfaction in working with nature and using all the plants that grow there.

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