Weeds can overwhelm even the most patient gardener. Some weeds, however, actually increase the productivity of a garden if you know how to harness their power. Here are the top 5 weeds you’ll want to find in your garden.
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The Benefits of Weeds
Recently, I wrote about the benefits of weeds. (See: When Weeds are Good.) I used to be so frustrated by weeds until I learned about their benefits. I’m a much happier gardener now that my perception has changed!
Here are some of the things weeds do for us:
1: Weeds protect soil.
Weeds are fast growing, so they can quickly cover bare ground to protect it. Their roots hold soil together and keep it from eroding away in the wind or rain. Their presence can indicate the need for mulch to protect soil. (See: Mulching in the Garden.)
2: Weeds fertilize soil.
Many weeds accumulate vital nutrients from the subsoil and bring the nutrients into their leaves. As the weed leaves die back, they make a healing medicine (fertilizer) for damaged topsoil. Their presence can indicate the need to enrich your soil with amendments such as worm castings or compost, because each time you harvest vegetables, you extract nutrients from the soil.
3: Weeds condition soil.
Decaying roots–especially deep taproots–add organic matter to the soil, provide channels for rain and air to penetrate, and create tunnels for worms and other beneficial soil microbes. They help improve the no-till garden. (See: Transitioning to a No-Till Garden.)
4: Weeds attract beneficial insects.
Weeds are usually quick to sprout, but relatively short-lived. For this reason, they flower frequently in order to set seed for the next generation. The flowering and their dense foliage can attract beneficial insects looking for habitat or nectar.
How I Chose the following Top 5 Weeds
It was a challenge to narrow this list down to just 5 beneficial weeds, because as you can see, weeds do quite a few things for us that can help reduce our maintenance time in the garden.
I focused on the most common weeds (at least, in my area) that fill two important roles:
- They accumulate nutrients. This will reduce the amount of time and money I need to dedicate to fertilizer. And if I do decide to fertilize with store-bought products, the presence of these weeds may indicate what nutrients my soil is lacking.
- They attract beneficial insects. This will reduce the amount of time and money I must dedicate to battling pests.
By fertilizing and reducing pest populations, these weeds will increase the productivity of my gardens, it’s simply a matter of knowing how to harness their power.
Top 5 Weeds
5. Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)
Brought into North America by colonists, plantain often pops up where soil is compacted.
- Nutrient Accumulator: Plantain accumulates calcium, sulfur, magnesium, manganese, iron, and silicon.
- Plantain has edible and medicinal properties.
How to use plantain in the garden:
Plantain will benefit the soil if left to grow and die back on its own. For a tidier garden, cut the leaves back monthly and tuck them under the mulch, or lay them on top of the soil to naturally decompose. Leave the roots intact–the plant will either regrow, or the roots will decay, enriching the soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms.
Photo by F.D. Richards via Flickr
4. Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed shows up in disturbed soil such as garden beds and highly tilled areas, indicating low fertility.
- Nutrient Accumulator: Chickweed accumulates potassium and phosphorus.
- Beneficial Insects: Chickweed attracts pollinators searching for nectar in the spring and early summer.
- Chickweed has edible, lettuce-like greens and medicinal properties
How to use Chickweed in the garden:
Chickweed will benefit the soil if left to grow and die back on its own. For a tidier garden, cut the plants back monthly and tuck them under the mulch, or lay them on top of the soil to naturally decompose. Leave the roots intact–the plant will either regrow, or the roots will decay, enriching the soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms. Note: Cutting it back will reduce its availability to pollinators.
Photo by Simon via Flickr
3. Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
The presence of lamb’s quarters is common in old farm fields, where chemical fertilizers were used in excess. Over time, these “weeds” will improve the soil quality.
- Nutrient Accumulator: Lamb’s quarters’ deep roots accumulate nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and manganese while loosening the soil.
- Highly nutritious edible properties when found growing in safe environments. The leaves go for a high price to local chefs.
How to use lamb’s quarters in the garden:
Lamb’s quarters will benefit the soil if left to grow and die back on their own, but one plant can set over 75,000 seeds. For a tidier garden, cut the plants back monthly and tuck them under the mulch, or lay them on top of the soil to naturally decompose. Leave the roots intact–the plant will either regrow, or the roots will decay, enriching the soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms.
Photo by Wendell Smith via Flickr
2. White Clover (Trifolium repens)
White clover voluntarily shows up in nitrogen-lacking, dry fields and lawns that cover hardpan clay soil. Lawns where grass clippings are routinely carted away over time become lacking in nitrogen.
- Nitrogen fixer: Nitrogen is necessary for plant growth. It is present in the atmosphere, yet it must be converted into a useable form in the soil before it can be used by plants. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria live on the roots of clover and change the atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is useful to both themselves and other plants.
- Nutrient Accumulator: Clover accumulates phosphorus.
- Beneficial insects: Clover attracts ladybugs, minute pirate bugs, and pollinators looking for nectar. It provides shelter for parasitoid wasps, spiders, and ground beetles. Clover is a preferred egg-laying site for lacewings.
- White clover has edible flowers.
How to use White Clover in the garden:
Permanent Ground Cover:
White clover is used as a permanent ground cover in orchard areas, where it keeps the soil and shallow fruit tree roots covered, attracts pollinators and beneficial insects, and provides a consistent source of nitrogen. In the vegetable garden, white clover is often used in pathways, fertilizing nearby garden soil.
Here are the seeds I purchase for seeding in garden paths.
When white clover shows up as a volunteer in my vegetable garden beds, I allow it to remain in the spaces between plants. Since it voluntarily shows up in areas that are low in nitrogen, I trust that it is needed there. Prune it away from individual plants so that it doesn’t smother them.
Photo by Hideyuki KAMON via Flickr
1. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is one of the most common and arguably the most beneficial of all weeds. It often shows up in hard-pan clay soils, whether in gardens, old fields, or lawns.
- Nutrient Accumulator: Dandelion’s deep roots accumulate potassium, phosphorus, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and silicon while loosening the soil.
- Beneficial insects: Dandelion attracts ladybugs and pollinators looking for nectar. It also attracts parasitoid wasps and lacewings.
- Dandelion has edible leaves, roots, and flowers with highly medicinal properties.
How to use dandelion in the garden:
Dandelion will benefit the soil if left to grow and die back on its own, though one flower seed head can set over 100 seeds. For a tidier garden, cut the leaves back monthly and tuck them under the mulch, or lay them on top of the soil to naturally decompose. Leave the roots intact–the plant will either regrow, or the roots will decay, enriching the soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms. Note: Cutting them back will reduce their availability to beneficial insects.
Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI via Flickr
Beyond the Five
Consider the root structure of the weed in question: Are they shallow roots and grow thickly on the ground? Perhaps their role is to hold the soil in place to prevent wind and water erosion. Mulching might help to reduce their presence.
Do the weeds have deep taproots? Perhaps their role is to loosen and enrich soil. Adding organic matter and using a digging fork to loosen soil might help.
Some weeds–like poison ivy–are a nuisance, and are better eradicated from garden areas.
Do you see these 5 weeds in your garden? Has this changed your perception of them?