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Weeds are often the bane of the organic gardener’s life. Even the most committed organic gardener can confess to being tempted to purchase a bottle of the chemical weed killer in order to get rid of the invasive creeping Charlie or nut’s edge. While weeds are known to be annoying and to sap the nutrients from the soil, there are actually several beneficial weeds that every gardener should be aware of. Just like beneficial insects can have a positive impact on the health of your garden, so can beneficial weeds.
The Definition Of A Beneficial Weed
It is a well-known organic gardening fact that there are numerous plants and herbs that serve well as companion plants in order to keep pests at bay. These beneficial companions are typically planted on purpose in order to make a concerted effort at organic pest control. Seeds for these beneficial companions are found at most garden centers, and they are often considered to be “domesticated” varieties.
A beneficial weed, on the other hand, is a plant that is not typically thought of as being “domesticated,” but it does still serve as a beneficial companion to your vegetables and flowering plants. Since a large number of gardeners are more concerned about pristine flower beds and lush green lawns that are free from the occasional pretty yellow dandelion, the majority of beneficial weeds are pulled up or poisoned with the harsh chemical weed killers.
The reality is that if these beneficial weeds were left in place, they would actually stave off hordes of unwanted pests and also help to keep the soil filled with valuable nutrients. With knowledge of what weeds might actually serve a positive purpose on your property, you can take your organic pest control and soil improvement efforts to extra lengths, all by allowing nature to work her magic.
Beneficial Weed Categories
Beneficial weeds typically fall into several categories, which can help you to define their best purpose on your own property.
- Repelling pests
- Distractions or traps for pests
- Soil fertilization
- Ground cover
- Natural herbicide
- Attracting beneficial bugs
- Useful for human use
- Flavor enhancements
Some beneficial weeds will actually serve multiple purposes, if you just know what to use them for. Once you know just how some of these beneficial weeds can improve your soil and your crop yields, you’ll be a lot more likely to hesitate when you see a patch of dandelions growing in the middle of your tomato patch.
As organic gardeners, we know that planting onions and garlic near your lettuces, cabbages, carrots, and beets can help to keep pests away from your crops. The strong scents that onions and garlic plants put off will help to mask the delicious scent of your other crops, and thus protect them from being devoured.
Beneficial weeds work in much the same way—by masking the scent of the companion plants around them. Ground ivy, wormwood, wild oregano, and wild onions can work well to repel pests that would otherwise turn your tasty vegetables into their own dinner.
Some weeds are also useful to keep around because they have thorns or spines on them that can deter small animals. Rabbits and squirrels may seem impossible to deter at times, but you’d be surprised at just how effective a patch of thorn-covered weeds can be at keeping the critters away from your lettuce crop.
Insects track down their food by scent and color, which means that if you can effectively mask the scent of your tasty crops then you have won half of the battle. Some beneficial weeds work well as decoy plants that will not only attract the pests to them versus the tasty crops, but will also then often become the preferred meal over your crops.
Having a number of beneficial weeds like clover and ground ivy surrounding your crops has been shown to dramatically reduce numbers of tomato hornworms, squash bugs, and Japanese beetles. Patches of clover have also been known to distract the hordes of wild rabbits that would otherwise make short work of your cabbages and tasty young greens. Many an organic gardener has planted strips of clover as a type of organic line of defense. Keep in mind that some rabbits are just bound and determined to cross that line and make their way over to mow down the tops of your basil, but the clover should at least deter a fair number of them.
We all know that planting beans amongst some of our other crops, like corn and squash, can increase the nitrogen content of the soil. Wild legumes can have the same effect on your crops, which means that white clover is actually a wonderfully beneficial weed to have growing in your garden.
Other weeds, like dandelions for example, have incredible root systems. They have extra-long tap roots that delve deep into the soil to bring up key nutrients that the other plants would otherwise not have access to. The quality of the soil will gradually improve over the course of a few years, but it would be constantly improving due to the presence of these soil-mining weeds. This also means that even if you have horribly dense clay soil, beneficial weeds like dandelions will ultimately transform the soil into something a lot more hospitable to vegetables and herbs.
Think about the floor of a forest. This is one area that you would think would be densely populated with weeds and other unwanted plants. In reality, most forest floors are covered with thick ground-covering plants like ivy. Many beneficial weeds can be grown amongst your crops because they not only have different nutritional requirements from the soil, but they can also provide an effective ground cover that will essentially work as a type of living mulch. They will inhibit the growth of harmful weeds and will help to retain moisture in the soil. This can also often drop the temperature of the soil and help plants to better cope through the hottest and driest parts of the summer season. White and red clovers, along with rye grass, are often used to provide a nice ground cover for many crops.
The plant world can actually be rather brutal, and the process of allelopathy is just one such example. Allelopathy is a process by which a plant produces biochemicals that will have a marked effect on the overall health of other plants around it. Allelopathy is not necessarily a positive process in all situations. For example, nut’s edge can drive gardeners absolutely insane once it has been allowed to gain a foothold in the garden. Not only it is difficult to control, but it also releases toxins into the soil, thus making the soil inhospitable for other plants. This type of process can be beneficial for other plants, however. For example, many consider lantana a weed, but it can inhibit the growth of milkweed roots.
Attracting Beneficial Bugs
A garden that is teeming with beneficial insects is a healthy garden! There are dozens of beneficial weeds that can attract beneficial insects to them by offering nectar and a much more hospitable place for them to lay their eggs. An influx of more beneficial insects can only be a positive thing, as they take over pest control efforts on your crops. Attracting more ladybugs and predatory wasps is always a good thing for an organic gardener.
Useful For Human Use
There are a number of uses for beneficial weeds, uses that go beyond the garden. Stinging nettles can certainly be irritating to your skin when you touch them, but you’ll find that cattle and other livestock love eating them! As a matter of fact, you can eat them too! Nettles are incredibly high in a number of vitamins and minerals, including iron and calcium. They have a flavor that is very similar to spinach and can be cooked in much the same way. Nettles are often added to other herbs to create a vitamin-rich tea, so get a bit creative with your tea blends!
Dandelions are also definitely edible and are enjoyed in a number of dishes around the world. Dandelion leaves can be blanched to remove the bitterness, or they can be eaten fresh in salads and vegetable wraps. The petals of the flowers are used in the production of dandelion wine, while the roasted roots are often used to make dandelion coffee!
Purslane can also be enjoyed as a leaf vegetable, either in salads or stir-fried. All parts of the plant are edible, and purslane is often cooked much in the same way that spinach is cooked. It can also be added to soups and stews for the incredible nutritional content. Purslane is incredibly rich in omega-3 fatty acids and also contains high levels of iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and B.
Not only are some beneficial weeds edible in their own right, but studies have shown that a nice crop of stinging nettles planted amongst your mints and other herbs can actually increase the essential oil content of the herbs.
Dandelions have also been shown to improve the flavors of lettuces, tomatoes, and so many other vegetables around them. This can often be attributed to the dandelion’s ability to improve the nutrient content of the soil, however.
Before you get ready to start pulling weeds out by the fistful, you should first do a quick check as to what you are actually growing. Nature may have planted some really beneficial weeds exactly right where you need them to grow.
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