A botanist friend of mine once told me that there’s no such thing as a weed. All weeds are plants, and all plants have a certain purpose. He says weeds are just “unwanted” plants or plants whose purpose hasn’t been appreciated yet.
Whether you agree with him or not, garden weeds do have a good side. In fact, what one person may consider a weed, another person may call it a glorious plant! Mother Nature is the ultimate gardener of all. Most plants that grow naturally or are native to a certain area are usually beneficial to that particular ecosystem in one way or another. (Notice I said “native.” It’s the plants that are non-native that tend to cause the most problems.)
Under controlled circumstances, beneficial weeds can greatly help and improve our gardens. They have several purposes, like keeping topsoil in place, pulling up water and nutrients from deep in the ground, and they even help control insects. And let’s not forget…many weeds are edible!
1. Topsoil Stays In Place
Think about it this way: when you get a cut, your body creates a scab to help protect the area around the cut while it is healing. Weeds work in much of the same way. Weeds keep topsoil from washing away in areas where bare spots are a problem. This is nature’s way of making sure topsoil won’t be lost to wind or water erosion. Weeds also break up hard and compacted soil in over-cultivated areas, and weeds can help the soil in these spots drain appropriately.
2. Weeds Pull Up Nutrients and Water
Have you ever noticed that weeds seem to grow and crop up in areas despite never being watered, fertilized or pampered like our garden crops or flowers? There’s a reason for that. Weeds have adapted to get along without human intervention. They are good at pulling up water and nutrients from deep in the soil without any help along the way. Many weeds have adapted to find nutrients and water by growing large taproots. Some of these roots extend as deep as 15 feet!
But how does this benefit you, the gardener?
This serves the gardener in several ways. One, in pulling up the nutrients for itself, the weed also attracts water and nutrients to the surface and this directly benefits all plants in the same area around the weed. Second, gardeners can pull up these nutrient-rich weeds and compost them for maximum benefit later on. Lastly, the gardener can turn the soil underneath the weeds after pulling them up and this helps distribute the valuable nutrients and trace minerals to other plants.
3. Weeds Are Natural Pest Control
Many weeds help control insects. They can keep harmful ones away and attract beneficial ones at the same time. Wildflowers are particularly good at doing this. For instance, Queen Anne’s Lace is considered a weed by many gardeners. But, it’s actually a wonderful addition to many gardens. Why? Queen Anne’s Lace is not just beautiful to look at – it also attracts helpful insects that will eat certain harmful insects.
4. Weeds Are a Natural Food Source
Years ago, certain weeds like purslane, dandelion, and Lamb’s Quarters were regarded as fine cuisine. Just because we’ve moved on as gardeners to heirloom tomatoes doesn’t mean you can’t eat these weeds today! Many weeds are wonderful food sources and are not just for “emergency” or survival situations.
Purslane adds a nice crunch to your salads and sandwiches, and it’s packed with Omega-3 fatty acids. Many say it has lemony flavor much like watercress. Dandelion is also an edible green with medicinal properties. It is said to help stimulate the liver and clear the bloodstream. If you are interested in learning more about eating weeds, there are many books and websites on how to identify and use weeds for food and for medicine.
Here are a few “weeds” that might have a good purpose for your yard or garden:
- Lamb’s Quarters – lures away harmful insects, good to eat and nutritious as spinach, tastes wonderful sautéed!
- Goldenrod – lures away harmful insects.
- Clover – helps naturally fertilize the soil, adds nitrogen, attracts earthworms, keeps rabbits from eating your plants (rabbits love clover!), keeps moisture in, makes an excellent natural mulch.
- Dandelion – long taproot pulls up nutrients, attracts honeybees, repels certain types of harmful worms, can be eaten for nutrition and health.
- Mugwort – absorbs heavy metals from the ground, stops erosion (but be careful – it can be very invasive if not controlled well).
- Queen Anne’s Lace – attracts beneficial insects, makes for beautiful flower gardens and borders.
- Purslane – keeps soil from eroding, regarded as a treat by many foodies, high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Pennycress – attracts beneficial insects.
One last word of caution: Remember…weeds are usually beneficial if they are native to your area. Do not introduce non-native plants or weeds before doing your research. They may do more harm than good.