What's the purpose of weeds anyhow?
Flourishing weeds in my raised beds and perennial gardens are starting to defeat me. Weeding is causing me to loose sleep!
How is this task ever going to get crossed off the to-do list?
After all, you can't plant and transplant until you clear all those nasty weeds.
Planting = fun.
Weeding = hard physical labor.
If we took an informal poll, I bet most gardeners would say their most dreaded gardening chore is weeding.
Hands down. Literally...as you tug, dig and pull them out one by one. Boring and time consuming.
Why or why do weeds exist?
What would the world be like without weeds?
After reading and researching, I've come to the conclusion that weeds do indeed serve a vital purpose in our gardens, landscapes and ecosystems.
We need weeds! We want weeds!
After all, a weed is just an unwanted plant. A plant that is in the wrong spot.
But find the right spot for a weed and we all benefit.
1.) Weeds have both nutritional & medicinal benefits
When did the dandelion weed become the enemy of the American Dream? The white picket fence with the perfectly green, tame and immaculate, dandelion-free lawn?
Tom and I are one of the few families on our street that doesn't pay a pesticide service to kill the dandelions.
But surely exposing your family to chemicals is worse than a few dandelions? Besides, dandelions are kind of pretty.
But chew on this shocking fact: Dandelion is better for you than spinach! It's sold in grocery stores. I've seen it. How about you?
Dandelion roots and leaves have a long history of medicinal use for treating digestive issues, reviving the liver and gallbladder and much more.
The whole wild plant is edible (unless pesticide boy sprayed it) from roots to leaves, stem, and flower. So why oh why is the dandelion our sworn enemy?
In uninhabited areas, this medicinal plants will attract wild animals who will eat the dandelions and leave their droppings behind.
This poop actually feeds the topsoil over time creating nutrient rich areas that support non-pioneer plants. (non-weeds).
Moreover, the dandelion is a fantastic bee plant flowering almost year-round and supplying both pollen and nectar! Find space for it in your yard and heart if you can.
My 8-year-old loves running around the yard plucking off those vibrant yellow heads.
She's actually doing me a favor. When the wind comes these seeds will spread out all over the lawn creating more dandelions.
You can also dig out the taproots to remove dandelions. Do so extremely carefully because every tiny piece you leave in will re-grow, escalating the problem.
If you leave those taproots alone they benefit the soil by adding organic matter. Called "sub-soilers," the taproots pull nutrients from deep in the ground nourishing your lawn and other plants.
Decaying roots also create tunnels for worms and other beneficial soil microbes.
And those bold, yellow flowers? The flower heads provide much-wanted nectar early in the season for lady beetles and many other pollinators.
2.) Weeds attract helpful pollinators & provide shelter
But if we eliminate milkweed in our lawns and landscapes by hand pulling and pesticide use, we've created a huge problem for our pollinators.
Milkweed is a crucial food source for monarch caterpillars. Sadly, Monarch butterfly populations have dropped by 90% in recent years, largely to milkweed becoming more scarce!
This is why I planted so much milkweed in my backyard this year. I went crazy planting what's technically a "weed" hoping to attract those helpful pollinators.
Bring on those wonderful butterflies, bees, and even some moths. It's satisfying to help reduce the decline of pollinators by increasing their habitats and providing nectar plants for the adults.
This lovely plant has pale pinkish-purplish flowers that last from mid-summer through the fall.
Joe Pye weed even has that wildflower look to it and is a butterfly and bee magnet. They are absolutely drawn in by those huge blooms loaded in sweet nectar.
The flowers and the seeds have also been used in producing pink or red dye for textiles.
Joe Pye weed is hardy from USDA Zones 4-9 and can grow upwards of 3-12 feet tall, creating a beautiful and lush environment to shelter those bugs and butterflies.
The pollinator plants also attract beneficial insects to the garden, another huge advantage.
3.) Weeds prevent bare soil & erosion
So while attracting those helpful pollinators, they also provide food and habitat for wildlife.
But they are equally vital for a third purpose. Weeds tackle the problem of water and wind erosion.
Nature dislikes bare soil and won't allow it to exist for very long in a barren state. This natural cycle of life wants that ground covered up - and as quickly as possible.
Enter the determined weed which willingly covers the soil and does so fast!
Nutrients and minerals that your "real" plants will thrive on. Weeds to the rescue covering up this soil and saving those nutrients and minerals.
Down & dirty recap:
- Without nutrients, plant life will struggle to survive.
- Without plant life to catch and hold water, moisture won’t be retained in the soil.
- Without moisture in the soil, there will be little soil life. (good microorganisms!)
- Without plants, moisture, and soil life, disturbance will eventually lead to desertification.
4.) Weeds prevent the sun beating down too harshly on the earth
Factor in a bright and sunny 80 degree day. Hot. Hot. Hot. This same sun beats down on fields and your yard and garden.
The sun bakes the unseen community of microorganisms that live just below the surface of the earth. But microorganisms are vital to our ecosystems!
Our gardens thrive on them.
When the deep taproots of dandelions and Queen Anne's Lace hold soil in place and retain water, soil microorganisms multiply and begin their invisible healing procedures underground.
Weeds like crabgrass are God's pioneer plants, nutrient accumulators, dredging deep into the soil for nutrients and minerals that they store in their leaves.
Able to colonize ground that would be uninhabitable to less hardy species, their weed roots stabilize the soil to help prevent erosion.
They sacrifice their plant bodies, shielding the ground from the sun's heated rays, converting sunlight into organic matter that later gets recycled into the soil when they die.
5.) Weeds encourage the natural process of ecological succession to occur
Eventually, you'd have a forest on your hands 30-40 years down the road.
Weeds would take over your piece of earth initiating a process called ecological succession. After mammoth weeds emerge, trees and bushes would soon follow.
Succession is the movement of a living community in nature toward a mature or "climax" ecosystem, like a mature and aged forest.
Pioneer species (weeds) show up to a site that has been disturbed due to human activity or a natural act like a forest fire, logging or even gardening.
Can you think of the biggest time in history where ecological succession occurred?
Ecological succession explains how plants and animals repopulated the earth after it was destroyed by the global flood of Noah's day.
Succession continues in our day and time, too. So every time you mow that lawn? You are turning back the clock on ecological succession.
Perhaps in our lawns, we don't allow ecological succession to occur.
But in the natural world, it's a must providing food and shelter to all God's creatures.
So an old growth forest, a mature ecosystem, is preferable over a perfectly manicured lawn.
It's kind of like the Wild West: species are all competing for the right to colonize a disturbed area.
They put all their strength into establishing themselves as the dominant species of the domain.
By establishing roots and laying claim to an area, they are jump-starting ecological healing and succession.
What about thistles?
They sting your hands with their prickles! Even worse if you step on one barefooted. A thorn in your side.
But then a little investigation revealed some stunning facts about the benefits of thistle, milk thistle in particular. The active ingredient in milk thistle is called silymarin and can act as an antioxidant.
What can milk thistle do for you?
And then I consider that there must be plants with healing properties out there that till this day remain undiscovered by us.
No doubt many weeds are the key to astounding medicinal properties ~ if we only knew which ones and what they were good for!
So for this reason, I'm in favor of leaving what God has made alone. He knows what's he's doing. We shouldn't mess with his design.
There's a purpose and a reason for all that He has made, it's up to us to unearth it. And I guess that even means thistles. Ugh.
3 more weeds you might want to spare...
- Chickweed - When chickweed shows up in disturbed soil such as tilled garden beds, it's usually an indicator of low fertility.
- Nutrient accumulator chickweed to the rescue drawing in potassium and phosphorus to save your veggie beds. Chickweed is also a pollinator magnet. Besides, you can eat it with its lettuce-like greens and medicinal properties.
- Chickweed will benefit the soil if left to grow and die back on its own. Its cute little white flowers are as non-offensive as it gets, so resist the temptation to cut it back.
- Besides, cutting it back will reduce its availability to pollinators. Leave roots intact to regrow, but even if they do die, their decayed roots will enrich the soil and host beneficial soil organisms.
- Broadleaf plantain - Colonists brought broadleaf plantain to North America and she's here to stay ever since. It often pops up in compacted soil. Big nutrient accumulator, broadleaf plantain is a magnet for calcium, sulfur, magnesium, manganese, iron, and silicon.
- You can eat it if you wish and it has medicinal properties as it aids the digestive system. Both the leaves and the seeds target the digestive system in a healing way which is ideal for people with an upset stomach caused by anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics.
- Plantain is also high in silica, making it beneficial to people with lung problems, coughs, and colds.
- And plantain has been a go-to remedy for hikers being attacked by mosquitoes! The plant has astringent qualities, and works to draw out toxins from bee stings, bug bites, acne, slivers, glass splinters, and rashes when crushed and applied as a poultice.
- The best way to allow broadleaf plantain to benefit your soil is to leave it alone to die back. If it's unsightly to you, you can cut off the leaves and cover the rest of the plant with mulch. This allows it to decompose naturally. Those roots left in place will benefit the soil and the microorganisms swarming within.
- White Clover - Lawns where grass clippings are tossed lack nitrogen over time~ a must for plant growth. Nitrogen and nutrient rich white clover fixes that problem by helping to transfer airborne nitrogen into the soil to be used by neighboring crops.
- Clover also accumulates phosphorous, the perfect plant pick-me-up for big green leaves and vibrant blooms.
- Last plant win? White clover attracts beneficial insects like ladybugs, minute pirate bugs, and pollinators seeking nectar. It also provides shelter for parasitoid wasps, spiders, and ground beetles.
- Lacewings prefer to lay their eggs in clover. White clover is a groundcover for a garden pathway, especially the vegetable bed where is can fertilize nearby garden soil.