Know your Garden Weeds

Discover the benefits of red clover, dandelion, burdock and more for improving your garden soil.

  • Burdock's presence in the garden may mean that your soil needs more mineral content.
    Photo by ArgenLant (iStock)
  • Chamomile grows in soil that lacks potassium and calcium.
    Photo by Dejan Kolar (iStock)
  • Red clover is a weed favored by many grazing animals.
    Photo by Kazzpix (iStock)
  • Dandelion roots are actually beneficial to your garden as they grow, loosening the soil for worms and water to pass through.
    Photo by pilotL39 (iStock)
  • Cirsium thistle seeds attract finches.
    Photo by DenisVesely (iStock)

Weeds are traditionally the bane of the gardener’s existence. The prevailing garden wisdom is that the weed is an interloper that will compete for water and nutrition, leaving our beautiful vegetables to wilt and die. The EPA estimates that in 2007, home gardeners in the United States used between 5 and 8 million pounds of glyphosate to eradicate weeds. That’s a lot of time and money spent fighting a battle with Mother Nature that is, at the very least, wasted time (not to mention that glyphosate is well-documented to be harmful to us).

What if I told you weeds could actually be here to help? One of the first things I learned as a gardener was that I am much more successful when I work with Mother Nature rather than against her. In that spirit, I began to research my weed enemies, and learned that weeds can be indicators of soil health.

In order to thrive, weeds require a certain nutrient profile in the soil. Some weeds feed off of a surplus of one nutrient that is created by the deficiency of another. This gives us plants that are capable of both mopping up surpluses and gathering small amounts of deficient nutrients and concentrating them in a given area.

If we fight these weeds by pulling and removing them, or spraying herbicides, the battle rages on. Until its nutrient profile changes, your garden will still be a great place for that particular weed to grow. But when we learn from the weed what the soil needs, we can address the underlying issue.

It became clear to me that if I could learn about my weeds and their talents, I could use them to do some of my gardening work for me. I could make adjustments to my fertilization plan, for instance, if I knew the presence of dandelion suggested that my soil was deficient in calcium. As I progressed, I even found ways to keep my garden looking neat and tidy by using the weeds themselves as green manures in a targeted way.

Here are a few weeds you should get to know if you would prefer to have a free workforce in your garden rather than enemy combatants. Learn to work with these plants, and you might just find yourself spending less time weeding and more time in the hammock watching the garden grow!

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