Photo by Fotolia
Last year was our first season farming in the black dirt of Orange County, NY. We had heard that you can grow great vegetables in this unique soil that has over 40% organic matter. Tales have been told that this land was once a huge glacier, with fossilized bones of mastodons recently discovered in this region. As you dig into the soil with your hands or a spade, you can see, smell and feel its richness. The closest comparison might be fresh compost, which we call black gold. It is truly black dirt, getting into our clothes, hair, fingernails and skin.
As we began our first year of planting vegetables, herbs and flowers, to our delight the fertile black dirt helped us grow plants that were huge, massive and glorious… and so were the weeds. Average weeds that normally grow in the back yard, or cracks of a sidewalk, suddenly grew into Christmas trees. We were frustrated, to say the least, as we saw our crops being overtaken. So going into our second year, we decided to take a different approach to assessing weeds.
Weeds - are they friend or foe? Well that depends. Some weeds are edible. In fact most of our restaurant clients love our weeds. Who knew that all this time, we have been throwing away money! But seriously, I have started to look at weeds with a little more compassion. Besides being able to grow like monsters in the black dirt, there has to be a reason why they are there.
Photo by Fotolia
So, I started to dig in. The earth does not like to be barren. Bare soil is like a person who has lost their hair wishing that they had some protection against the blazing hot sun, strong winds, or deluge of rain. Weeds are nature’s way of protecting the land from soil erosion, dryness and sunburn.
Weeds can also tell us something about the condition of the soil. For example, purslane (Portulace oleracea) can be a sign that the soil is high in phosphorous. It germinates in high temperatures, which is why we see so much of it in June and July. Some purslane seeds have been known to stay viable for more than 40 years. So do I say cha-ching or cursed?!
Let’s move on to the next edible weed - dandelions. I can recall as a child blowing the heads of dandelions, making a wish for more play and less school, blissfully unaware that I was spreading dandelion seeds that would come back to haunt me as an adult. But dandelion is full of vitamin A, B, C, and D, and its roots have been used to treat liver, kidney and skin problems. The leaves are edible and commonly used in salads, and this year at the farm we’re using the flowers to make our first batch of dandelion wine!
Photo by Fotolia
Next up are lamb’s quarters, also known as pigweed, goosefoot and even poor man’s spinach. I ate some for the first time last year and was astounded by its flavor, similar to buttery spinach. Despite the taste, it quickly became my archenemy as it grew from those delectable little leaves to humongous 4-foot trees with roots that needed two people to pull out. Lamb’s quarters are still commonly used as food in other parts of the world, and they were once a green vegetable of choice in the U.S., packing a wallop of vitamins and minerals. A note of caution about lamb’s quarters - it does contain oxalic acid, which can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron and calcium. So eat up and be healthy; just don’t splurge.
As we continue to grow our produce and flowers, I will get better acquainted with our other arch rivals such as crabgrass, bindweed, morning glory and chicory.
In conclusion, as they say, “if you can’t beat em, eat em”. I think on our farm we would need the whole town of Chester to do that. However, at Rise & Root Farm we have come up with our own solution. Once a month we encourage volunteers to take part in what we call “weed aerobics”. If you can’t “beat ‘em”or “eat ‘em” at least you can get in shape “pulling ‘em”.
So the next time you see a weed, think twice about whether to consider it a friend, foe, or part of your next fitness craze.
Karen Washington and Rise & Root Farm
For more on the health benefits and culinary uses of edible weeds, check out:
Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes and Jane Hodge run Rise & Root Farm, a 3-acre organic farm in Orange County, New York. Read more about Rise & Root in this article from our September/October 2016 issue: Growing Community at a Social Justice Farm in New York.