WHY IT PAYS TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH WEEDS
are sweated over, assaulted with chemicals, considered by most
as the curse of the gardener, useless at best. But these much-maligned
innocents are less intrinsically diabolical than they are thoroughly
misunderstood. Sure, there are a few mighty troublesome plants,
but many weeds can help your garden thrive, feed you, heal you
— or all three. I know it may seem curious at first glance,
but weeds occupy an honored place in the natural order of whole
are like the doctors in troubled ecosystems. Some seek out sad,
depleted soil and send strong roots deep into the subsoil. There
they draw out and stash in their leaves new materials —
potassium, calcium, phosphorus, trace minerals. Then, they donate
their lives to the cause of enriched topsoil. (Another great place
for them to rot is in your compost pile. What a pity so many end
up improving soil at the landfill.)
their mission is to protect bare or disturbed ground. As annual
weeds decompose, they leave behind humus and more porous soil,
setting the stage for other plants to prosper. Weeds are nature’s
disaster plan, par excellence. Only if land is completely denuded
by erosion or killed by chemicals will there be no weeds —
not exactly cause for rejoicing.
untamed genetic qualities make them resilient in harsh climates,
and resistant to bug problems. Periodically, plant breeders resort
to weeds to strengthen our “improved” pampered cultivars.
Knowledgeable farmers used to “read weeds” like oracles,
for indications of changes in the quality, fertility and drainage
of their fields. And some weeds, because of their beneficial influences,
were even grown intentionally with crops. For instance, amaranth
(sometimes called pigweed) helps potatoes, peppers, eggplant,
tomatoes, onions and corn to flourish. Sow thistle works similarly.
With such good credentials, it’s no surprise that weeds
make superior chow and medicines. Each weed excels in at least
one nutrient — some in many. Mallow (Malva neglecta,
“cheeseweed”) makes a yummy, hearty boiled green.
A three-ounce serving contains more iron than beef liver and is
high in calcium and beta carotene. Mallow’s dried leaves
make a mineral-rich tea, and a fresh leaf poultice soothes inflammation.
Its small, nutritious seeds, which resemble tiny rounds of French
cheese, have a nutty taste. Many adults may remember feasting
on these “cheeses” as children.
quarters provide almost three times the calcium of an equal amount
of milk, and offer a better balance of co-factors magnesium and
phosphorus. Cook them like spinach. Raw, the leaves can form the
basis of a unique and colorful wild salad mix — just add
purslane, amaranth leaves, sorrel, nasturtium and edible flowers
(Johnny jump-ups, rose petals, bachelor buttons, etc.).
a little further, you’ll find more. Amaranth was once a
staple in ancient cultures; a wild variety is surely lurking in
your yard. Edible leaves, raw or cooked, and high-quality protein
in the seeds are its claim to fame. Purslane adds a hint of lemony
flavor to salads and soups. It’s particularly rich in essential
fatty acids (like the Omega 3s, which cost megabucks at your nearest
health food store). Cut your cholesterol and boost your immune
system — for free.
about the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, “official
remedy for disorders”)? With a botanical name like that,
shouldn’t you be raising some? The fresh greens (with almost
twice the beta carotene as spinach) are great sautéed with
garlic and olive oil. Dandelion root tea gives sluggish livers
a gentle push, and the dried leaves make a diuretic tea that won’t
deplete potassium like many drugs will. I could go on. There are
so many amazing weeds. Imagine if folks with marginal food budgets
(and nutrition) regained the simple skills of wild food harvesting
taken for granted a couple of generations ago.
All well and good, but let’s say you’ve inherited
a neglected yard, and you’re wondering how to manage your
weed bonanza. I mean, how much tumbleweed can one person eat?
(You guessed it. When they’re about three inches high, tumbleweeds
are nutritious and edible, though this side of bland.) Timing
is of the essence when removing weeds. Of course, they’re
easiest to pull after a rain. Don’t use a hoe to cut weeds
off at the ground before they flower or begin seed formation,
or they’ll simply try again, much harder. The best time
for hoeing annuals is just before seeds mature. After a good rain,
it’s easy to pull out many perennials (whole root attached,
please). If you despise pulling them, contribute to the local
economy: hire neighborhood kids. If it’s too late and they’ve
already gone to seed, your best bet is “sheet mulching,”
a permaculture technique which results in rich soil six months
later. Permanently, thickly mulched yards don’t suffer many
weeds. The cardinal rule: Don’t let unwanted weeds spread
plant or mulch cleared spaces; mother nature recolonizes bare
ground with more weeds. You can bake weeds under clear or black
plastic (this does kill friendly soil bacteria, however), or subdue
them with a heavy thatch of straw. I heard about pouring white
vinegar on weeds and tried it on the young tumbleweeds on my driveway:
they died. Weeds between flagstones and bricks succumb to a boiling
water bath. Timing is critical: most germination occurs in April,
May, September and October, so get them while they’re young
Check out “Weed Aside” (made from vegetable oils),
which dehydrates young weeds when applied in warm, dry weather;
and “Wow Plus!” or “Original Wow!” (basically
corn gluten), which inhibits roots of weed seedlings from sprouting
in lawns and flower beds. Both are simple, eminently safe products.
weeds with herbicides is a whole different game, played by thousands
across the country. The brand names sound actually playful: Roundup,
Weed-Be-Gon, Amaze. The nasty truth is these poisons are not fully
degraded in the soil, and do have serious cumulative health consequences.
They often end up many miles from their point of use, in water,
food, birds and you. (Do read the revealing Consumer Reports
greens? The truth about organic food,” January, 1998.)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most herbicides
are more toxic than insecticides. The list of weed enemies on
the container reads like a wild foods supermarket and natural
medicine chest, causing wild food enthusiasts and herbalists to
what do you think? I’ll bet the next time you see your neighbor
going nearly mad over the dandelions in his lawn, you’ll
have a few things to say. In the meantime, bon appétit.
of the West, Tom Whitson, Ed., Western Society of Weed
Science, Newark, CA 1992. The clearest photos I’ve ever
seen, of just about every common weed. Consult a copy at your
the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons, Alan C. Hood Publishing,
Brattleboro, 1987. First published in 1962, and still a classic.
* Gardens Alive! (812) 537-8650, www.gardensalive.com.
Source for Wow Plus! & Weed Aside.
* If you don’t have the patience for the right weeds to
show up in your yard, order some! Try the following sources:
- Seeds of Change, (888) 762-7333, www.seedsofchange.com.
- J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, Star Rt 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020,
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds, (800) 879-2258, www.johnnyseeds.com.
NOTE: Do not pick and eat unknown plants. Check with an experienced
forager for positive identification and other safety factors involved.
This article is from Gardening the Southwest: How to care
for your land while growing food, medicine and beauty (Healing
Earth Publications, 1999), available through the author.