I often think the only certain things in my garden are death and weeds. As my gardening skills develop, I’m improving on the first but have a way to go on the second. I am resigned to the fact that weeds are an integral part of the gardener’s lot (literally and figuratively). Because weeds tend to be pushy types always threatening to overwhelm the garden’s more delicate denizens, we spend hours pulling and snaring, pouncing and beheading, spearing and uprooting them. And of course, occasionally yanking out desirable plants too, because when they’re babies, it’s often hard to tell the difference. So what makes a weed a weed anyway?
One definition says simply that a weed is a plant in the wrong place (well, wrong according to the gardener or farmer anyway). A rose in a field of corn could be called a weed. But what we usually think of as weeds are those pernicious, promiscuous plants that grow absolutely anywhere (including through asphalt), that proliferate boundlessly and that have found endless ways to make themselves nigh impossible to eradicate. Think dandelions, garlic mustard, horsetail, Himalayan blackberry, Canada thistle and the like.
Many of these plants are not indigenous and, lacking any natural controls, run rampant. Broad-leaved plantain was nicknamed “white man’s footprint” by the aboriginal peoples because it popped up wherever the settlers went. Weeds travel via any number of ways, from cars and freight trains to wind, water and wild animals, as well as your pet dog or cat and your own shoes. Some weeds are garden escapees — cultivated garden plants that got out into the landscape and have proceeded to wreak havoc (purple loosestrife, English ivy and Scotch broom, for instance). The qualities that sold them as good garden performers — vigorous growth, persistence and self-seeding — make them formidable opponents when let loose.
Annual weeds rush in to populate disturbed soil, while perennial weeds thrive in fertile soils. So as we build our gardens, we also create weed nirvana. Sometimes changing what we consider a weed can solve part of the problem. There’s often a fine line between weed and wildflower. For the natural landscaper or wildlife gardener, these can be quite desirable, attracting birds, butterflies and pollinating bees. Queen Anne’s lace with its lacy white umbels is definitely weedy but it’s a magnet for insects; and milkweed is a vital host plant for monarch butterflies (an endangered species in Canada). Fireweed, a native plant with tall spires of bright pink flowers, quickly colonizes open areas, particularly as its name suggests, after a fire.
Nature abhors a vacuum (i.e., bare ground) and always wants to re-establish a forest. Weeds are the first step in that long process, known as succession. As the weeds grow and die back they enrich the soil, enabling larger plants, grasses and shrubs to move in. Eventually, sun-loving trees arrive and they in turn are gradually shaded out by even larger trees.
The gardener works to stop this succession and grow his/her plants of choice. As Roger Swain wisely says, “Nature writes; gardeners edit.” Weed control is but one aspect of this continual editing. Hoeing and pulling are effective, as is planting densely to crowd weeds out and putting down a thick layer of mulch. Definitely try to get rid of weeds before they set seed (there’s a saying that one year of seeding means seven years of weeding).
If you find you really can’t beat ’em, eat ’em. It’s not a commonly recommended method but some weeds are extremely nutritious: lamb’s quarters, for instance, is rich in iron, vitamins and calcium and makes a terrific spinach substitute. Young dandelion leaves are tasty in a salad as are chickweed and chicory. Purslane leaves and tender stems have a cool citrusy green flavour and can be used raw or cooked. Nutritious and delicious, not to mention the additional satisfaction of chopping them up and/or flinging them into a pot of boiling water. Good riddance, literally!
Still, given weeds’ deviousness and determination, they will always be with us so perhaps the best approach, and one I’m working hard to adopt, is simply to relax and see the beauty of the garden first, the weeds second.
“Weeds are pretty too” the russians are here @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.