10 Useful Garden Weeds
What is a weed? A plant whose virtures have not yet been discovered.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Weeds have a bad name because they grow so well as to be quite a nuissance. However, I often wonder why I try so hard to grow one salad green while trying so hard to discourage another. Or when the summer sun is scortching the life out of the lawn, why pull up the only things that are actually green? There is a better way.
Benefits of Weeds
So-called weeds are usually the best-adapted plant for the area they occupy, thriving on the amount of water provided and hardy for the climate. Many are drought-tolerant due to long taproots, which also bring up minerals from deep in the earth, well beyond the reach of many of our cultivated plants. As a result, they tend to be more nutritious. Most weeds are extremely insect-resistant.
Weeds are, therefore, very useful as mulch. Cut the weeds down or dig them up and let them decompose in place or in the compost pile. Over time they will impart to the soil the nutrients they have mined from the deep. In the meantime, they will protect the soil from excessive evaporation and exposure to the sun. This benefits the organisms that will break down the weeds into a usable form for future plants.
Many weeds are edible. Naturally, it is essential that you verify the identity and edibility of any plant before you eat it. These edible wilds tend to be outstanding in nutrition. However, few are very appealing to the average palette. This is why we often cultivate the tastier, yet less durable cousins. However, some are really quite tasty, such as miner's lettuce and mallow. Others, such as dandelion, have quite a bitter flavor. You can get them at their sweetest in spring, before they bloom, but they are still fairly bitter. Remember, however, that bitter isn't necessarily bad (think celery, coffee, or unsweetened chocolate), it just depends upon your tastes. So try mixing a little dandelion in with a mix of salad greens that you like. Or add them, at the last minute to a stir-fry or pasta sauce.
My favorite use of weeds is chicken feed. A paddock with sufficient greenery will easily cut the demand for commercial chicken feed in half or better, especially for breeds that are good foragers, such as buff orpingtons or wellsummers. My chickens definitely have their favorite weeds. Dandelion tops the list. They will swarm me if they think I have some (even if their paddock is full of dandelion). They also adore lambsquarters and plantain.
My 10 Favorite Weeds
It was difficult to narrow the list down to ten, but here they are, my favorite weeds:
- Dandelion. How do I love thee; let me count the ways: Some of the first greens in spring, dandelions make a tasty, bitter salad. Then come the cheerful, sunny-yellow flowers brightening up the yard after a dreary winter. These flowers are also the delight of pollinators who have little fodder so early in spring. My chickens just adore the calcium-rich leaves of this volunteer plant. They can devour all the dandelions in their paddock and yet full, new leaves will have sprung back by the time the birds are returned to that paddock just a few weeks later. Free chicken feed! If that is not enough, you can make a caffiene-free coffee substitute from the roots or dandelion wine from the blossoms. Incidentally, if you ever want to get rid of them, all you need to do is lay down a layer of cardboard and sheet mulch right over them.
- Lamb's Quarters. Less bitter than dandelions, the dusty-looking leaves of lamb's quarters are a great spinach substitute. I enjoy the vitamin- and mineral-rich leaves in green smoothies. The chickens also enjoy this treat. Susceptible to leaf miners, this weed can be a trap plant to protect other crops that are susceptible to leaf miners such as spinach, beets, and chard. Pick off infected leaves, squeeze the leaf to destroy larva and burn it or throw it in the garbage.1
- Plantain. Rich in protein, plantain comes in both narrow leaf and round leaf varieties, and both are useful for food, medicine, and fodder. It is easy transplant to a desirable location, and can withstand grazing. The leaves can be crushed and used to soothe a bee sting. These leaves are best when young and cooked. I like them sauteèd with onions.
- Miners lettuce is a treat for people and chickens. Also known as claytonia, it has a slightly tangy flavor goes well in salads. Miners lettuce thrives in shade and prefers moist-well drained soils. In fact, it really thrives in my gravel paths in spring. This is a great weed to have in your winter salad garden. With protection it will feed you all winter long. Eliot Coleman describes growing claytonia in cold frames all winter in his zone 5 garden in his book Four Season Harvest.
- Purslane, a succulent, makes a great, low-growing, ground cover. It adds a tasty crunch to salads and sandwiches. Like spinach, it is high in phytic acid so it should be eaten in moderation.
- Goldenrod has a bad reputation for causing allergic reactions, but it is unlikely to be the culprit because the pollen is too heavy to become airborne. I include it in my garden just for the beautiful, abundant, late-summer blossoms and the pollinators they attract. The airial parts (flowers) can be used to make a chamomile-like tea for colds or urinary tract infections. Avoid consuming goldenrod if you have kidney problems.
- Evening primrose. A valuable edible and medicinal plant, evening primrose carries a lovely display of yellow, night-blooming flowers. The whole plant is edible and especially tasty in the spring. This one is worth cultivating.
- Mullien. The fuzzy leaves of this bienniel make effective cough-suppressant when brewed as a tea. Dried leaves will keep until winter colds come. The yellow flower spikes grow six feet tall and are considered ornamental and are popular in English cottage gardens. I have been told that the leaves make a good substitute for toilet paper, but I can't vouch for that.
- Clover is such a delightfully soft ground cover whose deep roots keep it green long after the surrounding lawn has turned brown. It needs no fertilizer because its symbiotic root nodules generate plenty of nitrogen. White clover makes a lovely lawn substitute, and red clover makes a dainty, yet taller ground cover.
- Mallow is my favorite wild salad green because of its mild flavor. It is also great in smoothies. Its mucilaginous leaves are excellent for digestion.
So the next time you see a weed in your yard consider whether you really want to get rid of it, or if it might be worth it to let it grow for food, mulch, beauty, bee forage, or chicken fodder. There is a time and a place for weeding, of course:
- Just as you thin the radishes in the garden to allow some to thrive, it is important to remove weeds that are hindering other plants.
- Few people want thistles of any kind around, no matter how nutruitious they may be.
- It may also be worthwhile to remove weeds if they strain relationships with neighbors or family members.
- You may want to limit the number of weeds allowed to go to seed.
On the other hand, if you have a place where some dandelions or lambsquarters won't bother anyone or any other plant, go for it. See what you can do with these perfectly adapted plants.