Weeds not only have virtues, they can be downright beneficial

Admittedly, I don’t like weeding. The winter rains transform my garden into a lush garden of never-before-planted plants.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described weed as “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” For most gardeners, weeds are plants that grow in the wrong places. But when we put on the cap of sustainable gardening, weeds have a lot to be grateful for. Some weeds are edible, while others can be added to your compost pile if done carefully.

A new study highlights the importance of weed flowers to pollinators.

You can learn to read weed. If you can identify weed patches, you know the condition of the soil where the weeds are growing. Look at the roots of weeds to see if they have deep taproots like dandelions and plantains. This usually indicates that the soil is compacted in the area, preventing plants with thinner roots from taking root. As the root decomposes, it creates pathways for water and nutrients. Weeds with a net-like root system, like clover, indicate that the soil is loose and may be eroding.

Photo by James Campbell

As the name suggests, cucumbers are not edible. Properly identify weeds before eating them.

The type of weeds growing in your garden also tells you whether the soil is alkaline or acidic. Mullein and stinging nettle prefer acidic soils, while chickweed and chickweed grow in alkaline soils.

Ragweed, lamb quarter, common groundsell, and purslane can all be found in nitrogen-rich, fertile soils. Oxalis prefers soils that are low in calcium and high in magnesium. Mustard prefers soil rich in phosphorus.

Weeds can be a sign that your soil needs help. Use the cues provided by weeds to help the soil recover.

Many weeds we find in our garden are edible. Chickweed, lamb quarters, purslane, and dandelions can all be added fresh and free to salads. Nettles can be cooked and used as a spinach substitute in any recipe. Make sure you are correctly identifying what you are about to eat. The University of California provides excellent online tutorials and information at ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/weeds_intro.html.

If you don’t like eating weeds, think of them as a way to add them to the compost pile you use to nourish and nourish the soil in your garden. It can be left alone or added to a compost bin. Cut them down before they bloom and let them dry completely before adding them to your compost. Care should be taken to ensure that the compost does not become a weed incubator. Always consider fire-safe landscaping practices in your weed management strategy.

The small yellow flowers of wild mustard are one of the most abundant sources of pollen seen by bees all year round.  (Photo by James Campbell)

Photo by James Campbell

The small yellow flowers of wild mustard are one of the most abundant sources of pollen seen by bees all year round.

A new study from the University of Sussex in the UK reveals the importance of weeds to pollinators. This study compared the biodiversity value of weeds to plants that support pollinator health. Researchers observed that insects visited weed flowers such as ragweed and thistle at a much higher rate than wildflowers that support the recommended pollinators. One of the reasons for its popularity was the open flower structure that allows access to several different pollinator species.

Another finding was that weeds, on average, produced more nectar than many flowers supporting pollinators. but stressed the need to also consider the value of pollinators to global biodiversity, ecosystem resilience and agricultural production.

This winter, I’m looking at weeds in a slightly different way. No longer enemies, but partners in sustainable gardening practices.

The University of California Marine Master Gardeners, sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension, provides science and research-based information for marine home gardeners. Email your questions to helpdesk@marinmg.org. Please attach photos for inquiries about plant diseases and pests. Call 415-473-4910 to confirm the hours the Master Gardener is in the office. There is a sample box outside the office so the marine gardener can bring her samples 24/7. To attend gardening workshops at marinmg.ucanr.edu/ASK_US/EVENTS, please visit our events calendar. Subscribe to the UC Marin Master Gardener’s free quarterly e-newsletter Leaflet at marinmg.ucanr.edu.

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