Weedy, By Design.
Updated: Jan 8
As much as I love to tout the edible aspects of our not-so-beloved local wild plants—like dandelion, Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, and burdock, to name a few—sometimes weed control isn’t just about spraying, pulling, or eating all our yard problems away. Sometimes we really (REALLY) just want to bring our yard back to its pristine and perfect condition, ASAP. Humans tend to default toward forceful eradication (pulling or spraying) to achieve this goal. However, removing the weeds before considering the reason for their purpose removes useable clues to improving our yard’s health. According to a University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources paper, “weeds can play a valuable role in a long-term, successful strategy to displace them and favor the desired turfgrass area.”
Like us, Mother Nature loves a beautiful balance. When it comes to soil, she achieves this by rotating her crops to create the ideal ecosystem. That’s right: Mother Nature invented crop rotation! Unwanted vegetation is a sign something is out of whack in your dirt. Do you have off-kilter pH, a lack of nutrients (e.g. calcium, oxygen, nitrogen), or another issue like compacted soil or unhealthy drainage? Whether we like it or not, weeds grow in our yards by Nature’s design in order to alleviate and correct these soil imbalances. Understanding how to “read” weeds can help you get your yard beautiful again, sooner.
Weeds are “pioneer plants”. They’re species that rapidly grow to cover bare soil and begin performing one or more vital ecological functions when an ecosystem is at risk. They’re critical to ecological succession, which is the process of transitioning from unhealthy, infertile land to a mature, healthy ecosystem. As much as we hate weeds, their primary job is to bring unhealthy ground back to life, pronto! TenthAcreFarm.com blogger Amy likens weeds to ecological EMTs. Their job is to “stop the bleeding” (stop nutrients and dirt from washing or blowing away), and then “resuscitate breathing” (reestablishing those lost nutrients).
But leaving everything to the weeds takes quite a bit of time, decades, even centuries. Mother Nature is an undoubtedly powerful force, but she’s slower to work sometimes than most people would like! Farmers learned to help her along by adding nutrients to the soil through the cover crop process (a cover crop is “a crop grown for the protection (cover) and enrichment of the soil”) or via use of fertilizers. An example of cover crop is when farmers plant soybeans in order to re-establish nitrogen levels in soil that corn depleted the previous growing season(s). Other nitrogen-restoring legumes used as cover crops include clover, alfalfa, peas, and fava beans.
So, instead of thinking of them as “weeds”, maybe we ought to look at fast-growing plant misfits as Mother Nature’s cover crop, put there to bring back the good.
For instance, as annoying as they are, dandelions are usually put to work in soil that is often too acidic. Their long taproots break up and aerate hard dirt and pull alkaline nutrients like calcium from deeper ground back up to topsoil. Imitating what the dandelions already do will help them finish their job and move on quicker, so to speak. So, if you have a dandelion problem, consider aerating and then adding calcium to your soil with limestone, gypsum, or even powdered oyster or egg shells… and watch the dandelions move on!
Clover is another unwelcome cover crop. It’s a legume—like soybeans!—and puts nitrogen back into soil. You can either let it handle the task solo, or you can hurry things along by adding coffee grounds, composted manure, or a nitrogen-rich fertilizer like Milorganite to your lawn.
Some weeds are equal opportunity growers and, despite our best efforts, remain clumsy compasses for pointing us in the right direction to determine what, exactly, is the matter with our yard’s dirt. Broadleaf plantain is one such weed. It will grow in overly fertile soil as well as poorly fertilized soil; wet soil as well as in dry; acidic as well as in alkaline! A difficult weed to read, indeed!
Admittedly, sometimes there’s nothing else to do except kill the weeds. Burdock is one of my huge annoyances (literally huge: They can grow up to 6.5 feet!), especially because it turns ugly, mean, and makes a mess of everything every autumn with its thousands of burrs. Come to find out, burdock probably grows here in droves because our soil is high in potassium! One cause of high potassium is soil filled with clay or rocks, which leech the water-soluble mineral slowly into the surrounding earth. Yep. “Rocks” and “clay” pretty much describes all the ground where burdock grows on our property. There’s no way I can remove all the rocks or clay (one tactic to reduce potassium in soil) from multiple acres, so the best bet I have to getting rid of the invasive burdock is to either prevent them from multiplying by cutting off the flowers before they go to seed or spraying them until they’re eradicated. I do both with great pleasure.
That said, sometimes a weed is just a weed in the most basic of terms: annoying, out of place, unwanted. Even if it is there by design.
 V Wallace, A Seigel-Miles. “Weeds as Indicators of Soil and Growing Conditions in Turf,” UConn College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. 26March2018. URL: http://ipm.uconn.edu/documents/raw2/1296/3-26-18%20IndicatorWeedsofTurf.pdf.
 M Schonbeck. “An Ecological Understanding of Weeds”, eXtension Foundation, 20Aug2013. URL: https://articles.extension.org/pages/18529/an-ecological-understanding-of-weeds.
 Plantain is featured in almost every category of this GardeningKnowHow.com article. URL: www.gardeningknowhow.com/lawn-care/lgen/what-the-weeds-in-your-lawn-are-telling-you.htm.