Many gardeners think of weeds as the bane of their existence. They think of weeds as the enemy and try to rip them out of the ground or kill them with poison wherever they appear. In organic gardening, of course, the use of herbicides and other synthetic weed killers is avoided. But many organic gardeners still bemoan the weeds that grow where they are not wanted. Is it time to change that attitude? Weeds are not a nuisance. As you will discover if you read on, weeds can be useful in your garden in a range of different ways. Instead of thinking of weeds as a problem you need to solve. Start seeing them as an additional crop or resource that your garden is providing for free!
You may be surprised to learn that many common garden weeds are not only edible but also delicious! While you are unlikely to decide to give over your growing areas entirely to edible weeds, allowing a few to grow around and between your cultivated food crops can be a good way to add extra nutrition to your diet, to bulk out spring and summer salads, or to use like spinach in a range of cooked recipes. Weeds can be particularly useful as an edible in spring, during what is sometimes referred to as the 'hungry gap'. If you grow your own food, you may well be aware that this gap, when there is less to eat, comes after stored winter produce has run out but before crops are ready to harvest from late spring. When you consider fresh spring weeds and fresh spring greens, you will find it a lot easier to eat from your own garden all year round.
Also, if you eat the weeds, you are keeping them down while getting a useful yield at the same time, so weeding won't seem like such a chore. Weeding will seem a lot less tiresome if you are harvesting at the same time.
Edible Weeds in the UK:
Wherever you live in the UK, it is likely that you will find many edible weeds within one hundred yards of your front door! Likely, you will find one or more of these plants in your back garden.Edible weeds in the UK include: stinging nettles (picked with gloves and prepared with care but absolutely delicious, slightly sweeter than spinach), dandelions (bitter young leaves great in a mixed salad, flower heads to make fritters), sticky weed (galium aparine, delicious in salads or wilted when very young), ground elder (a pesky perennial weed that can be eaten wilted and has a great, slightly celery taste), plantain (not to be confused with the tropical plant, this is a common, leafy weed that can be used just like spinach, kale or cabbage) and a range of other greens such as purslane, chickweed, lamb's quarters and Good King Henry, all of which are versatile and delicious additions to your diet.
While the above are all relatively easy to identify, it should go without saying that you should only eat weeds that you are 100% sure that you have identified correctly. It is also worth noting that you should not eat weeds that may have been sprayed with herbicides or other harmful substances. For this reason, it is best not to eat weeds from public parks or verges as these may have been subject to council local authority treatment or contaminated by other substances. In your own garden, however, where you are in control, these weeds are almost always perfectly safe to eat in modest quantities.
In addition to being edible in a range of recipes, some weeds also have medicinal properties and are used in herbal medicine. Dandelions, plantain, dock, and nettles, for example, are all commonly used in natural first-aid and have a range of applications in herbal medicine. While it is not a good idea to self-treat with unregulated quantities of herbal medicine, it is worth bearing in mind that many common weeds can be used in healing. The herbal medicine potential of many common weeds is another reason why we should not take these sturdy and adaptable plants for granted.
Dynamic Accumulators - Feeding Your Soil/ Compost System
Weeds are only be edible, many can also be useful in a wide range of other ways. Some weeds, dandelions, for example, are particularly good at gathering nutrients. Their deep tap roots mean that they acquire nutrients from deep below the soil – reclaiming those nutrients that are beyond the reach of the root systems of other plants. Clovers, also often considered a weed in neat lawns, are also extremely beneficial and are a different sort of accumulator. They work to accumulate nitrogen, working with bacteria in their roots to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates in the soil, which can then be taken up by them and by other plants in their vicinity.
These dynamic accumulator weeds, along with many other weeds in general, can be added to a compost heap or simply “chopped and dropped” as mulch material, to add fertility to the soil of your growing areas. Since dynamic accumulators gather nutrients that other plants cannot, from the air and from deep below the soil surface, dropping these where they grow or adding them to the compost heap is a good way of adding nutrients to the topsoil for the benefit of the plants you are actually cultivating.
Since weeds are often 'weeds' (and therefore unwanted) because they grow so easily and quickly in a garden, this also means that they are a good source of biomass (plant material, which can also be thought of as stored energy from the sun).
Weed Plant Feed
Not all weeds are edible, of course, and some are best not added to a compost heap. Some weeds, such as ground elder, regrow from root sections so easily that they can colonise a compost heap before you know it. The ground elder and other pernicious weeds that you do not harvest for food, however, can still be of use. You can use weeds that cannot go in the compost heap to make a weed based plant feed that can be used as a multi-purpose, nitrogen-rich fertiliser which will give a boost to all leafy vegetables.
To make a weed plant feed, you could also use some of your dynamic accumulator weeds, many of which offer a good balance of the three main plant nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nettles are an excellent source of nitrogen and make an excellent liquid feed, though you can make use of whatever weeds you have to hand.
To make your liquid plant feed:
Place the weeds in a large bin, or other container, with a lid, and cover with water. (Placing them within a fabric mesh bag will make it easier to decant the liquid later and also makes it easier to weigh the weeds down so they are submerged.)
Leave, with lid on, for at least a month to six weeks.
Pour the liquid into a different container.
Dilute the sludgy solution so it is the colour of weak tea.
Use the diluted liquid feed to give a boost to leafy plants.
Crafting With Weeds
Numerous weeds can also have other practical uses. Some weeds can be used for making fibre for paper, fabric or cordage, as in the case of nettles, and many more can be used for making dyes, as with dock, nettles, yarrow, tansy and many more wild plants and 'weeds'. Weeds can be used in many different projects, so another way to make use of the weeds in your garden could be to consider their use for arts and crafts.
Weeds for Wildlife
One final thing to consider about weeds is that they can be useful while in the ground as well as when harvested. Many weeds, as native plants, are ideally suited to the natural environment in your area and so are particularly good at attracting a range of beneficial wildlife to your garden. Consider allowing some weeds to flower and set seed in your garden. When left to grow and flower, many weeds can be the perfect habitat for, or provide food for, a range of pollinators, predatory insects, butterflies and other creatures that can aid you in your organic gardening efforts and help to keep your garden in balance.
Common ragwort, for example, is poisonous to grazing animals, yet is essential for no fewer than 30 different species of insect which depend upon it. Thistles are essential to the painted lady butterfly and the seeds are an important food source for goldfinches. Nettles are eaten by a wide range of caterpillars, including those of the Peacock, Red Admiral and many more. The caterpillars of Small Copper butterflies feed exclusively on docks and sorrels and the seeds also provide food for birds. These are just a few of many examples.
Attracting wildlife and creating a good balance in your garden ecosystem is key to success in an organic garden. So the next time you spot some weeds in a corner of your vegetable patch, don't rip them out and discard them. Think about how useful those weeds could actually be.