Weeds photo

The Power of Weeds

May 18, 2015 2:33 pm

Published by Craven Construction

What is a weed?

What is a weed? Ignore Webster’s definition. From a practical standpoint, a weed is a plant that’s growing on it’s own, you didn’t plant it – and you don’t see a value in it. Perhaps the last point is the most critical, we don’t see the value – and I assure you there is one. Their jobs are varied, and they’re usually very hard working.

Why are they growing there?

The answer is a little complex, depending on what “weed” we’re talking about. The general answer is it’s fixing something. Weeds both repair soil and water, and fill vacancies in the ecosystem. The very presence of weeds indicates that there is something wrong or missing in the soil or water.

Nature doesn’t just plant rows and rows of the same thing. The full expression of a local ecosystem contains more than half a dozen “layers”. When one of these layers is empty, a weed springs up to fill the void both physically and functionally. The truth is, there are “weed seeds” in the soil at staggering levels… most of the time they’re dormant. When the conditions are right for them to germinate, they will.

Phragmites perennial grass

Phragmites – Bioremediator for Heavy Metals

Some seeds require soil to be very loose, or very compacted. Other seeds jump in to fix nutrient deficiencies in the soil, and still others grow to filter water that’s been contaminated (a process called bioremediation). The problems that trigger their growth are precisely the things they often work to fix. There are even seeds that don’t germinate unless they’ve been exposed to extreme heat – so you’ll see them growing after a forest fire.

Why should I and the environment care?

Would you believe there’s some functions weeds do better than other “more desirable” plants? Some plants (weeds more so) are working hard mining in the soil. They’ll drive down deep roots, and find the rocks. Through a process of interaction with soil bacteria and fungus, these plants (called dynamic accumulators) receive nutrients essential for the plant, other plants around it, the soil, and even animals that eat them.

When a farmer finds a nutrient deficiency in his crops, he often turns to a supplement of that nutrient to boost the health of his crop. Nature does this too, but much better. While the farmer can put a huge amount of the nutrient on/in the plant, it might just end up as a pollutant. His or her crops need the nutrient in a bio-available form that nature provides through dynamic accumulation. One form of dynamic accumulation is referred to as “nitrogen fixation”, actually works with bacteria to pull nitrogen from the air. Nitrogen being that much needed nutrient to green up your lawn or veggies.

Many weeds have very potent medicinal qualities, both in a do-it-yourself fashion, and in a “don’t try this at home” way. Many more articles can be written just about this. Everything from healing cuts and burns, pain relief, stomach discomfort and more. A plant called Digitalis (commonly Foxglove) has toxic properties as many medicinals can but is still used today in hospitals as a heart medication.

In addition to being of medicinal value, many weeds are edible. Some of them are downright delicious. Surprisingly one of the nastiest weeds is one of the best dynamic accumulators and one that is actually served in many high-end restaurants. That’s right Stinging Nettle is actually considered by some a delicacy.

As a well-rounded conservationist category of plants, these undesirables also provide habitat to a wide range of beneficial insects. Beneficial insects? You bet. Nature has it’s own pest control. The bugs that eat your tasty fruits and vegetables are a meal to some other insect, or arachnid, or bird. These garden helpers will help cut down on loss to invading bugs, help pollinate, and speed the decomposition of the dead plants. Importantly, these plants offer a food source to some precariously endangered species of bees without which we’re really in trouble.

How do I get rid of them?

Many people that struggle with weeds often find that no matter what they try, weeds keep coming back. Even if you make the soil virtually uninhabitable, you’ll find weeds might even thrive. That’s going the wrong way. Since weeds try to improve the soil or water, we need to speed that process up. As soil becomes more fertile, the weeds actually can’t survive, and through succession, give way to more productive plants. We accelerate that process by providing better soil. This is best accomplished using techniques like composting, as it makes nutrients more available to the plants and the soil life. A dump or a spray isn’t the right answer. You can however make use of some very good organic nitrogen fertilizer, and other soil amendments including composted plants.

Plant diversity. Since nature doesn’t plant just one species in an area, you shouldn’t either. Focus on planting more things you like, of a variety of heights. Perennials grow back back year after year, and prevent tilling. What’s wrong with tilling? It makes the soil loose again, and weeds will spring up to fix that. For observant gardeners and homeowners, identifying what plants are already there can give you clues to what’s missing in the soil, and tell you what plants to substitute if you decide to pull out the weed. You don’t have to plant a different weed though, other decorative, edible or medicinal plants can be selected.

For lawns: In addition to planting several species of grass-like plants, try leaving your grass a little longer. This allows the roots to develop into a weed barrier, and actually slows the growth of the grass so you can spend more time enjoying, and less time maintaining your yard. For more information, on cutting and watering in a more natural way check out Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy. (Not implying anything, that’s just the name of the article). A final thought on lawns. There’s no limit to the diversity you can add and still have an inviting lawn. I’ve seen lawns that look perfectly normal almost the whole year, but for a week or two in the spring have a covering of beautiful purple flowers. It’s really quite a sight.

Plants can tell us a lot about what’s wrong, and they can do a lot to fix it. We can speed that process up, or we can interrupt them. If the underlying causes of weed growth aren’t addressed, we’re not going to keep them gone without regular applications of toxins, which eventually lead to more weeds. Know that healthy soil leads to healthier and more desirable plants; and healthier plants also help repel garden pests. It’s food for thought the next time you see a weed.

Further reading on Bioremediation and Dynamic Accumulation values of specific plants.

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This post was written by Craven Construction