“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878
Keeping your garden tidy can seem like a never-ending duel between you and the crafty undomesticated plants we call weeds. But don’t forget that the ancestors of every common garden plant were once considered weeds themselves. That was until we discovered their merits and began to mold and tame their wild ways to suit our culinary or agricultural preferences.
Many plants that are still classified as weeds though have received a bad reputation due to their ability to quickly cultivate the barren earth. But was fertile soil really meant to be left bare?* Could it be that weeds are serving a much-needed purpose in your garden or lawn? And could it be that these pesky weeds are in fact just as nutritious, or more so, than the plants you’re “protecting” from them?
Let’s explore what some of these “pesky” common weeds have to offer for both your health and the health of your garden.
*Much of the nutrients in soil are lost to the elements when the ground is left bare, either by being baked out (by the sun) or washed out (by rain.)
NB: Although many weeds are beneficial to have in your garden, I am not recommending that you simply let them run rampant. Having a beautiful healthy garden is about maintaining a balance between protecting and nourishing the soil and managing the growth of all the plants you are caring for. We still weed our garden selectively, after the weeds have had a chance to break up and fertilize the soil.
“A weed is but an unloved flower.”
~Ella Wheeler Wilcox
This is my personal favorite weed. It is soft to step on, has beautiful flowers and protects and fertilizes soil at the same time.
Companion plant for: Brassica (cabbage and its cousins like broccoli and cauliflower), corn, cucurbits (cucumber, squash, melons, gourds). Along with clover’s ability to bring nitrogen back into depleted soil (hosts nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its roots) clover also benefits many plants by stabilizing the moisture around their roots.
Edibility: Clover is a high-protein legume, but is not generally eaten, although it is a viable food source.
Advisory: Do not grow near nightshades (tomato, pepper, eggplant).
This plant can overtake a garden quickly, but you get even by simply eating it.
Japanese Knotweed [Fallopia japonica]:
Companion plant for: Unknown. This is classified as a noxious weed and is unwise to plant purposely.
Attracts/hosts: Butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Edibility: This weed is edible and easy to harvest. Simply break off the new shoots and the top four inches of larger plants. They can be sautéed or grilled like asparagus. This plant is also compared to rhubarb and can be used in the same fashion.
Advisory: Do not intentionally plant this in your garden as it can quickly take over. Best to harvest for dinner if you see it growing on your property.
Stinging nettles are nutritious, make a wonderful fertilizer for your garden and contain many medicinal properties.
Nettles [Urtica Dioica]:
Companion Plant for: Broccoli, tomato, Valarian, mint, fennel.
Edibility: Despite its “sting”, much of the plant is edible, when blanched, steamed or dried. Stinging nettles are an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C, as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc. They have been used to treat conditions like arthritis and seasonal allergies for many years.
Advisory: It is best to carefully dig this weed out of the garden (with gloves on) and keep it in a pot. Although this plant is worth having around, its sting is still painful.
Japanese Knotweed photo by: thelazygardener
“A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”
I still remember the joy of picking dandelion puffballs and blowing their soft seeds into the air. While those that dream of a weed-free lawn or garden might shudder at the idea, dandelions have much more to offer than amusement to a child.
Companion plant for: Various grains and tomato plants. Dandelion tap roots break up hardened soil and bring up nutrients from deep down, benefiting plants with weaker or shallower roots without competing with them.
Edibility: Young leaves and flowers are edible and delicious fresh in a salad, while older greens are better steamed or stir-fried. Dandelions are high in iron, potassium, beta-carotene and vitamins A, C and D. Both the leaves and root can also be made into a wonderful detox tea. If you happen to live with a rescued rabbit, they will also love this nutritious addition to their usual diet.
The plantain family is an important group of weeds for anyone interested in natural medicine to know about.
Companion plant for: Unknown.
Edibility: Remove the ribs and eat leaves steamed or fresh in a salad (the seeds are also edible.) Plantain leaves have been used medicinally both internally and externally for thousands of years. Internal usage: cholesterol, constipation, diabetes, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, indigestion, irritable bowel, kidney/bladder inflammation, liver problems, mouth ulcers/canker sores, liver problems, uterine tonic. External usage: bites/stings, eczema/psoriasis, cuts/bleeding wounds, leucorrhea/yeast, rashes/contact dermatitis, toothaches, ulcers/cold sores, varicose veins.
Advisory: Do to plantain’s medicinal nature and edibility it is worth growing somewhere in your garden whether it volunteers itself or not.
Common Chickweed [Stellaria media]:
Companion plant for: I have found that chickweed is best pulled out of the garden or grown in a patch of its own (see “Advisory” section).
Edibility: Chickweed is nutritious and a wonderful addition to a fresh salad. This creeping annual is high in vitamins A, D and B, as well as minerals like iron, calcium and potassium. Chickweed is used as a diuretic, an appetite suppressant and to help treat asthma, allergies and bronchitis.
Advisory: Chickweed can overtake other plants very quickly, so keep on top of harvesting this fast growing plant.
Purslane is enjoyed in a number of countries as a salad or stir-fry green. It is not only pretty to look at, but an excellent source of essential nutrients.
Purslane [Portulaca oleracea]:
Companion plant for: Corn, solanums (like tomatoes and peppers).
Edibility: Purslane contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. It is also high in antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E, and essential minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium. You can enjoy it in a salad, stir-fried, or cooked like spinach (the berries are also eaten like capers.) It has also been used to treat gastrula intentional gastro-intestinal disorders, as well as to relieve sores and insect or snake bites on the skin.
Advisory: In the Gentle World garden, I have noticed that purslane does seem to crowd out young shoots, but does not seem to affect established plants. For this reason, I think it is best to harvest purslane growing near young shoots until they mature.
Sheep sorrel has a tangy flavor and many wonderful medicinal properties.
Sheep’s Sorrel [Rumex acetosella] :
Companion plant for: Sheep’s sorrel is a weed worth growing in your garden, so if you find it thriving there, naturally leave as much as you can without overcrowding other plants.
Edibility: This weed has wonderful health benefits. It is one of the plants in the Essiac formula (a recipe purported to aid cancer sufferers) and Native American Camas Prairie tea. Sorrel is great in soups, salads and sauces as its tangy sour flavor works well in most meals.
Advisory: Experiment with allowing sheep’s sorrel to grow underneath taller plants.
This weed is not only beautiful, but many enjoy having it around as well.
Ground Ivy [Glechoma hederacea]:
Companion plant for: Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and their relatives (squash, melons), broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower.
Repels: Cabbage worms, cucumber worms and beetles, tomato horn worms and other detrimental insects.
Edibility: Ground ivy has long been used in traditional medicine for issues such as inflammation of the eyes, tinnitus, as well as a gentle stimulant, diuretic, astringent and overall tonic. It can be used in herbal tea and is high in vitamin C.
The purple flowers in this picture are wild vetch*. Vetch is a wonderful green manure and cover crop. As you can see from this picture though, it can grow quite tall so it is best to allow it to flourish in between crops.
Wild vetch (Vicia Americana):
Companion plant for: Pepper and tomato plants, brassica (cabbage, mustard, broccoli), other plants needing high nitrogen. This legume fixes nitrogen in the soil.
Atrracts/hosts: Provides ground cover for predatory beetles.
Edibility: Some species of vetch may be poisonous, so it’s best not to eat any form.
Avisory: Vetch is best used as a green cover crop. Allow it to grow until two weeks before planting and then till the vetch into the soil (although it can also be grown alongside plants from the brassica family to provide additional nitrogen and maintain moisture in the soil.)
*There are many varieties of vetch.
As you can see, many common weeds have more to them than meets the eye. Get to know the weeds in your garden and listen to what they are telling you about the condition of your soil. They have much to offer in terms of creating a healthy garden or meal!
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com