Weeds! Who gets to determine what is a weed and what is a useful plant filled with nutrition and medicinal purpose? Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed is just "a plant whose virtues have not been discovered.” I have a hard time "weeding” on our farm because half of them I keep around for food, and the other half I leave because of what they are doing to heal the soil.
How Do Weeds Heal the Soil?
From a biodynamic perspective, all weeds are beneficial to the soil in some way. They have different ways of fixing nutrients into the soil. They give us information about our soil, and when we learn their language, we can easily look over a property to understand its deficiencies and problems without breaking ground.
If left alone, there’s a progression of weeds in Mother Nature’s arsenal that restores soil health and balance. She can afford to be more patient than we can. If you can strike a balance with your garden that allows some of the work to be done by these experts while ensuring light, air and nutrition for your fragile annuals, you will be a truly successful gardener!
Here are five so-called weeds commonly found in our garden that are actually doing beneficial work.
1. Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Courtesy Tom Brandt/Flickr
That’s right! Canada thistle, aka creeping thistle, is actually very important to the health of your garden. The thistle family is high in potassium and can therefore benefit the soil when tilled back in or added to the compost pile.
You’ll also likely find ladybugs hiding in the leaves. Beware pulling all your thistles as, in our experience these beneficial bugs prefer hanging out here.
The best characteristic of thistle is its ability to break up hardpan soil in areas of heavy clay. If you cut the top half of the thistle off after it has bloomed and been pollinated, it will wither and die, preventing the spread of seeds and readying it to be turned back into the soil.
If you choose to let Canada thistle grow on your property, take advantage of its health properties, as well. Harvest the leaves and add to tea as a natural diuretic.
2. Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
As a member of the bean and pea (Fabaceae) family, red clover is a welcome weed on any newly disturbed soil, where there’s a need for improved nitrogen content. In fact, some farmers grow it as a cover crop. Red clover has the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil by way of its roots. Allow it to grow in your flower beds as cheap fertilizer. You can also harvest its medicinal blooms for yourself and cut it down several times throughout the season to feed to your animals or to turn back into the soil for an added bonus.
3. Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Burdock is very beneficial to the body because of its high mineral content, and the way it retrieves those minerals makes it important for soil conditioning. One of the best ways to quickly heal a new garden patch is to grow a crop of burdock root, aka gobo root.
Burdock has a long taproot capable of busting up hardpan on its way to accessing minerals that have washed down into the subsoil. Dig up your burdock root in the spring of the second year before you get into a problem with seed dispersal.
4. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
This weed is either loved or hated. For those who can’t see past its sting, there’s much to be missed. In the herbal health realm, we know nettle as a nutritional superstar, with benefits ito the urinary tract, as well as the reproductive, digestive and circulatory systems, but it has major benefits to the soil, as well. Nettle is especially good at stimulating humus formation, but it can also increase the keeping power of vegetables and increase the volatile oil content of herbs growing near it. It’s been found to help plants growing in rows nearby to be more resistant to fungus and disease.
Although you might find nettles in unwanted areas all around your farm, they’re actually difficult to "cultivate.” I’ve tried starting plants from seed and have also transplanted from a neighbor’s farm with very little success. If you have some growing on your property, it’s worth growing a garden nearby.
5. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Courtesy Blonde Bomb/Flickr
On our farm, we let dandelion grow in the garden until it begins to bloom. Like nettles, this weed is adept at stimulating humus formation, and you’ll find that earthworms congregate underneath them. With their deep taproots, they help to move minerals, especially calcium, from far below the surface up to the topsoil level. When it blooms it can stunt the growth of plants in its vicinity, so be sure to harvest it by that point.
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About the Author: Dawn Combs has more than 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a bachelor’s degree in botany and humanities/classics from Ohio Wesleyan University. She is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows, a medicinal herb and honey farm near Columbus, Ohio, where she consults with women and their partners on issues of hormonal imbalance, oversees the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary and operates the Ohio Eclectic Herbal Institute.