We have seen the coldest night of the season less than one week ago, yet it felt like a balmy spring day not two days earlier. Our official last frost date is fast approaching, and then (even if unofficially), spring will be here. Meadows have already started turning green, peppered with beautiful whites, yellows, and purples. It is the time of year when people begin thinking about fertilizing their lawns and… killing their weeds.
What Makes Them “Weeds”?
Things I’ve never really understood about weeds, is what makes them “weeds” and why they are undesirable. On the surface, it kind of makes sense… They can be “invasive.” They can look like a blemish in what would otherwise be an artificially green mat of monoculture grass. This monoculture often requires large quantities of water in a region that has been in drought status for over a decade. The most desirable “lawn health” requires external input of fertilizers, which often come in the form of synthetic and/or petroleum derived formulas. An untold number of applications include herbicide(s) in effort to, again, kill weeds.
What happens if you DON’T irrigate? What if you don’t add external fertilizers? What if you just.. let it go for a while?
You tend to end up with something that resembles the native prairie regions where road trips are taken and the colors and shapes of the Texas wild flowers are admired. In this part of the country, this usually includes winery tours and lots of pictures taken of the beauty of the Texas wild. (personally, I don’t consider it terribly hard on the eyes) This is what the Blackland Prairie looks like. There is texture, dimension, ecological balance, resilience, and it is a challenge to walk through. I believe it is this last element that makes people tear it up and replace it with Fescue, St. Augustine, or, my least favorite.. Bermuda grass (insert sinister music).
What’s worse, popular grass varieties that are planted here tend to be officially listed as invasive species themselves, and are the source of great frustration (and untold amounts of glyphosate being produced, transported, bought, sold, and intentionally inserted into the local water table) when someone decides that they would like to grow something other than grass.
What Gardening Usually Entails
People will usually till the soil (which is a whole topic unto itself that we may write about another time), or if they are sustainable-savvy, they’ll heavily lasagna mulch with newspaper or cardboard, finished compost, and wood mulch, leaves, or straw. In our region, this will often also include soil amendments like expanded shale, greensand, vermiculite, sphagnum peat moss, or other additives intended to aid drainage and/or hold water.
I wonder how many have wondered how the beautiful swaths of wildflowers and butterflies cope without such additions. Have you? Where do weeds come from? Why do they pop up where they’re not wanted?
What Weeds Do
When we bought our house, the previous owners did mow the “lawn”, and that’s pretty much the extent of their outdoor maintenance. The fence needs work, there was once a retaining wall that has since eroded out of use, and the existing trees had not been pruned in years. My grandfather gifted us a fig tree (he had a fig forest before his local municipal utilities tore it up.. pro-tip: don’t plant a food forest over utility lines), and I could not help but notice how good our soil is. I remember thinking about that a lot over the rest of the spring/summer, and observed the land, doing nothing but trimming it down with a mower when necessary. In most places, the rich black topsoil is at least a foot deep before you start hitting pure clay.
I also noticed an abundance of life. Worms, insects, rabbits, and birds seem to feel right at home. What is the secret to naturally rich soil?
One word: Biomass
What are commonly referred to as weeds are what we call “pioneer plants.” They grow where nothing else will. They work the soil, and continually add biomass. Rabbits come and eat the greens on the ground, irrigate with liquid nitrogen, and leave behind phosphorous-rich balls of fertility. When weeds finish their life cycle, their roots are left in the soil, which end up as humus after decomposing(which results in what is referred to as “tilth”), and the dead foliage becomes mulch to feed and protect the soil at the surface. The earthworms come up to eat the decaying organic matter, which aerate the soil, and release castings. These castings are chock full of bacteria that serve to improve the soil’s microbiology. This feeds the fungal network that hold and transport water, and extract the nutrients in humus to make them available to the plants who even the deal by exchanging photosynthesized carbohydrates in return. As the cycle continues, the support system improves, diversity increases, and the whole local ecosystem benefits.
I can tell you that working the soil in a yard with typical irrigated and managed monoculture grass is not nearly so rewarding.. plus, it takes a lot more time, energy, money, and resources to maintain. Which begs the question once more: why do we build landscapes this way?
Admittedly, some of us live within the confines of a Home Owners Association. In a case like that, the best you can do is be active in your HOA, and work to impress upon the minds of your community members the importance of changing rules for the benefit of everyone.
If you are fortunate as we are, to not have a Home Owners Association, your only limitations are in your city’s code. Thankfully, ours is fairly vague, with emphasis on truly important issues like fences not falling over, and preventing erosion. Others in a similar situation are free to let their land “go native” (to the extent that they are comfortable with) to help prevent erosion, build soil, save water, avoid water pollution, stop financially supporting the exploitation of natural resources, and have more time and money in pocket for more important things (like family, gardening, camping, hiking, spending time with friends, whatever is important to you).
The Hidden Benefit
In the modern world, we now regard exotic cuisine as quite ordinary in heavily populated areas. In one block, you can count restaurants and markets oozing with cultural diversity. It is no wonder that dandelions have become increasingly present on produce shelves in supermarkets. These same plants grow of their own volition in places where a lot of people don’t want them. They are despised as weeds, and a stone’s throw away, are highly regarded for their extremely nutritious leaves.
Many Weeds are Edible
Dandelions are not an anomaly in this regard. Purslane is edible, and delicious on pasta with tomato sauce, might I add. Henbit dead-nettle has beautiful purple flowers, and is in the mint family. It is also delicious raw, with a taste that is sweet, and somewhere between spinach and mint. There are lots of others. Creeping Charlie is another. There are simply too many to list in an article that is not about foraging. Do your own research, be careful, and appreciate the abundance of nature if we just stop trying so hard to suppress it.
Cut, Don’t Pull
While talking about ideals is fine and good, rarely is there a time when the ideal is compatible with the present reality. Yes, there are situations in which one simply cannot let these pioneer plants do their job(e.g. – a business, a church, a strict HOA…). How can we reap the benefit from the pioneer plant’s nature while removing the blight from our landscape? The first and easiest course of action is to simply cut it at soil level. This leaves the tap root where it is most beneficial, adding organic matter and improving the texture and carbon content of the soil as it decomposes.
Won’t it come back? It depends on the weed in question, the species of grass (or other ground-cover) surrounding it, and the health of the weed before it was cut. The plant exerts a lot of energy growing new leaves for photosynthesis. Plants are always colonized by microbiology. When the plant is healthy, they are extremely beneficial in their symbiotic relationship. When the plant is weak and does not have enough energy stores to produce leaves for more energy production while still feeding the microbes, it is consumed by them, and becomes part of the soil food web.
If the Weed is in excellent health
If the undesirable weed is in excellent health, I generally want to leave it alone as much as possible to do its job. In situations where it must be removed, it is sure to come back if it is merely cut at soil level. If there are very few weeds (or if you don’t mind spending the time for the good of your soil), you can simply cut it back again until it is too weak to come back.
For what I assume is most people, this isn’t a viable solution. In this case, I would cut the soil around the root so as to remove the whole thing. Most people cut a tapered hole roughly the shape of the root, and discard the whole plug. When doing this, however, you’ve just lost that amount of topsoil that could have become even better topsoil. Instead, cut it as vertically as possible, so you have more of a cylinder rather than a cone shape. Then, turn the plug upside down, and slide it back into the ground. This isn’t as neat and easy as it sounds, but it isn’t too much trouble, either. You still get the benefit of the biomass, the soil biology, and the resulting tilth. If you’re really worried about appearance, you can even cut some of the root side and insert a plug of sod.
If Weeds Have Completely Taken Over
If weeds have completely taken over, the odds are good that you are not required to maintain a perfectly maintained monoculture lawn. This is not always the case, however, and there are times when it seems like the best solution is to simply start over. Rather than removing the top layer of soil along with the weeds, I prefer to sheet mulch. This is a topic worth covering in more detail, so I will not outline the method in this article. If you are curious, you can look up “sheet mulching” and “lasagna gardening” for more information.
Last, but not least, love your weeds. There’s no such thing as a weed, just a plant in the wrong place.