Weeds have a bad reputation among gardeners. In fact, having a bad reputation with humans might even be the definition of being a weed! Endless time is spent pulling weeds out, frowning at them, and filling up green-waste disposal bins with their corpses. However, this scorched-earth approach to weeds is rather short-sighted. Used correctly, weeds can be a major asset in the garden. Here are two somewhat surprising ways to use weeds in the garden.
What Are Weeds Good For?
Any piece of bare dirt will rapidly develop plant life. Sadly, that mental image many people have of lovely intentional plants surrounded by attractive-looking dark soil is an absolute fantasy (or an extremely short-lived reality). As anyone who has ever attempted to maintain a garden will know, weeds will grow in anything vaguely dirt-like and several things which in no way resemble dirt, such as bricks, gravel, the little gaps between wooden decking, tiny cracks in concrete … you get the picture.
Plant seeds are constantly blown, dropped, pooped, and exploded all over the place. There is simply no escaping the fact that anywhere a plant can live, it will live. Poisoning vast stretches of your garden to kill all the weeds is an option, but it has the unfortunate side effect of introducing unwanted chemicals to your garden. Manually pulling out weeds by hand is another popular choice, but tends to be effective only in the short term. Indeed, this method induces extreme frustration in gardeners as they watch the weeds instantly spring back into existence!
So, let’s think of it another way. What are weeds good for?
In the remainder of this article, I introduce you to two really beneficial ways to use weeds in the garden.
Using Garden Weeds as a Weed Suppressant
It sounds strange, but weeds suppress other weeds! How, I hear you cry? There are two basic techniques worth considering.
1. Allow the lesser evils to overtake the greater evils
Once you accept that every non-lethal part of your garden will harbor plants, you can stop killing weeds. Instead turn them on one another! For example, dock and oxalis are incredibly difficult to kill; you can subject them to the kind of treatment which would kill any desirable plant a thousand times over, and they just keep coming back. To a dock or oxalis seed, bare soil is like an all-in-one holiday package complete with spending money and free room service; they will immediately move in and never leave.
But what if the dock and oxalis seeds arrived to find not bare soil, but a continuous layer of green?
A seed, even that of a truly tenacious weed, needs appropriate conditions in which to germinate and grow. If your garden is completely covered in some type of plant, newcomer seeds will have a harder time establishing at all and will do so in smaller numbers. It can be expensive to entirely coat your garden in deliberate, desirable, store-bought plants, but it’s absolutely free to let the less-offensive weeds fill the gaps.
Wherever you live in the world, there will be prolific weeds that are easy to remove. You probably have only a few of them (because they’re so easy to kill) and a great many dock, oxalis, bramble, and so on.
So, if change your tactic: make a point of aggressively removing the difficult weeds and leaving the easy weeds where they are. When you buy new plants, simply pull out a few handfuls of the easily removed weeds to make room for the newcomers.
2. Use dead weeds as a weed-mat
Weed matting can be a fantasy. It’s an attractive idea that laying out some fabric or plastic stops weeds in their tracks. Of course, it does not always work (or not 100% effectively, anyway).
Weeds can just as easily grow on top of weed matting once soil and other media accumulate. You could weed the weed mat, but that just feels silly. And digging it up to put it on top of the new weeds has a certain why-would-you-bother? vibe to it.
However, there is hope. After weeding, you will have a big pile of weeds. Instead of throwing weeds away or composting them (your composting worms might not even like them), try putting them on the garden as though they were bark chips or mulch. Dead weeds will have much the same effect as living weeds in discouraging the establishment of new seedlings, although they do not self-maintain and will eventually become incorporated into the soil and therefore need replacing. This is broadly a positive thing because it increases the organic content and quality of the soil.
It is important to note that, when using this technique, make sure the weeds are absolutely and completely dead. Often a weed is a weed largely because it’s surprisingly difficult to kill, and certain plants can be yanked out by the roots and left on top of soil on a scorching hot day, only to stand itself back up and flower as the gardener watches in horror. A great way to be sure a weed is dead is to put it on something that it absolutely cannot survive on (such as a glass table, or a sheet of metal) and leave it in the sun until it is completely desiccated. There may be some plants that could survive that degree of damage, but they would be in a significant minority.
Using Weeds as a Nurse Crop
Picture a single fern in the middle of a large empty paddock. Now mentally subtract the grass, so it’s just a fern and a vast stretch of dirt on all sides. If that mental image makes you think “this fern is totally going to die,” you’ve probably got a green thumb. Plants do poorly in isolation; they like to have a lot of other life around them. If your lone fern were surrounded by a ring of other ferns, they would all be more likely to survive, and the one in the center would do better than any of those surrounding it. Here’s why:
- A lone plant will be entirely exposed to frost, which does terrible damage to some plants. If the plant is surrounded by other plants, it is protected by them to some extent, and all are less affected.
- A lone plant will also be exposed to wind, which strips the moisture out of the leaves by encouraging transpiration. As with frost, plants can protect one another from the negative effects of wind, with those on the outside being most harmed and those in the middle being more shielded.
- A single plant will harbor a certain subset of non-plant life such as insects and microbes. If multiple species of plants are near to one another, a wider range of non-plant life will live in the area, which can benefit all involved. Remember: nature expects to be an integrated, varied system. When you try to isolate plants and exclude unwanted species, you damage the entire system.
How to implement nurse cropping
A great way to implement nurse cropping in your garden is:
- Plant your desired plant and surround it with a small barrier of bricks, pieces of wood, large stones. Use whatever is handy or looks nice! This barrier should be close to the base of the plant.
- Fill the desired plant’s personal barrier with small stones. This gives the desired plant a small quarantine zone that allows it to enjoy its own personal space, as well as being easier to weed for you when necessary!
- Allow weeds to grow merrily all around the desired plant’s barrier. The surrounding soil will be enriched by the weeds in many cases, so you’re essentially creating a nutritious zone that will help feed the desired plant in the long-run.
Once your desirable plant has become well established, the barrier, stones, and nurse weeds can all be removed. That is if you want to remove them; you may find you love the natural look that arises!
Nurse cropping with dead weeds
As with the idea of weed suppression, using weeds as nurse plants can also be done with dead weeds. Simply put them around the desired plant and build it to some height, so that it looks like a doughnut with your desired plant in the center. Using dead weeds provides good protection from the elements and the weeds will break down to improve the soil in the area immediately around your desired plant. The dead-weed approach does not harbor the same types of non-plant life as living weeds would, but will encourage the life of entirely different types that specialize in breaking down dead plant tissue, which is also a healthy addition to the garden.
Can You Recommend Other Ways to Use Weeds in the Garden?
Have any recommended ways to use weeds in the garden? If so, please share your best advice! We’d all love to hear from you!