Which Plants Are Weeds?

Are the weeds in your lawn sending you a message about the soil? Maybe the weeds in your garden are actually tasty edibles growing in the perfect spot.

Weeds are the perpetual thorn in the side of every gardener and lawn lover. You pull them, you spray them, and maybe in a former life you bathed them in herbicides . But still they come, like flies to honey. I’m guilty as well of taking potshots at weeds, trying this and that method, some shotgun, some scalpel, some of which you’ve read about in this blog. But now with years of gardening wisdom imbued in my soul, hundreds of hours of toil, and the aid of a few books from those who know much more than I do, I’ve adjusted my garden and lawn weed philosophy.

What is a weed?

First, we have to adjust our thinking and define what constitutes a weed. The fact that a plant is growing where you don’t want it to grow isn’t sufficient. That particular plant or “weed” is growing in that particular spot because that spot is best suited for that plant. Otherwise it wouldn’t /couldn’t grow there. A plant’s sole purpose in life is to reproduce and it will find the most favorable spot with the most favorable conditions to do that. Therefore, that plant or “weed” can tell us a lot about soil conditions in our lawns and gardens.

Is dandelion a weed?

Dandelions in our lawn tell us that our soil may be alkaline and hard packed, since that’s what dandelions prefer. It’s presence also tells us that our grass isn’t planted densely enough, because if it were, the dandelion seed wouldn’t have come in contact with the soil. The dandelion tap root, which may extend three feet deep, is great for breaking up clay and pulling nutrients up into the top soil, especially calcium. When a dandelion dies, the tunnel left by the deep taproot acts as a channel for earthworms, air and water. Dandelions have been cultivated for 1,000 years as an edible (young leaves are loaded with beta carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin A), a medicinal (for liver and kidney disorders), and for making wine and beer.

So is dandelion a weed? Or a message that you need to work on your soil and bring up the acidity? Or maybe you should grow it in your garden with your mixed greens? The Journal Of Pesticide Reform has excellent information on the benefits and organic control of dandelion.

 Purslane: weed it or eat it?

And then we have Purslane (aka pusley, pigweed, fatweed, and little hogweed), which is as common in sunny parts of your vegetable garden as dandelions are in your lawn. And it’s one of the most prolific of weeds: each plant produces thousands of seeds during a season and those seeds can remain viable for 15 years in the soil. When you weed purslane, make sure you pull roots, stems, leaves and all, because even the smallest bit of stem is able to create a new plant. I’ve done it – weeded and left to die on the surface, or so I thought.  I ended up creating a nice big patch of fresh purslane exactly where I didn’t want it.

According to the University Of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension: “Purslane is often compared with spinach… It’s been on menus in other parts of the world for about 2,000 years, but not many Americans are tossing it into their salads and stews… purslane…[is] high in potassium and magnesium, as well as vitamins A and C. It also contains higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids than any other plant.

“Native to India and the Middle East, purslane has spread around the world. Cooks in many cultures use its tender, succulent leaves raw in salads, cooked alone and or with other vegetables, or added to soups and stews… Some cooks actually pickle the thick stems.”

So perhaps purslane isn’t a weed at all and should be grown alongside your spinach.

White clover in your lawn

white clover
Clover is still considered a weed by every lawn herbicide manufacturer, but it’s anything but. In fact, it’s a fantastic fertilizer for the grass that surrounds it. And dog owners take note: clover doesn’t burn out from dog urine as grass does.

Clover is a legume – like beans – and draws nitrogen from the air, stores it in its roots, and when the clover dies, that nitrogen is deposited in the soil for the benefit of the surrounding plants. Clover is also more drought resistant than grass, virtually immune to any diseases, resists foot traffic, attracts early season pollinators, and will grow in even the worst soils.In the vegetable garden, Clover is considered one of the best cover crops  for protecting garden beds from winter elements and it adds fertility when tilled under the following spring.

Before World War 2, Dutch Clover was a staple in american lawns (funny how that time frame coincides with the introduction of commercial herbicides). Just because Scott’s and other turf companies say it’s a weed, that doesn’t make it so.

Are volunteer plants weeds or gifts?

Is that volunteer tomato plant in the broccoli bed a weed? Depends on your point of view –  I let my volunteers grow if they pop up in a manageable spot – I find that they’re usually more prolific than their peers.

Sunflowers also appear frequently where you never intend them to. Birds and squirrels love the seeds and drop them during their travel or defecation. I let the sunflowers grow if they pop up in a sunny spot, because they attract wildlife and pollinators and are just about the most beautiful, easy to grow flowers on the planet.

So they’re “volunteers” if I keep them, but “weeds” if I pull them.

Re-think you definition of  “weeds”. Don’t pull every seedling you don’t recognize, because it might just be an edible volunteer. Leave a few dandelions and a patch of clover in your lawn, because they might just be growing in the perfect spot to improve your soil. Pull off a few leaves of purslane and see how they taste. And learn to understand the message that plant is sending you about the condition of your lawn and garden.

Buy on Amazon: Weeds of the Northeast (Comstock books)

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

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