WANDERING ABOUT WEEDS
Ever wonder as you wander through the weeds? Just why did Mother Nature create such things? Is there a benefit? How can we eradicate weeds? Why do they grow so much better than the plants we desire?
There have been many definitions for what constitutes a weed. Some say, “ A weed is a plant we have yet to find a use for.” Others may define a weed as “Any plant that was not planted on purpose.” Holding to that second philosophy, even plants that are desirable elsewhere can be weeds if they show up uninvited. Many people are reluctant to purchase plants that “take over” or that can be potentially invasive. Perhaps the best example of this would be the bermuda grass that most of us care for in our lawn, but when it shows up in the vegetable garden or flowerbed it becomes one of the toughest weeds you can imagine.
My particular favorite weed description comes from the writings of Andy and Sally Wasowski. Sally refers to weeds as “Mother Nature’s bandaids.” This lends credence to the fact that “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Given a bit of bare ground almost anywhere, Mother Nature will cause something to grow in it. These “free” plants tend to be the tall, fast growing kind that most of us don’t really appreciate. However, it is possible to find some usefulness or at least develop some respect for these weeds once you learn more about them.
Broadleaf weeds that are common in disturbed areas like our gardens are what we call “succession plants.” Any disruption to the soil will cause weed seeds that are found lying dormant (we call this a “seed bank”) in the soil to come to the surface. Many of these seeds are triggered by sunlight which explains why those who mow their grass too short tend to have lots of weeds. The slightest amount of precipitation will cause germination and rapid growth. This is one of Mother Nature’s strategies to take over bare ground preventing further loss from erosion. These plants begin a succession of different generations of plants which in time culminates in a higher order of long living plants known as “climax plants” colonizing the area. Sally’s “bandaid” analogy fits perfectly.
This return to climax vegetation may take ten years in the wetter climate of East Texas, several decades out here on the Rolling Plains where I live, or the better part of a century in West Texas desert. In the meantime, there will be weeds.
A couple things that most broadleaf weeds will have in common are a deep taproot and large leaves or lots of leaves. The deep or extensive roots can penetrate tough soils to bring up moisture and minerals. The leaves and stems then deposit the nutrients on the surface as they decompose. This gradually improves the soil for the next succession of plants.
As far as useful, it may surprise you that many of these weeds have been used for food, fiber, and medicine. For instance, lamb’s quarter has been a common weed in my vegetable garden. The fresh young leaves are quite palatable so my wife Nila will throw a few into a fresh salad. She will also do the same with curly dock and wild lettuce. These plants are always available and sometimes all we have when domestic lettuce or spinach has failed. Dandelions were in fact brought to the U.S. by European settlers as a food source and are still one of the most nutritious plants we know of. “If you can’t beat’em ……….eat’em.” Delena Tull’s book, “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest” is a great reference for finding ways to use weeds.
Wildlife also finds use for weeds. Butterflies favor the flowers of thistles while birds prefer the seeds. Honey bees feed on clover blossoms while deer, cattle, and other animals feed on the leaves. Even the ubiquitous ragweed is utilized for feeding and nesting by quail. In Nature there is no waste. One man’s weed is another man’s wildlife habitat………….Truly!!
Another fact worth mentioning is that a fair number of wildflowers will colonize these same disturbed soils. Coneflowers, coreopsis, and our beloved bluebonnets are but a few of the showier wildflowers that colonize bare areas. In fact any wildflower enthusiast will tell you that many of our prettiest blooming plants are more numerous on eroded, exposed, rocky, or gravelly hillsides where the taller plants can’t gain a foothold. Learn to tell the difference between true weeds and wildflower seedlings to treat yourself to some free color. Or, if in doubt, leave a few to grow and discover which is which. One man’s weed is another’s wildflower……… For sure!!
Weeds have evolved to fill a void or specific niche in the plant kingdom. They utilize survival strategies, growth habits, and seed dispersal techniques (stickers, wind, explosive capsules, etc.) that outstrip the abilities of most domesticated hybrids found in our home landscapes.
One particularly dry spring I noticed hundreds of tiny seedlings that had germinated despite the fact that we had not had any precipitation at all. Apparently these seeds germinated with only the sporadic morning dew in a totally dry soil. Intrigued, I kept a close eye on them until they became large enough to recognize. They were tumbleweeds. Such is the tenacity of weeds.
A lawnmower or weedeater can be effective against the taller broad leaf weeds. The good old fashioned garden hoe, weed popper, or hand pulling also rank high on the list of available weapons. Unfortunately all of the powders and liquid chemical controls (organic or synthetic combined) gardeners would like to rely on have to be used carefully and repeatedly to gain control. Many are toxic or otherwise dangerous to the user. Most can kill unintended victims like your desirable plants, earthworms, and/or microbial life in the soil. The “silver bullet” does not exist. Good cultural techniques and soil improvement is still the best long term strategy.
Remember the role of most weeds is to improve infertile, eroded, and disturbed soil. Weeds will diminish as the higher order of plants flourish in a fertile, living soil.
September 13, 2011
WANDERING ABOUT WEEDS
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