Grow Your Own: What is a Weed?

by Juan Jardinero

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

? Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those plants that appear to grow spontaneously in your garden can be providing you with valuable information about your soil and microclimate. Simply by observing the most prevalent weeds that are growing in a specific area, they can indicate if the soil is acidic or alkaline, whether the soil is a healthy, balanced soil, or if it’s depleted.  Weeds can indicate a poorly draining soil, or a soil that is unable to retain moisture.  Weeds can even indicate if the soil is unbalanced, being overly rich in one nutrient and deficient in others. However we treat them with such disdain that we pull, spray, and curse them and spend many hours battling to suppress them in their gardens.

Here are some examples on how certain weeds thrive under certain conditions allowing you to understand the fertility of your soil, the PH of the soil, and the drainage and hardness of your soil.

A healthy, fertile soil will have a pH of 6.2 to 7.0.  Weeds indicating a fertile soil are: Burdock, Butter Print, Chickweed, Chicory, Dandelion, Fat Hen, Groundsel, Lamb’s-Quarters, Pigweeds (family Amaranth), Pokeweed. If any of these weeds appear on your soil, feel encouraged to grow things like broccoli, corn, lettuce, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes, which are all heavy feeders and will thrive in a fertile soil.
A poor or depleted soil will have weeds such as: Broom sedge, Dog fennel, Wild Radish, Sheep Sorrel, Wild Parsnip, Biennial Wormwood and Yellow toadflax.  Beans, beets, carrots, legumes, parsnips, peas, radishes, sage, and thyme will tolerate poor soil conditions and perform well in depleted soil.

Alkaline Soils.

Alkaline soil has a pH higher than 7.0.  Weeds that indicate an alkaline soil are: Bellflower, Bladder Campion,  Wild Carrot, Field Peppergrass, Goosefoot,  white Mustard, Pennycress, Salad Burnett, Nodding Thistle and True Chamomile.  Asparagus, broccoli, beets, lettuce, muskmelons, onions, and spinach do well in alkaline soil.  Sulfur can be added to an overly alkaline soil to lower its pH.

Acidic Soils

An acidic soil is a soil with a pH below 7.0.  Look for these weeds as an indicator of an acidic soil:  Dandelion, Hawkweeds, Knapweeds ,  Lady’s-Thumb, Mayweed, Mosses, common Mullein,  Nettles, Wild Pansy,  Pineapple Weed, Pinks, Plantain,  Wild Radish, Rough Cinquefoil, Sheep Sorrel, Silvery Cinquefoil, and Wild Strawberries. Plants that grow well in an acidic soil are azaleas, blueberries, endive, rhubarb, potatoes, shallots, sweet potatoes, and watermelons.  Adding lime or using woodstove or fireplace ashes can raise the soil’s pH to the desirable pH range.

Now go online and try to identify which of these weeds grow in your garden and allow that to help you determine where and which plants to grow. There is a useful online Facebook source called Plant Identification, where you can post pictures of plants and in matter of seconds plant nerds from all over the world will help you ID your plant.


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