I love weeds. I am totally serious. I really love weeds!
I realize that I may be one of the few people who have a genuine admiration for these infamous, aggressive growers that like to out-compete intentionally planted stuff. But, weeds have many uses on the homestead.
Instead of hating them or blaming them, I put them to good use to save money, time, and improve my soil. In case you have not already discovered how beneficial weeds can be, I have a fabulous new weed-lovers listical for you.
So, put down your garden hoe and away we go!
Weeds Are Nature's Helpers
1. Weeds prevent erosion
Erosion can be a massive problem if you live in an area with heavy rains, wind, or have a sloped landscape. Since soil is in such short supply these days, I am thrilled to see weeds cover it up and protect it in the areas that would otherwise be exposed.
2. Weeds act as mulch
When the weather gets hot, weeds keep the soil cool longer. It preserves moisture, protects the soil inhabitants (bacteria, fungi, critters, etc.), and helps slow down bolting in not-so-heat tolerant plants.
I grow weeds in my garden paths to take advantage of this soil stabilizing effect. Then, I merely run the weed trimmer down my aisles once a week to keep the weeds from setting seeds or encroaching on my beds.
Doing this keeps paths from getting hot and dry and increasing the soil temperatures in adjacent beds. Weed aisles also act almost like a cup, helping to hold moisture in my garden beds.
3. Weeds break up soil compaction
Some gardeners buy and plant things like tillage radishes to break up soil compaction. Those roots plunge deep in the ground and open up the soil. Then, when the top of the plant is killed, the root remains in place and becomes food for the soil inhabitants that are working to improve soil texture.
I save money and use free weeds to serve the same purpose. Weeds with deep taproots like docks and thistles can do the same thing that tillage radishes do.
I let the plants establish good top growth and root depth. Then, before they seed, I chop or mow the plants to the ground. It usually takes a few beheadings for those ambitious weeds to get the message.
That's a bonus too as the leaf mass makes excellent chop-and-drop to feed the soil!
Weeds Are Soil Health Indicators
4. Weeds are indicators of soil health
A weed is a soil report card if you know how to read their meaning. The types of weeds that grow in your garden, along with their size and quality of health, can tell you about your soil pH, nitrogen content, and can help identify mineral deficiencies.
Crabgrass, for example, is often an indicator of dry, compacted soil. However, if your soil is not dry or compacted, and you have slow growth from other plants plus a sudden explosion of crabgrass, it could be an indicator that you have too little calcium in your garden beds.
Overly lush stands of henbit might mean soils are tending toward being too alkaline for growing vegetables, while consistent growth means you are right on track.
Giant tree-like lambsquarters indicate high nitrogen. If stunted, they indicate low nitrogen.
Since weeds grow faster than cultivated plants, we can use them as indicators to predict and address potential problems in our soil.
5. Tap-rooted weeds indicate soil depth
Tap-rooted weeds like dandelion, hairy cat's tongue, thistle, and lambsquarters are indicators of what kind of root vegetables you'll have the best success planting.
If the roots of those weeds are shallow and sprawling, most of your nutrients and water are in the top few inches of soil. If they look more like a tall, upside down Christmas tree, then nutrients go down deep.
You can use this information to match your cultivated plant selections with your weeds' root profiles. In areas with deep nutrients, plant long carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and parsnips. Shallow nutrient areas are better for half-length carrots, beets, turnips, kohlrabi, and other ground-level bulbing root vegetables.
6. Weeds warn you of dry soil
Some weeds, like those in the amaranth family, sprout and grow even better when the soil tends toward semi-arid. So, whenever I see amaranth seedlings start showing up in force in my garden beds, I know I need to water more in-depth and more often.
Weeds Are Nutrient Providers
7. Some weeds fix nitrogen
Clover, which many people consider an invasive weed, is an incredible source of nitrogen for the soil. Those powerful plants pull nitrogen from the air and store it in nodes on their roots. When the plants die, the nitrogen in those nodes get decomposed by soil inhabitants and become available to other plants.
For clover to be a good source of nitrogen, it has to die before it flowers. I like to let the clover grow until just before it is likely to bloom, then I use my hand tiller to rip it out by the roots on a sunny day.
I leave those roots sitting out sunny side up until they are good and dead. Then, I break up that root mass and sprinkle it over my garden beds like seasoning. Nature takes it from there to decompose the plant and move the nitrogen through the soil.
Vetches and other potentially invasive legumes like kudzu are also useful for this same purpose.
8. Some weeds are outstanding “bioaccumulators”
Bioaccumulation is a fancy word that means a plant is particularly good at extracting minerals that other plants might not be able to access. Bioaccumulators can access minerals over a broader range of pH levels and have complex roots systems that allow them to forage better than other plants.
Ragweed is about the most notorious, oops I mean glorious, example of a weed that works well as a bioaccumulator. That plant, if it were palatable to animals, would be one of the easiest to grow, most nutritious food sources you could offer your goats, chickens, pigs, ducks, and cattle. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the healthiest foods, animals don't like the taste.
All those minerals and proteins though are equally nutritious for your garden. They have to be composted to become bioavailable (another fancy word that means “in a form that plants can use”). I love, and I mean LOVE, scything down large stands of seed-free ragweed and using it as mulch under large plants or adding it to my compost pile.
It gives me so much satisfaction to lay that allergy-inducing nightmare weed to rest while benefiting my garden! Talk about killing two birds with one stone!
9. Some weeds make excellent plant probiotic
Stinging nettle, as the name implies, is not such a good thing to have in your garden uninvited. Mowing it down is a bad idea since it's likely to fly up and sting you. Putting on a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and gloves and digging that stuff up by the root base is the best way to eradicate it from your garden.
While you're at it, though, why not put that stuff to good use as a foliar probiotic and vitamin cocktail for your garden plants?
Chop it up, put it in a bucket, cover it with water. Allow it to ferment for a week or more. Stir the mix carefully a couple of times a day to infuse it with oxygen.
When it's good and stinky and mostly done bubbling, carefully strain it. Then dilute it with water at a ratio of 5:1 and pour it in your sprayer pack. Douse the undersides of all your garden plant leaves with the mix.
This concoction adds a tiny bit of nitrogen. More importantly, it will power pack a whole bunch of other minerals to your plants. The process of making this fermented plant tea also brings in all sorts of beneficial bacteria that will help your plants fend off pests and pathogens.
10. Excellent in the Compost Pile
When weeds start to invade my garden beds, I yank them. As long as they don't have seeds, I pile them up in a giant heap and let them rot for a few days before adding them to my compost pile as “greens.”
If I am short on browns for my compost pile, I'll throw my weeds out on a tarp and allow them to dry over a few sunny days. Then, I'll add them to my pile as browns.
Some weeds spread easily from small sections of roots or cuttings. They are easy to recognize because they'll be spreading across your garden like a giant weed blob if you leave them unattended. For those kinds of weeds, drying and using as browns is the best method for composting.
Weeds Are Awesome Biomass
11. Weeds make great planter beds
One of my favorite ways to start a new planting area on top of our clay soil is to make a weed island. I start by digging out the topsoil in the new bed area.
Then, on a beautiful day, I go around to my weediest areas and start ripping. I load those weeds up in my wheelbarrow. (If those weeds have seed heads, I cut off the seeds and give those to my chickens first).
Dump several wheelbarrow loads of weeds on top of each other so they get to at least 4 x 4 feet wide and tall, just like a compost pile. This way they all smother each other.
Then, let them rot down for a few days. When your pile is about half your original size, cover it with cardboard and all that topsoil you dug out. Maybe add a few bags of good garden soil to start. Then plant away.
You may get some weeds growing out of the weed island. But they tend to be easy to pull since all those weeds degrade down into lovely soil, full of biological life pretty quickly.
12. Weeds as backfill for Hugelkultur
A hugelkultur is a mounded bed made by starting with a layer of logs, followed by a layer of branches, then lots and lots of organic matter (e.g., weeds, leaves, grass clippings, manure, etc.). After you make the three-layer base with all that yard and forest debris, then you top it off with a few inches of good topsoil and plant stuff.
Weeds have made up most of the organic matter layers for all of my hugelkultur mounds. The good news is, since weeds love to grow in the most impoverished quality soils where I make my hugelkultur, I usually have a ready supply right where I am building my mound.
Weeds Are Great For Livestock
13. Goats love weeds
I don't quite have a large enough pasture to feed all my goats year-round. So I often supplement their feed with weeds from other areas. They are more than happy to eat pretty much any bramble or wild vine that grows in our area – including poison ivy. They will happy demolish wild lettuces, chickweed, many mints, grasses galore and more!
14. Chickens treat weeds like candy
Not everyone has enough land or enough predator protection to be able to free-range chickens. One of the ways you can up their nutrition and keep them happy in confinement is to bring nature to them. Since they particularly love seeds, I take my chickens all the seed loaded weeds I don't want to use for other purposes.
Now, some weeds are toxic to chickens. But chickens tend to a have a good sense of what not to eat, as long as they are well fed.
I like to pull a variety of different weeds and deliver them all at once. That way chickens have choices. Then, I grab some popcorn and spend the early evening watching them shred roots, find almost invisible insects, eat the tops of some plants while kicking aside the leaves of others.
They are so fastidious in their demolition of weeds that it brings joy to my heart to see them work! Chickens eating a pile of weeds is way more entertaining than a movie and cheaper too!
15. Cut your pig feed bill
Sometimes the weeds are just too prolific even for me to find ways to use them. That's when I bring in the pigs.
Pigs are natures weeders. They not only eat the tops, but they dig down deep and take care of the roots.
By letting them till your weed infested areas, you not only get free labor, but you cut your feed bill. With a little direction, pigs can even make your weed patch almost garden-ready in just a short period.
Weeds Are Delicious
16. You can wildcraft your weeds
Wildcrafting is another word for foraging. It's kind of fashionable right now to head out into the great outdoors and seek out exotic edibles that you can't find at the grocery store. What many people don't realize though is you probably have a ton of wild edibles and medicinals growing in your backyard.
Dandelion, lambsquarters, chickweed, purslane, wild roquette, miners lettuce, cress-family plants, wild edible berries, red sumac, yarrow, mullein, nettles, sorrels, nutsedge, dock, amaranth, and a long list of other weeds are downright delicious!
Obviously, you want to make sure you have a positive ID before you eat anything. Also, many weeds are very high in particular minerals, such as vitamin K. So, you don't want to overdo it.
Do your research and wildcraft responsibly.
17. Can even be cultivated as edibles
I am not quite a prepper. However, as a long-time gardener, I know that every year some of my crops will fail. So, I love to grow some of the tastier weeds as “just in case crops” and to add diversity to my diet.
Dandelions, lambsquarters, purslane, and chickweed are my favorite weeds to encourage from a taste-perspective. I keep a stand of red sumac because they are beautiful and those berries make an excellent lemonade-like beverage and ground spice. Stinging and wood nettle are two of my favorite all-around health-food weeds to keep around.
Weeds Build Biodiversity
18. Make great foundation plants
I have a sloped hillside just behind my house. The slope was so steep that I had a hard time getting anything to grow. For a while, I decided just to let the weeds do some of the work for me.
Beautiful weeds like lespedeza, Joe Pye, violets, wild blackberries, dog fennel, and more moved in to fill the void and heal the soil. Slowly, as the weeds have improved the soil, I've been reclaiming some of that space for my cultivated plants. I've added comfrey, bee balm, figs, an apple tree, spearmint, oregano, and other plants into the mix.
Incredibly, that mixed use hillside is now one of the most wildlife filled areas on my landscape. All sorts of lizards, birds, insects, mice, and other critters visit regularly. Even more incredibly, I get to harvest more than I do in my less wild planting areas. All that diversity seems to keep life in balance, so we all get a share.
19. Offer habitat and forage for pollinators
Many pollinator populations are in decline due to loss of forage and habit. By leaving some areas weedy, I provide food sources and winter shelter for struggling populations without any extra work on my part.
I still like my landscape to look a little tidy. So, I mow around my weed plots to give them definition in the landscape and make clear that they are intentional.
Hopefully, some of these reasons above have convinced you that weeds can be beneficial on your homestead. Just in case you aren't totally convinced yet, though, let me give you one last reason to re-think your opinion of weeds.
20. Many weeds aren't weeds at all
So much of what we consider “weeds” today are cultivated plant varieties that were intentionally introduced by farmers and gardeners throughout history. We've often just lost the knowledge of what plants do and how to use them.
Every time I discover a new weed on my property, I try to identify it and trace back its historical origins. Much of what I come across came from England, China, or Korea and have many medicinal or edible uses.
Before declaring a weed, a weed, just because it's planted out of place, take a little time to get to know it's history and uses. You may discover that those “weeds” are nature's gifts in disguise.