Let's take a closer look at some of the benefits weeds provide.
A few years ago, I mentioned to the fellow who mowed my yard that I like lots of clover in my lawn. He replied that if was the case, he'd have to charge me more to mow.
Here's the thing, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. In the South, to fall off the turnip truck means to be a naïve or gullible country bumpkin.
Fast forward to the present and he no longer mows my lawn.
In 1879, botanist William Beal began an experiment to see how long weed seeds would remain viable. He filled twenty jars with a thousand seeds each, and every five years would dig up one jar and plant the contents to observe germination. Colleagues continued his work, and in 1979, hundred-year-old seeds sprouted.
Some weeds produce as many as 40,000 seeds, which allows them to easily outcompete garden plants for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients.
The positive side of weeds
Weeds do have a good side. Under the right conditions, beneficial weeds can greatly improve your garden. They hold topsoil in place, absorb water and nutrients, provide food, as well as help control insects
People often don't associate beautiful wildflowers with the fact that most of them are the blooms of ordinary weeds. Someone has compared it to admiring butterflies while hating caterpillars.
(Euphorbia maculata/prostrate spurge, a detrimental weed)
They anchor topsoil
Weeds take over quickly in bare soil. It's nature's way of preventing valuable topsoil from washing or blowing away. Weeds perform a very valuable service by saving immeasurable amounts of soil as well as our gardens from erosion.
Some weeds like spurge, chickweed, purslane, lamb's quarters, and ragweed can anchor a fallow garden. They also act like a free cover crop.
Always cut the plants down before they go to seed, and compost them or turn them over in the soil once they've wilted. If the plants are mature, you can safely compost them in a pile that heats up to at least 140° F to destroy the weed seeds.
They indicate soil condition
Certain weeds can tell you what's going on underground. This can help when choosing a new garden site or improving an old one. But don't speculate about ground conditions because you have a weed or two. Identify at least three or four of the same weeds in an area and notice how they are doing. Lamb's quarters and sow thistle both love rich soil, but have also been spotted growing in gravel paths and driveways.
(Cersium vulgare/bull thistle in my yard)
Their taproots pull up nutrients and water
Neglected weed seeds have succeeded without human care for centuries. Many send taproots down as much as 3-15 feet to reach water. This benefits your garden in several ways. If you compost or turn under those weeds, their valuable nutrients and trace minerals will be redistributed in the topsoil.
Weeds can help soil by breaking up hardpan, an underground layer of compacted soil caused by frequent mechanical cultivation. Hardpan keeps salts and other toxins from leaching downward. It also prevents domesticated plants from reaching nutrients lower in the soil. It can inhibit good drainage. However, deep-rooted weeds like dandelions, prickly lettuce, spiny sow thistle, wild pigweeds (Amaranth), cockleburs, nightshades, and Queen Anne's lace can break through that soil barrier and allow domesticated plant roots to follow.
Don't disturb a fallow area filled with beneficial weeds, or at least leave a deep-rooted weed every 10-20 feet among your crops. Over time, this practice will do a lot to open up your soil.
Weed roots can break a path to underground water reserves. Moisture from those depths is also wicked upward outside the weed roots by capillary action.
They can be edible
Not so long ago, grocery store vegetable selections included plants like purslane and dandelions. In many places, they still do. Lamb's quarters was sold as a food crop in seed catalogs. Today these easily cultivated crops are mostly ignored in favor of ones that require hours of bending, digging, hoeing, and watering.
(Bouquet from the little boy next door)
Some weeds are good to eat. Lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album), yellow dock, young dandelion leaves, purslane, chickweed, land cress, and sorrel have two or three times the nutritional value of Swiss chard or spinach. Sautéed in garlic and olive oil with a drizzle of lemon juice, they can be delicious.
They help control insects
Many weeds can help control harmful insects or attract beneficial ones. Fall armyworm damage was shown to be lower in cornfields containing repellent weeds like dandelion, cockleburs, and goldenrod. Other studies have proven that grassy weeds deter many pests, while milkweeds repel wireworms, the larval form of click beetles (Elateridae).
Some weeds work as trap crops, luring damaging insects away from plants. Lamb's quarters attracts leafminers that attack spinach. And multiflora roses lure Japanese beetles.
Several flowering weeds such as Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, evening primrose, amaranth, wild mustard, and dandelion can attract beneficial insects that prey on harmful ones.
So put down those hoes and cultivate some good weeds. Both you and your garden will benefit.