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Do weeds have a place in the garden?

 
Mike Turner
Posts: 301
Location: Upstate SC
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Weeds are considered by some to be the gardener's nemesis.  At one extreme you have those with a zero tolerance for weeds in their garden, so the only thing growing in their gardens are crop plants, and they take great care not to disturb the soil to bring any new weed seeds to the surface where they can sprout.  Sayings such as "one year's seeding is seven years weeding" were coined by these people and they take care to hot compost all organic matter entering their garden to kill any weed seeds in it.  At the other extreme you have the complete laissez-faire approach where  the crop seeds are planted or scattered about and if they make it against the weed's competition, great.  If not, there is always next year's growing season to try something different.  Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes.

So what is your philosophy on the place of weeds in the garden and can a thriving weed population ever be beneficial to your garden's health?  Does the subject of weeds in the garden need to be handled differently in the continuous or nearly continuous growing conditions of tropical or warm temperate gardens than they do in the shorter growing seasons of higher latitude cool temperate locales?  Does the presence or absence of weeds have any affect on the garden's ecology and soil health?

I have a few ideas on this subject based on my experience with weeds in my garden, but will wait to see what the experts have to say before throwing in my own two cents on the subject.
 
Fred Morgan
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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I tend to try to keep most weeds out - and I mean undesirable plants. There are so called weeds that I have no problem with - they are flowers for me. However, in absence of plants I wish, I would prefer to have weeds, than bare soil.
 
Jordan Lowery
pollinator
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i selectively get rid of weeds, not all of them are bad. most are soil builders. but some have annoying features. for example we have Galium Aparine, the one with the stickies. like Velcro.

i also actually spread some like dandelions and purslane.
 
Daniel Zimmermann
Posts: 121
Location: Sacramento
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If they are welcome, then they aren't weeds, are they?
 
Brenda Groth
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beneficial weeds and edible weeds are allowed to grow somewhat freely in my garden..some of them may be removed if there are too many of them..and if so then they are used as a mulch.

i thoroughly enjoy lambsquarters, so there is a whole gob of them growing in my garden..but when they get past their prime "cutting spinach" stage then most of them will become mulch, also i have yarrow just now starting to flower around some of my fruit trees.

unfortunately poppies tend to seed themselves into my garden and they are nearly impossible to kill, so there are oriental poppies blooming right now, and their seed heads will be removed to more appropriate areas of my garden. There are some dandelions here and there and some other "so called weeds"..but a lot of them i just don't call weeds.

also I let the hoary alyssum grow outside of the garden proper, as it is a great trap crop bof some kind of beetle that has a read body with some dark black marks on either side..no not ladybugs.

other "weeds" grow in the lawn and meadow areas outside othe garden proper also, and my "flower" beds (which are basically mixed beds of trees, shrubs, flowers, ground cover and vines..have some weeds growing in them..including a whole lot of quack grass which doesn't particularly thrill me.
 
Jeff Mathias
Posts: 125
Location: Westport, CA Zone 8-9; Off grid on 20 acres of redwood forest and floodplain with a seasonal creek.
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Dandelions make an excellent trap crop for aphids later in the spring and early summer. I suggest leaving a few growing near other plants that the aphids also like. Unless there is a true problem with the other plants the aphids always go to the dandelions and often do not even touch the other plants. The first time I noticed it I thought the dandelions had something very wrong with them but upon closer inspection every bit of the dandelion was covered by aphids.

Weed (s) - what a silly little word we made up to rationalize our position against less desirable plants.

Jeff
 
Fred Morgan
steward
Posts: 979
Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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Here in Costa Rica, I plant sunflowers to trap aphids. Doesn't seem to affect their growth any, either. The birds are happy, and so am I.

 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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Antibubba wrote:If they are welcome, then they aren't weeds, are they?


I've seen lots of definitions.

weed=unwelcome plant

weed=un-controlled/un-intentional plant

weed=non-domesticated plant

weed=plant listed by X authority

etc.

Peter Thompson gave a very useful, if complicated, framework for understanding weeds. He set up a scale, from "weedy" to "needy": a weed requires attention to restrict its growth or propagation, while needy plants require attention to establish and/or maintain. Within that framework, each plant should be placed so that it lies as close as possible to the center of that spectrum. The gardener does minimum work by locating each plant where it can maintain itself, but is limited by its environment.
 
Fred Morgan
steward
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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Tropical spinach, camote (like sweet potatoes), cilantro - these could be weeds, cilantro actually is a weed to us, since we don't like it. It was growing wild in our lawn, and I spend time killing some just about everyday in the garden - but people here buy it all the time in the store. (I give away all I can)

Passion fruit - definite weed, has to be kept under control. So is papaya. But I like them, so life is good. Guayaba is a tree that self seeds everywhere (Guava in English)

All weeds, all very useful.
 
Quinn Macbride
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Here's an instance of using weeds,
I just moved into a spot where they had been weedwacking all the weeds, so the soil was basically just hard packed dirt.
I told the guy not to cut the weeds, and then we had the rainy season, and it's now pretty dense with a variety of plants, I'd guess there's 30 species at least. 
So what good is that? Here's some benefits. (keep in mind I fully plan on planting the whole garden later, by laying preplanted slabs over the weeds, which will prevent weed seeds from being a pest later on)

To start with, it's bringing the soil back to life, it's a living mulch trapping moisture so insects can flourish, like earthworms who naturally till the soil for you.
This assists with the natural compost process within the soil. I even have moss growing between the weeds, and I live in a dry part of california, so this has really made a believer out of me.
The birds are attracted by the seeds and insects for food and plant material for nests (thistles seem bad but their flowers provide downy fluff for nests), and they in turn deposit bird guano and more seeds in said guano.
Various plants contribute in their own ways; Grasses aid in the aggregation aka tilth of the soil, clover provides nitrogen, and the higher the variety, the higher the likelihood you'll get a guild going, aka group of symbiotic plants that exchange services with each other, thus synergistically boosting the overall plant life. 

And with my approach of placing preplanting slabs over the weeds, I avoid the problem of having to dig through the weed roots. Eventually the weeds and their roots will break down and provide food for the plants on top, and then I'll be able to dig deep holes for big plants that I started in pots.

So there's a perfect use for weeds. I think that once you begin planting you need to keep every inch of soil from getting weeds in it by planting dense ground cover in layers, like a 2" cover between a 4"cover between 6-8" cover.
The idea being no place for weeds to get sun. Of course some "weeds" are useful, like plantain, clover, dandelion. But once you plant them, they're not weeds, right?
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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well i posted a link to my photos in the thread on my new food forest garden, but i'll post the link here too

if you look closely in several of the photos..you can see a lot of weeds, most of them are edible..(except of course the quackgrass)

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=22539&id=1846485863&l=e05859fdc6
 
Mike Turner
Posts: 301
Location: Upstate SC
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The way I view weeds is that they are a locally hardy green manure that I don't have to buy and plant seed for and that adds to the garden ecosystem's biodiversity.  I think the weed-free approach to gardening has its roots in short season gardens in cool climates where you want to expose a lot of bare soil to the sun early in the spring to warm it up faster to extend the growing season and where soil temperatures are too cold for most of the year for significant oxidation of organic matter in the soil.  Also in a short growing season you don't want anything (like weed competition) that might slow down the growth of the crop.  But if you try that approach here in the hot, moist climate of upstate SC, you'll quickly oxidize away most of the organic matter from the soil within a few years, ending up with crusty red clay unless you  continually import organic matter from off site or fallow the ground by growing green manures at least every third year (preferably every other year) to rebuild the organic matter lost by conventional weed free agriculture.  In the long growing season here, if the crop takes another week to reach maturity due to the presence of the weeds, that is no problem.  The native soils around here used to be a grey-colored loam before they used conventional agriculture to strip mine the organic content and nutrients from the soil with cotton farming. 

The method I learned from my grandfather is to grow green manures (in the form of weeds) alongside of the crop so the presence of any bare soil in the garden is rare and short in duration.  For widely spaced crops like tomato, bush squash, or okra, I cut back short all of the weeds in the bed and clear a 6" circle around each seeding or transplant site.  As the crop plants grow I cut the weeds back occasionally if they look like they are outpacing the crop until the crop's canopy covers the entire bed and the weeds are shaded out and eking out an existance in the understory.  I'll pull the occasional weed that makes it up through the crop canopy.  Over the growing season this creates a lot of cut material to sheet compost in the paths between the beds and I'll typically will build 1 to 2 inches of compost in the paths each year to be added to the beds.  For smaller plants like lettuce and carrots, I'll clear a small block of weeds, plant the seed, and keep out any weeds that look like they are competing too much with the crop plants.  Any weeds growing in locations where they aren't directly competing with a crop are allowed to grow and bloom, bringing in pollenators.  The presence of so many weed species growing in the garden among the crop plants makes it more difficult for crop plant pests to find their hosts.  I will preferentially leave leguminous and edible weeds uncut when cutting or thinning out garden weeds if they aren't competing with a crop plant.  There are lots of mimosa tree seedlings that have come up in my garden that I allow to grow 3' to 6' high before cutting back and I'll usually get a 2 or 3 cuttings a year from these nitrogen fixing tree weeds growing in my garden.  If a pole bean happens to pop up nearby, I'll let that mimosa grow unmolested until fall as it acts as a support for the bean.

My continuing refinement of this technique has been to allow crop plants to bloom and scatter seed so that an increasing amount of the "weeds" coming up in the garden are useful crop plants like tomato, cucumber, winter squash, edible gourd, amaranth, swiss chard, and lettuce.  These have been growing for enough generations that they are developing into locally adapted pest resistant land races.
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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i agree about cilantro, really really don't like it..don't like the smell of it in the garden..and i also agree regarding arugula, it also stinks and once it is over an inch or so the taste is downright nasty, but it is a good mulch crop to chop and drop.

i did pull a bunch of the lambsquarters for mulch, it was a little larger than i wanted it and it made a wonderful mulch around some of my plants.

so when you have nothing else for mulch, weeds are a good choice
 
Kirk Hutchison
Posts: 418
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Depends on what the soil conditions are. If your garden is healthy, most common weeds will vanish of their own accord. If lots of weeds are growing, it just means that they are helping to improve the soil.
 
Mike Turner
Posts: 301
Location: Upstate SC
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I've never noticed any reduction in the number of weeds in a healthy garden, just that the mix of weed species changes as the soil becomes richer.  You can use the presence or absence of certain weeds to tell if you need to add nutrients to the soil.  Once the crop plants are large and well established, then very few weed seeds germinate in their root zone.  But once you, senescence, or a change in seasons removes that crop plant, then many weed seeds will germinate in the vacated space.  Many seeds seem to know if a plant is already established in their location and they wait until the coast is clear before germinating.
 
Kirk Hutchison
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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basjoos wrote:
I've never noticed any reduction in the number of weeds in a healthy garden


  Well that depends on what you consider to be a weed. In stable, perennial systems weeds (meaning invasive annuals) become quite uncommon.
 
                              
Posts: 63
Location: North West PA, USA
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Running test on this this year. I'm in a cold short growing area.

One garden is nicely tilled. My other gardens are pure weed fields and one area I picked is VERY wet. On the weed field test I have bales of weeds that I've planted on and hilled hills of weed humus and a mixture of wood chips and weed humus hills.

Right now the tilled garden has a major advantage of no or almost no slugs and snails, My weedy test are slug heaven there are an amazing amount of snails and hundreds of slugs.......


 
                    
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So puffergas , its too bad you aren't excited about eating snails with your veggies it would be the perfect set of gardens for that...thanks for sharing your experiment with us.

Myself I have never understood our need to over weed or our need to plant lawns every where.

I only weed if I need the space for my veggies & then as little as possible, we eat the weeds that we can & I sometimes plant weeds in pots because they get so lush & pretty with so little work. I even used some as a back drop for a video once & people kept asking what those pretty plants were.

I guess I just love green things! D

 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
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when you choose to go no till, eventually you will have a reduced number of annual weeds in your garden, but tilling or disturbing the soil will continue to bring oxygen and sunshine to the weed seeds so that they can sprout..myself i happen to enjoy  a few of the weeds that need that type of movement of the soil to sprout..like the lambsquarters..but as long as i'm pullling carrots, onions, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, beets, etc out of the soil, there will alway be enough turning of the soil to bring up those seeds to the surface and allow them to sprout..thank God
 
Mike Turner
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Location: Upstate SC
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I had a lot of slugs appear in the first year I ran the garden, but then toads, tree frogs, and small snakes (worm, ring-necked, and garter) moved in and the slug population dropped to a minimal level.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
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basjoos wrote: I think the weed-free approach to gardening has its roots in short season gardens in cool climates where you want to expose a lot of bare soil to the sun early in the spring to warm it up faster to extend the growing season and where soil temperatures are too cold for most of the year for significant oxidation of organic matter in the soil.


Steve Solomon's "Water Wise Gardening" is another example of rationally-chosen bare soil. He does so to grow annuals without precipitation or irrigation (during the growing season).

He finds that what he calls "dust mulch" (thorough, shallow use of a hoe whenever un-intentional plants sprout) maintains soil moisture much better than living mulch. Destruction of organic matter seems to help make some plant nutrients available in conjunction with moisture.

He stipulates that this means using a patch of land as pasture for several years between seasons of vegetable production. That, and the extremely wide spacing of plants he recommends, makes this whole method very land-intensive. If pest predators could be maintained well enough that traditional mulch makes sense, I think I'd prefer some slug damage to what he describes.
 
Matt Ferrall
Posts: 555
Location: Western WA,usda zone 6/7,80inches of rain,250feet elevation
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Some annuals are very intolorent of competition and will pre-maturely bolt to flower if stressed.Each type of plant will have different needs in such regard.The weeds composition will change depending on the disturbance regime.I would agree with Brenda that weeds offer a free source of mulch/fertilizer and since I avoid importing organic material from off site,they are one of my only souces.
 
                    
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Well I personally don't subscribe to the idea that some plants have no use.  All vigorous plants make fine mulch if that's  all you can come up with, although a scythe wielded with knowledge, love, and skill will yield mulch, increase diversity by leveling ultra-competitors,  and *weed* all to the song of your choice (one thing said three different ways still merits commas right ).  Dancing in your garden is a Good Thing (tm).
 
Paul Cereghino
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Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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Seems like the question shifts until it fits right.  Like the question really was something like: "how do you guide plant community composition in a high disturbance system with minimum labor".  I am still essentially a "clean cultivation" gardener that tolerates specific weeds (chickweed, lambsquarters, volunteer vegetables, dock, etc..) either harvesting for mulch or eating.  I maintain this condition with very little effort by using a very sharp hoe on a 6' handle and planting in regular rows in raised beds.  I still import manure from my neighbor.

I have done variations on permanent mulch, and have lost many to most of my seedlings to slugs (mostly european red slugs, as well as some little grey ones and the occasional migrating leopard slug).  I still keep experimenting with permanent mulch in several areas among herbs and cane fruit where i maintain a permanent herbaceous mulch, waiting for the magic snakes to arrive and take care of my slug problem.  This spring the rufous sided towhees came and foraging in my mulch scratched up all my seedlings
 
                                    
Posts: 32
Location: Ishpeming, Michigan
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Do weeds have a place in the garden? They do now...turns out most of what I've tried to "weed" out is either edible, has medicinal uses or both  

Brenda, I purposely grow California Poppy to use the leaves, flowers and stems to make a tea that eases anxiety.Works great.
 
Jill McPartlin
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Do any of you have a good source to identify "weeds?" 
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
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Where do you live?
 
                                    
Posts: 32
Location: Ishpeming, Michigan
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@x96mac

http://www.msuturfweeds.net/browse-by-name/

this one has a lot of information but you can always search the name of a specific weed and come up with al kinds of results and photos. HTH
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
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well this weeks i put a lot of weeds to use as mulch, we have finally been getting a few rains and so now the weeds are coming up out of the ground easier. I've been pulling the now taller weeds, along with some of my chop and drop plants, to make mulch around my baby trees..and i tell you ..when you are making good use of weeds..and you have to look around to find more and more to pull to bring in as mulch..you can be really thankful for them..however..i still hate quackgrass even if i can cut the tops when they aren't in seed for mulch...
 
Alison Thomas
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basjoos wrote:
You can use the presence or absence of certain weeds to tell if you need to add nutrients to the soil. 
  Do you, or anyone else have more information about this?  I'm trying to understand my 'weeds' and to listen to what they're telling me about the soil but I'm only just beginning to learn their language.
 
Paul Cereghino
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Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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Robert Kourik assembled a great list of potential indicators of species.  http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Maintaining-Edible-Landscape-Naturally/dp/0961584807.

For PNW Klinka and Krajina is a great book if you have lots of native species.
http://www.amazon.com/Indicator-Plants-Coastal-British-Columbia/dp/0774803215/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278213504&sr=1-1

Wetland indicator status as described by USDA is useful for telling about moisture regime.

Often there is poor empirical foundation for these things or they vary from place to place, climate to climate.
 
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