Weeds, Weeds, Weeds! Looking at them in a Different Light

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Weeds, Weeds, Weeds! Looking at them in a Different Light

Do I really feel so strongly? Well, yes and no. In spite of their many faults, I try to find the good in everything, even weeds. And as difficult as it may be to imagine, they do have a place on this earth…really.

For example, weeds can provide habitats for beneficial insects, pollen and nectar sources for bees and hummingbirds, prevent or reduce erosion and runoff, cultivate soil and some even provide a natural (and free) source of fertilizer. Even the ubiquitous dandelion is worthy of its place. Its cheery yellow flowers brighten up otherwise monotonous fields of green while providing a food source for pollinators. And it’s pretty darn tasty to humans as well since all parts of this plant, err…weed are edible.

Yet we’re a tidy bunch for the most part and at some point we decided weeds had no place in our landscapes. Decades ago, we decided it was better to eliminate certain types of ‘green vegetation’ that didn’t quite meet our standards for appropriate lawns or garden worthy plants. Collectively, we call them weeds, even when some are merely plants out of place, as defined by many.

Take clover for example. Ironically, until a few decades ago, grass seed came with clover mixed in because of its many desirable traits, including the ability of the roots to fix nitrogen in the soil. That gave the clover and the grass around it the nutrients needed to green up naturally.

Unfortunately, clover was reclassified from lawn-worthy to weed when it could not be selectively excluded when herbicides were applied to grass. Consider it a case of guilt by association or just hanging out with the wrong crowd. But no matter how you look at it, clover is now considered an undesirable thug, even though its flowers are a favorite source of pollen for bees, stays green all year, provides valuable nitrogen and organic material to the soil, and its hardiness is sufficient to crowd out more detrimental lawn weeds. But instead of growing it, we now spend millions of dollars and hours every year killing it. Did the clover change? No, we did.
In an effort to get and keep our beloved lawns looking green and lush, we carpet them with pre-emergent and post-emergement herbicides and multiple applications of fertilizers (which also provide nutrients to the very weeds we just tried to abolish). However, we all know, those weeds won’t be gone for long, no matter how hard we try.

Have you ever wondered if this never-ending battle we’re fighting is against the wrong enemy? Consider our war on weeds. Why are so many forces working against our desire to eliminate them permanently? Some weed seeds are viable for thousands of years. They’ll remain dormant below the soil surface, patiently waiting for just the right opportunity to spring to life. Others can travel thousands of miles by air or sea or even hitchhiking. Many pass through animals, gaining new ground and reclaiming old territory. Even global warming is empowering weeds to kick it up a notch. New studies show that increased levels of carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures are giving an increased potency to plants like poison ivy and allowing others (like kudzu) to spread more rapidly than ever before.

 To be clear, exercising tolerance in gardens and landscapes is virtuous for dealing with pests of all types, especially weeds. As for me, although I still see weeds the way most of you view them, I am now content to allow them to coexist with the grass. I still spend hours each year manually extracting some, and do everything I can to naturally prevent their growth. But I’ve given up chemical herbicides years ago and I’m happy for the tradeoff.