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Weeds 101, Part 1
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

July 20, 2003

For proof that Mother Nature scorns a vacuum, look no further than your garden. Any space not filled with plants that you intended to grow will be occupied with any of a host of those plants we love to call weeds.

What's In a Name?

If there is a word with more negative connotations than 'weed', I don¹t know what it would be. It suggests a nuisance, a contemptuous dismissal of something not pleasing, a plant not wanted. But a weed can be any plant growing where it is not wanted: a lovely perennial gone rampant in a new climate, a cornstalk in a broccoli field, a wildflower in a lawn. It's a matter of perspective. What may seem like a weed to one person is a desired component of a planting to another, a valuable part of flower arrangements, a great source of food to songbirds, wild animals and butterflies.

True, there are plants that are decidedly irksome. Some are poisonous to livestock, although there are those which when dried, such as buttercups, are acceptable in hay because their toxicity has diminished. Others are plagues to allergy sufferers, such as ragweeds (Ambrosia) and plantains (Plantago spp.). Some are definitely robust competitors in the vegetable or ornamental garden or pasture, choking out those crops or ornamentals we want to grow.

In our gardens, I grit my teeth and mutter at couchgrass on a regular basis, and we have a type of horsetail in one particular garden that is very annoying. Because we have a few acres here and quite a bit of pasture and woodland, we also have yearly duels with burdocks, the roots of which are as impressive and persistent as the fruit that like to tangle in animal coats, on clothing, and anywhere else they can catch hold. At the same time, we enjoy the performance of butterflies in Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) and the bursts of fall colour provided by wild asters and goldenrods.

Live and Let Live?

Many plants considered as weeds can have a number of beneficial uses. Some are wonderful potherbs, useful in salads or cooked, including early dandelions, lambsquarters (Chenopodium) and purslane. Beyond providing food sources to humans and other creatures sharing our gardening space, many weeds can be indicative of the condition of the soil. Horsetails (Equisetum), bracken fern (Pteridium) and clovers (Trifolium sp.) are indicative of acid soils, for example, while toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) Canada Thistles (Cirsium arvense) and plantains (Plantago sp.) favour soils with a high clay content.

Some weeds are beneficial to the soil, such as clovers. Like other members of the legume family, clovers 'fix' nitrogen in the soil, making it available to other plants as a nutrient source. Annual weeds, and those perennials without underground runner--that will make more plants--when chopped up and added back to the soil as green compost or manure, provide nutrients to those plants you want to grow. Even those with tiresome taproots provide a service by breaking up compacted soils into more friable, garden-positive soils. Weeds are also useful for holding soils in place along ditches, beside ponds and in other places where runoff is a problem.


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