Weeds can destroy a garden, but not all of them are bad

Published on June 17, 2011 by

Weeds can be the bane of any gardener’s existence, whether on a small home plot or a huge farm. But some of them are regarded as good to eat.

One year, a guest gardener came to our farm. He planted a lot of stuff. However, he was more inclined to sit on his porch and drink beer than to tend his small plot. So, the weeds took over. By August, he had only one tiny tomato plant left with a single blossom out of all his efforts in May.

To be a successful gardener, it is necessary to protect the plants, from predators including deer and rodents, but primarily against weeds. The plants, whether beans, corn, squash or tomatoes, are like children. Without protection, oversight, they may become stunted and perhaps die. Weeds absorb nutrients that might otherwise benefit the garden plants. But, they also take a lot of water from the ground on hot days. As proof, cut the top off a weed, leave the stem in the ground and see the water it pumps from the dry soil.

Sometimes, I watch joggers and bicyclists pass by my gardens and wonder about the artificial exercise in which they indulge to keep fit. I believe much more in the “outdoor” gym approach, exercise with a meaning that produces a product, in this case something to eat. What better way to tone up the body than to weed the garden? I have become a garden athlete.

Beginning gardeners complain weeding takes too much time. They have picnics and ball games to go to. The beach or a fishing escapade may also beckon. But, if the garden is neglected, the weeds in just two weeks can begin to stifle and choke the plants. The weeds tend grow three times as fast as any garden plants, including onions, basil, squash, you name it. When vegetable plants first emerge from seeds, that’s when they are most vulnerable and weeding is most important.

There are about four primary weeds here that cause havoc in a garden: amaranthus, lamb’s quarter, purslane and what may be called French or branch weed. The branch weed is especially bad, with large roots and many little yellow flowers that produce scores of seeds. All four can eat up a garden and cause its plants to fail in a few weeks if left unattended. Grass when it invades or persists in a vegetable garden is also regarded as a harmful weed and must be removed.

I remember visiting Bill Miro’s pick your own farm in Easton one summer day and seeing the weeds he and his workers had not yet eliminated with hoes and tractors. As Bill and I commiserated as farmers tend to do, a car load of immigrants from India pulled up to his stand. They emerged with pillow cases, saying they wanted to pick weeds to eat. “Take all you want,” Miro told them, putting to one of his plots. As we marveled, they filled the pillow cases. After also buying some hot peppers, they drove away.

Some people regard the weeds as “health foods.” Purslane, high in vitamins, is especially sought after by people of Italian, Greek and Lebanese heritage, It is eaten in salads with lemon and olive oil. Lamb’s quarter and its relatives can also be added to salads when young. The type of amaranthus commonly found in gardens here can be eaten but it is not the best. The Greeks eat an amaranthus with red foliage, and the Jamaicans eat another version of that weed, called red calaloo, which has deep green leaves with purple veins.

Munching, whether with hay, wood chips, plastic or newspaper, can suppress or eliminate weeds between vegetable plants. Otherwise, weeds can be buried, cut off or pulled out with hand or long-handled hoes on the bare soil. Some gardeners collect the weeds in baskets and place them in a compost pile. But, the weeds can also be used as mulch in the garden. After they rot or become food for worms, they add back nutrients to the garden.

Before organized gardening emerged thousands of years ago at the onset of civilization, all plants were wild. All the plants we selected to cultivate, such as tomatoes, potatoes
and peppers, were discovered by foraging amidst a wide range of tropical vegetation. They were intrinsically as much weeds as any other plants that grow.

In a sense, they are still weeds, except they are weeds we chose to protect against other weeds we eliminate. In this way, we create and maintain a garden by continually selecting what will grow in it until harvest.