In Defense of Weeds?

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici is all about weeds. But it’s not about how to kill them. I admit, at first I was skeptical. These are the thugs of the garden and many are ranked high as invasive species. But by examining these and many other plants on the basis they grow where humans tread, I began to view these perpetrators in a new light.

These are the plants found in abandoned lots and fields, gardens and cities. They can grow in sidewalk cracks, along roads, in drainage ditches and compacted waste sites. They cover disturbed ground, filter and hold water, prevent erosion, sequester carbon and even absorb toxic metals. Some offer us nutritious food while others treat or prevent disease. In other words, as annoying as they might be, these plants are not all bad and in many cases downright good for us.

Rhombic Copperleaf (Acalypha rhomboidea) is native and turns a nice shade of pink in the fall.

My garden has been both neglected and disturbed over many years so there’s lots of these kinds of plants. Here’s what the book says about a few:

  • Black cherry (prunus serotina) is extremely valuable to wildlife and its berries are edible. It’s wood is prized for making furniture and the inner bark has been used to treat coughs and bronchitis.
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) absorbs the heavy metals, zinc, copper, lead and cadmium and binds them to organic matter. It’s been used to flavor beer and is used in European and Asian cuisine.
  • The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has highly nutritious leaves and roots. Wine can be made from the flowers and coffee from the roots.
  • The young shoots of lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) are edible in the spring and in Europe during times of famine the seeds were baked into bread.
  • It’s no surprise that hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) is tolerant of roadway salt and compacted soil.
  • Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has been used by the Europeans since the first century for medical purposes and at one time was used as a replacement for hops to make beer.
  • The young shoots of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) are edible in spring as are those of yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) if a bit on the sour side.
  • The juice from the berries of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was used to write the Declaration of Independence.
  • The fresh leaves of buckthorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) can be used in a tea to treat coughs, diarrhea, and dysentery and can be applied to treat blisters, sores and inflammation.
  • The cooked leaves of red sorrel (Rumex acetosella) are used as a base for purees and have been used by the Shakers to treat skin diseases, boils and tumors.
  • The leaves and stems of common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has been used in a tea to treat chest colds, asthma, bronchitis and kidney infections and the soft leaves as a cushioning in shoes.
  • The young leaves of the common blue violet (Viola sororia) can be eaten raw or candied.
  • Path rush (Juncus tenuis) colonizes compacted ground.

It would probably be ridiculous to introduce these kinds of plants into my garden. Why would I? They arrive on their own every time I take a hoe to the ground. I’ll let some grow and at the very least consider them as more than just a weed. But since I’m probably never going to be able to rid my garden of these plants, I may as well make the best of them because it seems they have quite a bit to offer.

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Notes From Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change

As you can probably tell from my last post I was pretty blown away by the book by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. In addition to changing the way I think about gardening, it also had a lot of practical ideas for designing an ecological garden. Here’s a few notes I took*:

  • Learning about land, its history and soil can be instrumental in creating a plant community. Example: a pasture that has only been grazed by cattle versus plowed may still have a healthy seed bank with desirable native plants.
  • Design with the process of natural succession in mind. For example, a meadow could fill the space around small trees providing ecological services until the trees can grow into a forest.
  • Study plants as they relate to their environment. Example beech trees suck up so much water they create a dry, nutrient poor soil area beneath them.
  • If your garden is weedy, plant seeds for a meadow in early to mid summer after the early spring weedy type plants have pretty much died out. My garden is pretty weedy so I’d probably want to heed this advice.
  • If your garden is filled with invasive plants, plant more aggressive type native plants that can compete and make it easier to remove the invasives. For me the more aggressive native plants would be white snakeroot, violets, switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, nimblewill, wild strawberry, golden alexanders, milkweed, wild cherry, blue lobelia, New York ironweed, sneezeweed and black eyed Susan. Asters and goldenrods would probably make good options too but so far mine are still in the wait and see phase.
  • When weeding, don’t pull the plant by the root. Cut it at the base. This is because pulling by the root disturbs the soil, germinating more weeds in the process of pulling one. (I’m not sure this one works in all situations but generally speaking…)
  • Many times undesirable plants can be controlled with a mower. Sometimes or at different time periods the desired plants will be shorter than the undesired plants so you can set the mower higher to only cut the higher plants allowing the shorter plants an advantage.
  • Learn the growing habits of desired and undesired plants in your garden. For example, some plants are cool season plants, growing in the spring and fall and others are warm season, growing in the summer. So if mowing in fall cool season plants will be affected and mowing in summer warm season plants will be affected.
  • Test a small area before disturbing a big one. Example he uses: If you plan to convert your lawn to a meadow, scrape a section of turf, disturb the soil to activate the seed bank and observe the response. Seeing what plants fill in the space can tell a lot about the soil and prevent an unexpected situation on a large scale.
  • In contrast to plants that usually live in a meadow, many woodland plants don’t grow easily from seed. An exception are sedges. Carex riparia, carex brevior, carex granularis, carex molesta, carex radiata are some examples.
  • Don’t add fertilizer. It will only make the soil more suitable for weeds.
  • (This is one I’ve already discovered) Learn about what plants might grow well in an area by studying what grows naturally in natural areas or parks nearby.

*These notes are my interpretation of the book and aren’t necessarily the views of the authors. In other words I’m not sure I got it exactly right.

Elderberry Issues

I and my garden friends (birds, bees, etc.) love elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) but it’s been slowly dawning on me they just aren’t doing too well. I have two full grown shrubs. One is about five years old and the other, a seedling from the first, is about three. At first they grow quickly, up and out stopping at around 12 feet all around. It’s at this point and at this time in the season their leaves start looking like this:

And this:

This isn’t fall foliage. I’m not sure what it is exactly. It could be the soil they are growing in was compacted during construction. Or it could be the soil is too clayey because of construction disturbance or it could be a fungus like Fusarium wilt or it could be a combination.

Articles such as this one say to cut away sick branches. Another good one can be found here

Well, last year I cut out some sick branches, but maybe not all, and this year it looked worse so it seems like I’m going to have to prune these shrubs pretty much to the ground each year. I ask myself do I want to take that on?

I get the feeling they aren’t growing in their preferred environment. Either that or they are meant to do their thing during the early stages of ecological succession and then give way to the longer living, slower growing stuff. So, this gives me something to think about if anything and maybe some wood for the wood burner.

August Notes 2017

It’s that time of year when I really don’t want to be out in the garden too long due to things like heat, humidity, mosquitoes and the fact that my garden seems to become an overwhelming kind of jungle that’s much easier to ignore than attempt to subdue. The drought is officially over and now we’ve moved on to a monsoon. But that’s ok with me. Each morning smells like damp wood.

The plants are doing great, all except the tomatoes which were a complete disaster. They were looking great but then started looking sick and half chewed green tomatoes started appearing on the ground. I don’t want to sound too over dramatic but it was a bit discouraging as the larger tomatoes slowly disappeared until the only ones left were the size of cherry tomatoes. And it was utterly irritating to see a squirrel perched right in front of us eating away at the remnants of a nice big one between its little paws. This is kind of strange considering I’ve had many successful tomato harvests in the past. Maybe I shouldn’t have put out so many corn cobs during the winter. Regardless, I think, maybe, I’m done growing tomatoes, for now. At least the big juicy kind. Maybe eggplants would do better.

I’ve put together a page with galleries listing all the plants I feel are providing the most services in my garden at this time. By services I mean food and shelter for wildlife, erosion control and soil enhancement, food for me and/or some sort of benefit for everyone else. So far I’ve only included plants that don’t require soil amendments but I hope to add a page for vegetables and animals at some point.

After much deliberation, I decided to go for the slope. I guess this may not be the most attractive way to kill the sod but I can’t see that it’s worse than plastic. At least it breaks down. Anyhow I have big plans for this area. You could call it my creation, a plan that will hopefully not involve too much hacking at the ground in order to create some kind of ecologically beneficial and nice looking non weedy slope in the not too distant future.

Flower from the okra plant.

I’m kind of on the fence about the okra. On the one hand it’s a beautiful plant and the rabbits or squirrels don’t bother it but on the other it doesn’t provide much in the way of a crop. I’ve noticed aphids have made themselves at home on a few plants but the plants don’t seem to be suffering because of them. I’m pleased to see goldfinches have been enjoying the aphids.

For my first fixing of the okra as a vegetable, I roasted it for about 45 minutes in olive oil. It was good and not slimy.

Fenced in sweet potatoes or you could say fenced out rabbits. You can see how scraggly common milkweed (plant on the right) gets by this time of year.

So far the rabbit fencing has worked allowing the sweet potato vines to branch out but just until they reach the fencing where the rabbits keep them neatly trimmed.

This is absolutely ridiculous I know but I’ve named our resident rabbits according to their size; Small, Medium and Large, since I can’t tell them apart and they grow too fast to bother anyway. They are very good listeners too by the way with their big ears and all. They just sit there looking at me with their nose twitching as some kind of leafy green disappears into their mouth. I’ve also named the yearly resident squirrel. Every year we have a new one and we know this because it always has some unique feature. This year it’s a skinny tail that looks like it’s been rubber banded so we call the squirrel Rubber Band Tail. We don’t have pets so I guess this is as good as it gets.

Insanely large white snakeroot plants. For some reason this picture just seems to capture the essence of August. I don’t know why.
I’m not sure why of all the milkweed plants, this monarch chose this ugly dead looking one.

Various bees are now enjoying the sneezeweed and wild marjoram but soon these insanely large white snakeroot plants will bloom and hopefully attract hordes of pollinators. Speaking of pollinators, I’ve seen plenty of monarchs and a giant black wasp named appropriately The Giant Black Wasp.

I’m just in love with this pokeweed right now as it so beautifully hides the cinder block wall. I hope my back isn’t going to pay when I have to pick all the seedlings that sprout from fallen berries in the spring. I cut down quite a few plants before the berries ripened but a catbird gave me a talking to so I stopped.

Oh, and it’s always nice to enjoy a glass of fresh Thai basil iced tea while listening to an evening concert of crickets with an occasional katydid. Cheers!

Natural Communities

All forest is not the same. These trees are part of a unique natural community.

Looking at plants as communities from a design point of view is cool but it’s also cool to look at plants as they fit into natural communities. I’ve often wondered what kind of natural community my garden belonged to before it was timbered, farmed and then developed. I know it was forest but is there more to a forest than one would think? The answer is yes, there is more and I’ve recently discovered a website that explains just such a place known as Rock Creek Park, not more than a mile away from my garden. The website, a collaboration between NatureServe and the Research Learning Alliance of the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, examines 8 different natural communities within Rock Creek Park,  the oldest and largest urban national park in the U.S.

As I read about some of these communities it occurred to me my own garden may have been one of them at one time. It seems natural communities develop over time due to natural and unnatural forces. These forces such as rain, wind, sun, human development among others form small pockets of distinct areas with distinct landforms, soil, plants and animals. And underneath it all is the bedrock, often the main compositional ingredient.

The other day I went walking in Rock Creek Park to see if I could find and see the difference between some of these communities and I have to say while it was a bit of a challenge, I did notice a few.

Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest can be found on rolling landscapes where the soil is loamy (made mostly of clay, sand and silt with a little organic matter)

The most wide ranging one is the Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest. It can usually be found on rolling landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. It also has a wide range of vegetation such as American beech, red, white, black and scarlet oak, Christmas fern, sweetgum, red maple, blackgum, flowering dogwood, American holly, pawpaw and mapleleaf viburnum. It has a well-drained and mesic soil. I have a pretty good idea my garden was once part of this community.

A box-elder, part of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest community.
The rich soil of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest supports many herbaceous plants such as this pretty ground cover.

A very different community is the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest. It usually lies along floodplains of small streams such as Rock Creek. The rich soil here, made up of sediment that gets carried down the creek from upstream, supports plants like the tuliptree, red maple, box-elder, American sycamore and American hornbeam. Because the soil is often disturbed by flooding and human use, it also can be a haven for non-native plants as well as many other native plants. I heard lots of birds with unique, buzzy noises here. I’m guessing they were smaller warblers and such.

A white oak and mountain laurel in a Oak – Beech / Heath Forest community.

Another community I walked through was the Oak Beech Heath Forest. It usually can be found on steep slopes above streams and rivers where acidic and often rocky soil is perfect for plants such as mountain laurel, American beech, chestnut and white oak as well as blueberry and black huckleberry.

Although it takes a bit of exploring to get the idea, the website has a wealth of information about geology and ecology that I can apply to many things about my garden. In fact, I’ve found I’ve started looking at plants in a new way. Not as plants but as parts of communities, something that may be a big step towards ecological improvement. Not just for me but for all of us.

Making Peace with Weeds

sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale

What better thing to do in winter when you’re not completely overwhelmed with a wild garden than to strategize about how to make it not so wild. Let me clarify. To say my garden is weedy would be an understatement. Yes, I know every gardener thinks they have the weediest but no, seriously, mine’s the weediest. When I became blessed with the management of this piece of land some seven years ago, it was rampant with just about every kind of weed imaginable. I won’t name them because that would take forever. I guess had I been more sensible I wouldn’t have decided to have a garden let alone a pretty big one but I did. So, here I am reactively dealing.

Weeds have always kind of fascinated me. When I was around eight, I dug up dandelions, put them in pots and tried to sell them in front of my house. I didn’t understand why people just laughed. Always a bit on the odd side myself, I’ve always kind of identified with them and their ability to consistently annoy with their persistent and awkward presence. Of course like native plants, weeds can’t be precisely defined. They are basically just plants one person but usually a large group of people don’t want.

I hope weeds have helped me build character. I realize they are here and as my Aunt Cherie used to say, “I’ll die and leave em.” Or, as the old saying goes, “if you can’t beat em, join em,” because weeds are kind of like a noose that keeps getting tighter the more you pull to break free.

I’ve come to realize weeds are usually double edged swords in that they usually have some useful qualities as well as annoying ones and all weeds help to control soil erosion. Many weeds also have nutritional and medicinal purposes. As it turns out, those dandelions I was potting so long ago are nutritional and medicinal power houses, rich in vitamins and antioxidants.

The one characteristic of all weeds is they are tough and aggressive plants whose job it seems is to cover recently disturbed ground until the more permanent stuff such as shrubs, grasses and trees can take root. In other words, unless they are invasive, weeds seem to be part of a ecologically strategic process.

So, we come to that word, invasive. The one no matter how hard we gardeners try, just can’t avoid coming across again and again. The word that may be as annoying as weeds. The word that describes so many old garden favorites. That darn inconvenient truth that these plants, through no fault of their own were moved by humans to places where they have no competition and support very little or nothing. Unfortunately for the ecosystem, invasive plants are here to stay. I have nothing against these plants. They are important to an ecosystem somewhere, just not in my garden and not in my watershed. And so, with a weary heart, I try to do my part and prevent these plants from spreading. Is it fair for me to lower these legendary plants to the class of weed? Regardless of my perceptions, I feel I must do what I can to prevent these wonderful, extraordinary plants from doing harm to other wonderful, extraordinary plants.

 The invasive plants I’m in the process of removing:

English ivy: I think everyone knows this one. It is pretty good at growing in forested areas where it displaces native plants and kills trees. I pull ivy in early spring when it’s easy to spot the vines. As the vines don’t seem to die quickly after being pulled, I dispose of them in the trash.

Tree of Heaven, Asian Bush Honeysuckle and White Mulberry : These woodies are known for displacing native plants among other things but mostly displacing native plants. I had quite a few white mulberries entangled with the chain link fence that bordered my garden. Over time I dug them out. Not an easy task and much easier when the trees are no bigger than two feet rather than twenty. To dig them up, I first used a grub hoe to loosen the dirt around the roots, then a shovel to remove the dirt, then loppers to cut the roots and finally the grub hoe again to yank out any remaining roots leading to that final yank when the whole mass breaks loose. For larger tap roots, I use an axe or have my husband use a chainsaw (yes, I’m one of those who don’t do well with power tools). I suppose I could have just kept cutting them back and I do for some I have yet to get to.

Porcelain Berry: This vine forms thick layers over trees and shrubs robbing them of light, water and nutrients. It is easily confused with wild grape and one way to tell the difference is its flower clusters as well as its blue and purple berries stick straight up. The best way to remove porcelain berry is to cut the vines at the bottom before they set fruit. If possible I try to pull them up by the roots as well as cutting them.

The next list of weeds aren’t on any major invasive plant list but because they do damage and I find them ugly they’re on my hit list.

Bermudagrass: I ended up writing so much about this plant I gave it its own post.

Bindweed: This extremely fast growing vine in the morning glory family strangles plants and does a wonderful job of spreading itself all over hedges. I’m pretty sure the type of bindweed I have is hedge bindweed and it is easily confused with a similar looking vine in the milkweed family called honeyvine, except it has large white, morning glory like flowers. With roots that can go down over 12 feet deep, digging them up is not a good option. Mostly, I just keep pulling the vines at the base when I find them especially before it flowers in late summer. It made itself pretty comfortable growing on a chain link fence surrounding my garden where it must have been establishing itself since the beginning of time. After taking down the chain link fence, I’ve been careful not to put any other trellis type objects in its path as well as making sure I can pass the mower over the area from time to time as well. It thrives especially well in heat and flowers just at that time when the mosquitoes are at their worst making this plant a close tie for first place as being the most annoying.

Ground Ivy (also known as Creeping Charlie): This plant in the mint family, does a very good job of covering ground. It’s rhizomatic roots form dense mats and will cover large areas especially when they are moist and shady. I’ve kind of given up doing battle with this one, preferring to let it act as a ground cover since it doesn’t seem to do too much harm to existing plants and even though I’m not really in love with how it looks, I can live with it. Of course I make sure to keep areas where I’m growing seeds clear of it. If I find time in the spring when the ground is nice and damp, I’ll drag a  bow rake over it and pull like heck. Slowly, with a lot of effort, the entire mat will pull up leaving nice fresh bare soil that I’d better fill in with something else or that Creeping Charlie will just creep right back.

And all the other weeds: Well, they are just child’s play compared with the others. Some, such as pokeweed and white snakeroot are native and have ecological and (I feel) aesthetic value so I let them stay. Others such as yellow nutsedge, American burnweed, broadleaf plantain, goosegrass and ragweed, I pull. And others, such as common milkweed and sneezeweed, I plant, inconspicuously of course. After all, they’re just weeds.

So, as old weeds become new garden favorites and old garden favorites become new weeds, I wonder if my garden isn’t becoming wilder instead of more orderly. Maybe weeds are just reminders of our own imperfections such as our incessant need for order and control. They seem to follow us wherever we go, mocking us, maybe Mother Nature’s form of a joke except I’m not the one getting the last laugh and the only thing I do know is I’ll die and leave em.