It’s spring! Even as the rain keeps coming down between the sunbreaks, we’re starting to see flowers bloom…garlic stretch to the sky…pea shoots unfurl…and weeds start to get a foothold in our overwintered gardens.

One little dandelion peeking out from behind a watering can

We did the first spring weeding in our garden a few days ago, and sheet mulched a fenceline border over the weekend. This flurry of activity came on the heels of teaching a Garden Soils and Amendments class on Tuesday, during which we identify weed observation as a soil assessment technique. And what’s more, I’ve recently been seeing neighbors harvesting weeds off the traffic medians in our neck of the woods. This combination of weed-related events has made me especially motivated right now to look closely at this remarkable category of plants.

Weeds are a funny garden phenomenon. We define as a weed anything that we don’t think belongs where it is. Can a tomato be a weed? Sure! If it (and, more than likely, a host of fellows) came back from seeds your plant dropped last year, but you really wanted to rotate your tomatoes to a new location…those volunteers can easily be considered weeds. But we tend to label certain plants “weeds” all the time, even if they’re not specifically in the wrong place. If they’re there at all, it is a problem. Or is it?

In a similar vein to the old adage “nature abhors a vacuum,” she also doesn’t take kindly to bare soil. Plants will grow wherever there isn’t anything to compete with. In the edible garden, we have to keep weeds at bay in order to keep the space ready for the bounty of edible-for-us plants that we’re going to have growing…any day now! But is there a way we can respect weeds for what they bring, even as we’re deterring their development?

In my mind, there are four main oft-overlooked beneficial functions that many so-called “weed” plants can serve in our gardens: attracting beneficial insects, giving us clues about soil conditions, adding nutrients to our gardens, and feeding us. Yes, indeed. Mysterious are the ways of the plant world…and weeds anything but just annoying. I’m on a roll, and intend to write about each of these functions in my next few blog entries.

Of course, not every weed is a friend; some of them do deserve that pejorative label. Invasive grasses, for instance, are my own current semi-nemeses…and there are some plants (English Ivy, Himalayan blackberry, and bindweed, for instance) that are in a scary category all their own (on the Noxious Weeds list).

Personally, I don’t really mind the activity of weeding: it’s a great opportunity for sipping a relaxing beverage or talking with a neighbor. But the soils class, the beginning of the weeding season, and watching others productively utilize weed plants has gotten me in the frame of mind to investigate weeds more closely. More to come…