Weeds in the Garden: What we pull, what we leave, and why

| Foraging, Gardening, Kitchen Garden, Vegetable Gardening | 34 comments | Author :

1412 weeds - 01

The definition of a weed is subjective, I know. They’re simply plants out of place, after all.

And one person’s weed might be another person’s harvest, or food, or medicine. It’s true.

However, when it comes to our current backyard veggie patch, we’ve been laying down some ground rules about what plants get to stay, and which plants have to go.

I could go on (and on) at length about weeds. What is a weed anyway? There’s a mildly-ranty debate here, for example.

Or might I recommend Emma Maris’ book Rambunctious Gardens for further thoughts on novel ecosystems, and the concept of ‘saving nature’ in this post-wild world of ours.

The big picture aside, we want to produce a wide variety of nutritious food in our backyard veggie patch.

And given that we live in an area peppered with wild plants of all kinds that are there for the foraging along headland and hill, we’ve decided that our veggie patch will be dedicated to just the plants we want in there.

A small, controlled system, if you will.

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There’s tomatoes and leeks and rocket and eggplants, herbs and gherkins and tumeric and capsicums, all pottering along towards harvest.

And, as with every garden on this planet, a bunch of not-so-welcome plants that for this context, are weeds.

Every garden is different, I know, but here’s what’s going on in ours, and what we do with it all…

1412 weeds - 02

Madeira Vine

What’s good about it:

Madeira vine is highly edible and nutritious, and various parts of it are used medicinally also.

What’s bad about it:

It’s bloody invasive and takes over everything!

Our garden seems to have eleventy million bubils (that’s it’s seeds) just beneath the surface of the soil, which pop up green shoots on a daily basis. It is one tenacious customer.

What we do with it:

Given that Madeira vine grows happily from both the bubils or even just the uprooted shoots if left in contact with the soil, this one gets the total boot. Right out of the garden.

We solarise it on the bricks, or put it through our worm farm, which I figure is much better placed to recycle it into nutrient rich fertiliser than our council green waste program.

All that said, because it’s edible and very nutritious, if i see some while I’m harvesting for a meal, I yank out the bubils, add them to the worm farm, and add the leaves to my greens pick.

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Dandelion

What’s good about it:

Dandelion is nutritious and medicinal – the root, the stems, the leaves and the flowers.

It’s a dynamic accumulator, drawing up nutrients from deep in the soil and making them available to surrounding plants.

What’s bad about it:

Er, not much, really. Especially in a suburban context, unless you’re a purist of high degree.

What we do with it:

We leave it be, and harvest young leaves for our salads, and the flowers for pollen-rich dandelion flower fritters.

If I get my act together I guess I could harvest the root as well and make a tea, but I haven’t gotten that far, as yet.

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Milk Thistle

What’s good about it:

Milk thistle has edible leaves when young. It’s cultivated medicinally as a powerful liver tonic.

What’s bad about it:

It’s not that tasty, to be blunt. And it grows tall, and spikes me as I harvest everything else.

What we do with it:

Pull it out and lay it down on the garden – we pull it out while young, before it flowers and seeds. It will decompose into the soil in time, diversifying the soil food web.

petty spurge

Petty Spurge

What’s good about it:

Otherwise known as ‘radium weed’, the sap of petty spurge is traditionally applied to skin cancers + sunspots.

It’s being developed as a cancer treatment also, I belive.

What’s bad about it:

It’s corrosive to the skin and especially delicate membranes like the eyes + lips. Can cause tummy upsets. It’s not something you want in your salad.

What we do with it:

Pull it out and lay it down on the garden – again, it’s useful in its diversity as an addition to the soil.

I’m trying to keep on top of this one particularly so it doesn’t get mixed up in our daily microgreen salad pick.

chickweed

Chickweed

What’s good about it:

Chickweed is highly edible and nutritious, and potters along in the shade of various vegetables in our garden. Chickens love it, and so do we.

It is also a folk-remedy for mange, if you happen to have that.

What’s bad about it:

Erm, like dandelion, not much. It’s a very chilled-out plant that peeks its head out here and there.

What we do with it:

Eat it! In salads, on sandwiches, and in soups. Diverse greens are the best part of daily backyard harvests, in my opinion.

1412 weeds - 05

Oxalis (Wood Sorrel)

What’s good about it:

Oxalis is an edible, lemony, clover-ish plant.

What’s bad about it:

It is a bit pushy, and can take over fairly quickly – it’s difficult to entirely eradicate.

What we do with it:

A combination of pulling it out and laying it down on the garden (in the places it’s taking over), and also eating it – in salads, soups and stews. It has a beautiful lemony flavour.

purslane

Purslane

What’s good about it:

Well this one is only arguably a weed as it grows naturally around here, and we love it. It’s nutritious and a great addition to green anything. More omega-3 than fish oil, has purslane – yeah.

What’s bad about it:

Not much really – it has a prostrate form, which means it hangs out quite happily underneath our basil, capsicums and fennel.

What we do with it:

Salads! And a great addition to weedy cannelloni, and anything else you’re gathering greens for.

————–

And that’s our primary weeds, just now. Given that the soil here is great and the weather is wet, there’s plenty of weeding and harvesting going on here at our place.

Which is fine with me. I like the incremental breaks that weeding and tending a small veggie plot provides.

I’ve come to think of weeding as a speed game of pattern recognition.

Leaf shape. Form. Aspect. Color. Out it comes, or in it stays.

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It’s also a chance to take a moment, to say hi to the lizards and the small birds that cluster round, and to see which pollinating insects are out in the garden today.

What weeds do you have in your garden? Do you know what they tell you about your soil? Can you eat them? And do you?

Lots (and lots) more articles + resources on edible weeds here…

See the comments

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Comments

34 responses to “Weeds in the Garden: What we pull, what we leave, and why

  1. As to dandelions, they are allelopathic and inhibit the growth of other, less vigorous plants. So I wouldn’t want too many of their super-huge roots in my garden.

  2. For me the biggest problem is Calystegia sepium – not edible as far as I know, smothers everything around it, and almost impossible to eradicate. If anyone has any experience managing it to any degree, I’m all ears.

    1. Not sure where you live Ingliska but your “weed” is one I didn’t know so I went looking and found that Calystegia sepium is a native vine from Tasmania which was previously listed as endangered or extinct, but since a reserve was found with abundant specimens growing in it in 2001, it is now listed as rare.

  3. Fantastic article!
    I leave most of my weeds (and finished plants) for my rotating chook dome to be eaten and/or dug into the ground. I’m not to bothered with them, but then not that many make through the big pile of mulch anyway. Farmers friend and fireweed are the exceptions. I put them on a pile to wither down on the garden bed the chooks are due next.

  4. My “exotic” weeds seem to be limited to kikuyu and couch which invades from the border areas. The weeds in my garden beds are babies of my usual crops, including ‘000’s carrots, silver beet, parsley, parsnip, celery and the like because I like to let some plants go to seed to naturally seed the garden then I just weed out the ones I don’t want. Saves a lot of seed germination and planting out. As a by product these big robust plants when flowering introduce a plethora of insects into the garden and draw nutrients and minerals from deep down which then can be recycled back through my compost heap and worm farms.
    A “new weed” I have found this year is cowpeas because I am now using it as a rotation to introduce more N and green organic matter into the soil. I just let some plants along with millet go to seed last summer. That is one great weed to have. Unfortunately a new tomato bed became overcrowded with cowpeas which has put back the tomatoes by a couple of months because I didn’t get in early enough to cut them down.

  5. For us it appears we have purslane too (thanks for helping me identify it 🙂 ) and dandelions but we have much wild lettuce, plenty of dock, heaps of plantain and millions of milk thistles. Oh, and a heap load of poplar trees and hawthorns. What we don’t eat our goats do aside from the dock. I wonder though, being such a deep rooted plant if it too might be a nutrient miner.

  6. I love the look of dandelions, the flowers and the fluffy seed heads are beautiful, so they stay. And I’ve transplanted purslane into the garden and have started eating that in salad this year. Very good.

  7. Funny thing. The biggest weed I have in my garden is tomato seedlings. Second is Amaranth. Both from home grown compost. Although I grow and eat both they have established themselves throughout the garden. I just pull them out and recompost them. I have also started leaving dandelions as you have for adding to salad.

  8. Thanks for this one! I didn’t know about purslane. Edible and high in omega-3! I have a child with a thyroid issue. He takes fish oil tablets daily. Maybe we can do away with them and their packaging!

  9. I’ve read posts from you guys before about purslane and that prompted me to stop and inspect a weed beside the path at my local university. I’m fairly sure it’s purslane but it has a green stem. All photos I’ve seen show it as a pink/red stem.

    Would this be purslane or a relative?

    1. Brad, there’s an excellent network of incredibly knowledgable people sharing info on the FB group @Edible Weeds and other useful survival information. These guys are the best; my automatic ‘go to’ when i need to ID something….the answers are instantaneous too because there’s so many people in the group. Take a photo and add a post. Hope they can help out. Nat

  10. Thanks this is so helpful – I have identified at least one of my weeds as purslane. I also have one that my friends call a native tomato, although I’ve never seen any fruit. Plus amaranth and onion grass, and other unidentified types.

  11. My favorite in our garden at the moment is Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). Lots of quite tasty little black berries. Closely followed by the Oxalis crew. They’re something that I’m excited to discover growing. I especially like eating the flowers!

  12. Be a little bit wary of purslane: it produces oxalic acid, which is problematic if you have a history of kidney stones. Oxalic acid also tastes awful and can give you a really unpleasant feeling in your mouth for a while. The rule of thumb is the tougher the growing conditions (hot, dry, poor soil) the more oxalic acid produced. Which explains why the purslane in Kirsten’s veg garden is tasty and the purslane in my local park is bloody awful!

    1. So glad I made time to read this article. Purslane!? Didn’t know its name, have been pulling out tonnes of it. Now wishing I hadn’t 🙁 But thanks very much for this warning about oxalic acid. So, would blanching or wilting neutralise it, as with other (leafier) greens?

  13. Has anyone figured out how to eradicate couch? It is extremely persistent and can come back from the tiniest bit of root left in the ground. We have recently planted white clover in that bed to try and out compete it as we have discovered in a book by Masanobu Fukuoka that clover is great as a ground cover to get rid of other undesirable weeds. Has anyone tried this before? Cheers

  14. Thanks for a very thoughtful article. I found that frequent harvesting of dandelion leaves seemed to make them more edible. Maybe it was just me getting used to them or maybe the plant wasn’t able to put quite so much “oomph” into making the leaves less palatable? Pattern recognition weeding / harvesting, love it.

  15. Thanks for the article. As usual, thought provoking and interesting. Hi Jessie, Hawthorns can be difficult to kill because they easily regrow from the cut stool. I found that it was best to cut them down in spring or early summer before berries were formed. A second person needed to be on hand with concentrated Round Up (or its generic alternative) in a container and brush or sponge (wearing strong impermeable gloves) to soak the stump immediately after cutting. Any occasional regrowth should be regularly dabbed with the same mixture. Try killing Poplars and their roots (drill holes and fill with Round Up) before cutting down or you may get significant growth of shoots from the roots system.

  16. Have absolutely loved this and have used some of the information along with my internet research to create Edible Weed Cards for my Weed Warriors at Seaforth Public School. The garden has been taken over in the summer holidays and this activity will be the first cab of the rank next week. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  17. Very interesting site. What you call Petty Spurge is actually the “Weedy variety” of a Euphorbia, and I have used it extensively to get rid of senile warts and other unsightly skin spots, whether cancerous or not. Some take about two weeks to scald off, and I collect the Euphorbia twice or three times a day when it is cool, otherwise the sap won’t rise. I dab it onto the spot liberally and let it dry. It will eventually become itchy and red around the spot, but I keep going until the scab softens and falls off. Voila! No medical intervention required.

    Also, a weed which is common in my garden is Nettle, which makes very good nettle tea or nettle soup, very tasy with garlic and other herbs, and mallow. It surfaces everywhere, and the ones I keep have to be picked as young leaves and steamed as a replacement spinach, very tasty and healthy. When they get older the m,allow plants get rust on their leaves, which probably get transferred from the hollyhocks. Still can’t find a strategy to get rid of couch and kikuyu….

  18. I’ve finally got my ‘weeds’ just right, the sow thistle, amaranth (including self-sown cultivated types), native spinach, flea bane and chickweed now being almost all that I get, in welcome amounts, and I always leave some be so they keep coming. (fleabane for chook bedding and rubbing on the dog btw, not food). Very little dandelion, which is fine as I am an unrepentant apostate who thinks it’s awful. I’m leaving all the small amount of purslane be this summer to seed so I get more of it and plan to actively introduce some fat hen. A daily harvest goes mostly to the chooks (they f’ing love sow thistle) and occasionally to the kitchen. Other than some winter kale and lettuce I now grow (or buy) no leafy greens other than an occasional summer lettuce. And (despite being a mad keen forager (@foragersyear)) I haven’t gathered any wild green other than nettle and watercress for over a year. So… are they weeds or are they self-sown veg? The easy answer is simply ‘yes’ and the same q&a applies to rocket and coriander in the garden – yes, they are either weeds or veg; and their production is both foraging and horticulture. I confess to only knowing a little about permaculture, most of it vicariously, but I would have guessed that actively ‘inoculating’ a garden with handy self-sowing ‘weeds’ was an orthodox thing.

    1. yep, permaculture design is about planting + encouraging whatever’s appropriate to grow in a certain space/context, and is useful, and performs multiple functions if possible.

      Rather than saying ‘this is a certified vegetable and therefore may grow, while this other completely useful and non-invasive plant may not, because cultural something something ‘ 🙂

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