I’ve always enjoyed listening to call-in garden talk shows on the radio. It intrigues me, though, when someone calls in and describes a certain weed and stumps the host. I often know the answer, though, as long as the caller offers sufficient detail.
Of course that doesn’t mean that I’m any smarter than anyone else. It just shows that “weeds” are important to me. After all, many of these weeds are useful in one or more ways. Some have food value, others have physical beauty and some combine both.
As I see it, this idea of gardeners devoting more time to learning about our wild plants has considerable merit.
For one thing, other than simply adding to their overall pool of general knowledge, gardeners can, by studying wild plants, learn how to use them to their advantage.
Sure, some wildlings are overly aggressive and need taming. But even these can peacefully co-exist with our cultivated flowers and vegetables. We only need to learn how to balance the two. Let me offer a for-instance.
Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, can drive gardeners to distraction. Once lamb’s quarters seed is introduced to a garden plot (usually by adding barnyard manure or not-quite-cooked compost), the cycle begins and there is little we can do to interrupt it. So we need to take a fresh look at this ubiquitous, leafy green plant.
In spring, lamb’s quarter seedlings are often the first green things we see growing in our garden beds. These are fast growing, too, and often it only takes eight or 10 days of good, warm weather for the young lamb’s quarters to grow to a useable size. And this is when most people go on the offensive. With hoe in hand, they ruthlessly attack every lamb’s quarter plant they see, chopping with a fury guaranteed to raise blisters. But we have a better way.
Since lamb’s quarters are very shallow-rooted, pulling up the entire plant takes but little effort. And if, as we pull up the tender plants we take time to snip the roots off with thumb and forefinger, the end result is a ready-to-cook plant. Or in this case, pint, quart or even bushel of plants.
Right now, in late January, I’m reveling in the lamb’s quarters that I picked from my raised bed gardens last spring. These I parboiled and froze and now they provide a delicious side dish to many a wintertime meal.
Also, by hand-pulling individual plants, we wind up with a far lower re-emergence rate. Hoeing often does not entirely sever the roots and although the plant is covered with soil, it soon pops up and resumes growing. Pulling a plant in its entirety means an end to that plant.
In fact, I often make it a point to leave a few lamb’s quarter plants undisturbed. Here’s why.
First, the tips of even the sturdiest branches hold perfectly tender and fine leaves and these can be gathered and eaten all summer. And if that weren’t enough, the mature plant (these can grow to three feet or more) acts as a trap for leaf miners, those pesky insects that get inside green leaves and eat their way around, leaving unsightly “snail trail” marks. It seems to me that this biological control beats heck out of poison.
So far from being a nuisance, lamb’s quarters have become an important component to my garden’s annual biomass. They are as valuable a crop as anything else and perhaps more valuable than some.
Other wild plants – weeds – have similar virtues.
I find that concerning garden weeds, most of those that appear in my garden beds are edible. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name one that wasn’t.
So by managing their weeds, gardeners can enjoy the best of both worlds. And that’s why I say that it pays for gardeners to learn more about the weeds growing all around them.