Springtime at 24th Street School has been exciting. The garden is in full bloom and thriving, with bountiful blossoms of lush life in every bed and tree. While soft peaches, plump grapes and other desirable growths of the like are on their way to ripeness, so grow the undesirable: weeds. With the help of many volunteers during our Garden Work Days, we have been keeping the weeds at bay at the kitchen and native gardens with much sheet mulching, weed whacking and perseverance.
As with beauty, they say that weeds are in the eye of the beholder. What exactly is a weed? Botanically speaking, a weed is “a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.” Basically, a weed is any plant that grows where it is undesired. Weeds take up space while competing with crops and other valuable plants for nutrients, water and light. While invasive and unwanted, these wild whims of nature can be tamed and made useful.
By smothering weeds with cardboard and mulch, a process called sheet mulching, we have cleared large areas of earth to plant new crops at the school garden. Common types of weeds found in southern California are: Bermuda grass, Dandelions, Crabgrass, California Burclover, Mallow, Wild barley and Whitestem Filaree, to name a few among the many.
With many different types of weeds, come many methods of removal. A variety of weeding tools are available, such as the asparagus stick, also known as the weed knife; the garden fork, garden hoe, the cultivator. Simply pulling out weeds by hand can also do the trick. Whatever method of madness, these basic weeding tips will help get the job done: pull out weeds before they go to seed; pull out the root; wet the earth to loosen up the soil or weed after rain; start early and weed regularly.
If it is true that everything in nature serves a purpose, are weeds all bad? While weeds can disturb the natural and native ecosystem of an environment, they do cool, aerate and stabilize vacant lots and roadsides, serving as “spontaneous urban vegetation,” according to Harvard horticulturist Peter Del Tredici. Also, did you know that many weeds are edible? Most weeds are European migrants, which settlers brought over, and were commonly eaten back in Europe. Dandelions are typically grown and eaten in France as lettuce is grown and eaten in the United States. Dandelions, as with other edible “weeds” such as sorrel, wild mustard leaves, and vetch, may be eaten as a salad or sautéed with olive oil and salt (Eat Your Lawn). Dandelions are also used to make wine. In addition, some weeds can serve as soil health indicators. Vetch, for example, a particular bean, indicates that the soil needs more nitrogen (Eat Your Lawn).
Despite being an annoyance, it is difficult to deny the resiliency of weeds, and perhaps that lesson is their gift to the gardener. Perhaps the very act of weeding cultivates diligence and patience within the gardener, characteristics valuable in and beyond the garden.