Learn from weeds

close-up of dandelions, learn from weeds

You may hate weeding, but there are reasons to like weeds—or at least respect them. 

Weeds are good for your soil, and there's a lot we can learn from weeds. They're resilient enough to grow pretty much everywhere, no matter how poor or barren the earth. They cover and give soil life, much like a living mulch, which is a boon for the climate. And seasonal cycles of weeds growing and dying build up nutrients in the soil and make way for larger plants, like shrubs and trees. Without weeds, the natural landscape we love would be very different.

Weeds also tell you a lot about your soil. Before pulling weeds, try reading what they have to say about your planting area. Weeds can signal whether you have soil that’s low in nutrients, high in acid, or even waterlogged. We highly recommend buying a field guide to weeds growing in your region so you can learn from them.


Soggy soil

Weeds that signal soggy soil: dock, horsetails, chickweed, sedge, and willows

What to do about it: Wet and soggy soils are hard to drain and frankly not worth messing with. Besides, given that wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s probably better for the planet if you just let it be.


Compacted soil

Weeds that signal compacted soil: chicory, knotweed, dandelion, and bindweed

What to do about it: Packed soil limits the ability of plants to extend their roots and absorb vital nutrients for growth. A good way to break up the soil is to plant it with a cover crop like clover or vetch in the fall. The roots can punch through the soil, loosening it in time for the next season’s crop. Another option is to use a broadfork, which is a large heavy four-pronged steel fork that loosens the soil without having to till it.


Acidic soil

Weeds that signal acidic soil: plantain, sorrel, and stinging nettle

What to do about it: Soil that is acidic has a very low pH and, unless you are growing blueberries, your plants will struggle to survive. You can change your soil pH by adding lime, follow instructions from the supplier. The lower your pH, the more lime you will need.

If you don’t want to add lime, you can plant blueberries, rhubarb, endive, shallots, potatoes, or watermelon in that area because they can tolerate soils as low as 5.0 pH.


Basic soil

Weeds that signal basic soil: Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, peppergrass, and chickweed

What to do about it: Basic soil is alkaline, which is another way of saying it has a very high pH. A high pH is usually a result of calcium-rich bedrock. Treating basic soils with elemental sulfur quickly lowers the pH, but we prefer adding lots of compost instead because it yields a bigger return. Compost acts to buffer the soil and prevent sudden changes in pH. The complex molecular structure of compost provides a great deal of hydrogen atoms, lowering pH and enhancing soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients; not to mention the carbon benefits of composting.

Another option is to plant your basic soil with asparagus or members of the cucumber family, which do just fine in a high pH environment.


Fertile soil

Weeds that signal fertile soil: foxtail, chicory, purslane, and lambsquarters

What to do about it: Every gardener dreams about having fertile soil, but the downside is that weeds love it too. This means you have to be highly vigilant about removing weeds as soon they crop up and before they start to seed, or they’ll wreak havoc on the rest of your plants.


Dry and sandy soil

Weeds that signal dry and sandy soil: sorrel, thistle, yarrow, and nettle

What to do about it: Sandy soil is not a terrible thing. In fact, many vegetables love the loose, well-drained stuff. Best way to deal with this is to grow plants that love living in it, which include carrots, beets, onion, and garlic. Toss in some extra compost for a nutrient-boost.


Heavy clay soil

Weeds that signal heavy clay soil: plantain, nettle, and quack grass

What to do about it: Most plants have a difficult time thriving in heavy clay because the dense soil makes it difficult for healthy roots to develop. But some plants do just fine in this dense environment, including shallow-rooted annuals, like lettuce, chard, and beans, which appreciate the moisture. Deep-rooted top-heavy crops, like broccoli and cabbage, also benefit from the stability offered by clay. 


Article originally published on Stone Pier Press, written by Acadia Tucker, a regenerative farmer, climate activist, and author.