Green spaces have been shown to offer many health benefits to the mind and body. Even so, gardening isn’t without its frustrations, with one of the top issues being how to keep weeds at bay. Rohan Harrison, team leader of Sunnybrook’s Grounds Department, offers some unexpected insights around understanding so-called “weeds” and how to manage them in your own garden. Rohan is also an accredited organic lawn care practitioner.
What is a garden weed?
By definition, “a weed is a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, or a plant in the wrong place.” That means your lovely Kentucky blue grass found growing in your garden bed would be considered a weed. Likewise, your carrot, tomato plant or zinnias found growing in your lawn would be considered weeds. We have created expectations around the “perfect” lawn or garden based on the tidiness of the landscape and culturally manicured spaces.
Agronomically speaking, weeds are considered plants that are better adapted to the existing growing conditions more than the plants you prefer to see in that location. Because of their persistency, tolerance and ability to adapt to the environmental growing conditions, these plants — such as dandelion, plantains and clover — are considered weeds in our North American environment. When one species is unable to grow, dies or performs poorly, another environmental adaptive species (weed) takes its place.
The hidden benefits of weeds
The truth is, weeds are useful for a few reasons. They provide visual clues of the nutrient content in your soil, and what may be lacking or imbalanced. For example, dandelions thrive in soil with very low calcium, low humus, poor residue decomposition and iron deficiencies. Clover is an indication that nitrogen is lacking. If your garden contains many different types of weeds, that’s usually a sign that the overall fertility of the soil is unbalanced. A soil test can be helpful in pinpointing exactly what you are dealing with.
Some weeds actually add food back into the soil that our chosen plants aren’t able to. For example, clovers help bring nitrogen into the soil, which in turn feeds the surrounding crops and plants.
The best way to get rid of weeds
You may be tempted to pull weeds out, or use harsh chemicals to kill them, but these approaches don’t address the root of the problem. In addition to be ineffective, these methods can be frustrating, expensive and even harmful.
Instead, let nature do the weed control for you. Because the soil dictates what grows, the best way to control weeds is by addressing your soil’s nutrition and pH levels. Each plant species has its preferred pH range, so make sure yours supports the plants you want in your garden.
If the pH of your soil is outside the normal ideal range, plants also won’t be able to absorb nutrients and your garden won’t grow properly. That’s why it’s also important to check the pH of any fertilizers you use.
Until your soil chemistry is in balance, pulling weeds out by hand — or with an extended tool for those with mobility issues — is the best option that won’t interfere with soil biology and biodiversity.
Other helpful tips
- Apply organic vegetable compost to help balance soil density and pH.
- Avoid tilling (cultivating) in order to protect soil structure and microbiology.
- Use organic mulch when and where possible, even though this may require balancing your expectation and appreciation for the “perfect” garden.
- Be patient and supportive. If you have to remove flowering weeds such as clover, do so only after the flower has started to die. These plants help to feed our pollinating insects, especially our declining honey bee population.
- Learn more about the wonderful array of plants that are native to your area. Opting for these varieties will help minimize the risk of dealing with “weeds” in the future.