Who decides what is and isn’t a weed?
Consider the humble dandelion. It has lovely brilliant yellow flowers, delightful seed balls that children love to blow on, leaves you can eat (if you catch them early before they get bitter), and pollinators love them.
Or think about clover. Did you ever pull off the little flower spikes and suck on the end when you were a child? They have a delicate sweetness, like honey, especially the larger pink ones. Clover adds nitrogen to the soil, so it’s good for soil and for pollinators. What’s not to like?
I think a weed is basically anything growing someplace we don’t want it to grow.
Here’s what dictionary.com says: “any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted.”
Another definition says it’s a “valueless plant,” but as we’ve seen from the examples above, that’s not always an accurate description.
Of course, there are weeds that truly are valueless, at least to us (they may have some value to critters). Chickweed comes to mind.
And then there are noxious weeds, so designated because they’re harmful to the environment, crowd out other plants, and may even be toxic to people and animals. Maryland law requires landowners to control five especially noxious weeds: Johnson grass, shattercane, and three kinds of thistle.
I haven’t had much luck eradicating Canada Thistle on our property, probably because not only do the seeds blow everywhere, but also it spreads by deep roots underground. Eradicating it requires not only preventing it from going to seed but also digging up the roots, which can sometimes grow as deep as 6-15 feet!
I appreciated Dee Krasnansky’s letter to the editor after my last column in which she explained why butterfly bush is considered invasive and what we can do about it. She suggested cutting off the flower heads before they go to seed if we don’t want to destroy the plant altogether. I think that is a great idea and maybe that’s one way to try to control thistle, too.
Here are some other ways to control troublesome weeds, besides pulling and digging:
Mulching is an excellent deterrent. Not only does it block weed growth, but it also preserves moisture, stabilizes soil temperature, adds nutrients as it decomposes, and makes weeds that do sprout easier to remove.
I like the idea of putting down a layer of cardboard (a good way to get rid of some of those Chewy boxes!) or newspaper and then covering it with a couple inches of mulch. Both cardboard and newspaper add nutrients to the soil as they break down and do not block beneficial insects like earthworms from traveling through the soil.
Landscape fabric is not a good idea for various reasons, including the length of time it takes to break down and the fact that it does block beneficial organisms from traveling, plus it doesn’t really prevent weeds very well at all.
Plastic mulch has pros and cons, the main cons being that it’s not environmentally friendly and it’s hard to dispose of. I used the red tomato mulch one year and was very happy with the quality of tomatoes it produced.
Another method is to make sure there is no room for weeds to grow. This might involve ground covers or placing plants close together, although it’s important not to plant them so close they steal resources from each other.
As a last resort (in my opinion), herbicides may be used, but sparingly and only on targeted plants. I don’t know of any other way to conquer poison ivy, for instance. Burning it is a bad idea because the smoke can set off an allergic reaction. Digging won’t work unless we’re sure we can get every last piece, because it can regenerate from a bit of root. Chopping it back as far as possible and then spraying or painting the remaining stem with an herbicide like Roundup should do the trick.
There are also recipes for organic herbicides online which may be worth a try.
When all else fails, repeatedly cutting the weed back to the ground might eventually kill it, since removing the above-ground parts of the plant deprives the roots of necessary nutrients needed for growth. Of course, this only works if we’re super diligent and persistent.
One final note: some so-called weeds may actually be worth keeping. One example is violets. I think of them as weeds because they come up everywhere uninvited, but they’re pretty, can make a nice ground cover, and are host plants for Fritillary butterflies. I’m going to stop thinking of them as weeds.
Judy Hake writes from Union Bridge. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month. You can reach her at email@example.com.