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A plant out of place, or not?

One of the very first things you learn in agricultural school is the definition of a weed. According to knowledgeable professors wearing ties and mud boots, a weed is “a plant out of place.” This tidbit of wisdom shows up in books, slide shows, bulletin boards, and multiple choice tests.

What this means is that a prize-winning dahlia growing in your cornfield is a weed, as is an eight-foot stalk of corn towering from your flower bed. What makes a weed depends on your goals and desires. In other words, the thing that makes a weed a weed is not a job description written in genetic code, rather it is a title bestowed at birth.

A different take on weeds

My husband, who is as perplexed by agronomic principles as I am by engineering ones, has a totally different take on weeds. He says if mowing a plant makes it stronger, if hacking its roots with an ax gives it motivation, or if fire, poison, salt, and dehydration make it giggle, it is a weed. If the leaves hug the ground so tightly you have to peel them off in layers, it is a weed. Furthermore, if you whack it down and stick it in a blender, each individual microscopic piece will mushroom into tree-like majesty inside of a week.

We used to argue about this. He thought there had to be more to weedhood than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, he believes the word “weed”—along with instructions on how to defeat a hoe—is hardwired right into their DNA.

Letting the volunteers grow

Ironically, this same husband (there’s only been the one, so I’m pretty sure) insists on letting volunteers grow wherever they see fit. For you non-agronomic types, a volunteer is a crop plant that manages to grow in a place you didn’t put it. In other words, it’s a weed.

For example, you may find a volunteer parsnip growing out of your compost heap, or a volunteer carrot springing from your row of beans. While these things scream Weed! to me, he sees them as desirable plants that somehow found the perfect place to sprout. He believes volunteers do better than deliberately sown plants because luck landed them in the ideal spot. These plants are happy, content and grow like, well, weeds.

So as not to offend his sensibilities, I cannot just yank them out. All summer long I have to work around them, baby them, and lullaby them. They take time. This year I have a potato growing from my supply of potting soil, lettuce growing between the peppers, and a tree of cilantro blossoming among the forget-me-nots. How can I possibly forget?

Truth in engineer-think

Whether I like it or not, I have to admit seeing some truth in my husband’s strange ideas. The so-called weeds really are indestructible and the volunteer plants do incredibly well. Just yesterday I was weeding around the volunteer potato plant when potatoes spontaneously began rolling out of the ground. Whenever I pulled another weed, a firm and glossy potato popped out with it. What fun!

On the other hand, the potatoes I planted this year were a fail. I got about two potatoes for each one I placed in the ground (and watered, weeded, and fertilized) and the volunteer cilantro was absolutely voluptuous compared to its carefully sown counterparts that just flopped over.

And speaking of weeds, last year at the end of the season, I pickaxed all the lemon balm that surrounded the mulberry. This was a proactive measure to assure I could tend the tree. But this year, by the time the berries appeared, I couldn’t get near enough to pick them. In spite of removing the root balls, the lemon balm returned lush, aromatic, and about four feet tall. Although I couldn’t get near the tree, the birds had no problem, and now I have seedy purple droppings all over my leaf lettuce.

Sherry’s goldenrod

The entire subject of weeds and volunteers came to mind because of a comment left on a post by a reader. Sherry wrote:

Whenever I see something new in my garden, instead of weeding it, I wait to see what it becomes. I did this with a little weed three years ago. It grew so tall I could barely touch the top, then bloomed with huge spikes of golden flowers in late summer/early fall. Giant Goldenrod! I loved it, even though it was about 50x as tall as the rest of my hummingbird/bee/butterfly garden.

The next year, there were three of them. The next year, 6. Now there is a patch of about a dozen and I need a stepladder to see the tops, which, probably due to my fertilizer, are branched out with many stalks that will become flowers. Last year, they were swarmed with bees and some kind of tiny butterfly. I’m pretty excited to see how many come this year. It’s amazing to see how much wildlife is thriving around my decision not to pull a little “weed.”

Sherry, being both curious and flexible, was rewarded for her wait-and-see attitude. I, on the other hand, have planted goldenrod in my pollinator garden for years and have never had so much as a seedling come out of it.

Weeds and volunteers

So now that I’ve shared my weed stories with you, tell me: What is your take on weeds and volunteers? How do you decide what to keep? Do you ever let volunteers (aka weeds) do their own thing? Have you ever known a more inept gardener than I?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A small solitary wasp enjoys the volunteer cilantro growing among the forget-me-nots.
A small solitary wasp enjoys the volunteer cilantro growing among the forget-me-nots. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

Beekeeping has taught me to call weeds “wildflowers”.

My partner used to carefully start three kinds of tomatoes from seeds and transplant them to the garden and coddle them. We had lovely crops of tomatoes.

Then he got cancer and for the last two years we’ve just stuck the tomato cages around whatever volunteer tomato plants came up in the garden. AND… we have lovely crops of tomatoes!

Your husband’s weed theory reminds me of the definition of the root tip as the part of your expensive landscaping purchase that you will accidentally nick when you transplant it, so the whole plant dies; and the part of the pernicious weed that, no matter how deep you dig, you will accidentally leave in the ground so the vicious weed comes back twice as big.

Rusty
Reply

Roberta,

“Beekeeping has taught me to call weeds ‘wildflowers.’”

I love that!

Bonnie
Reply

I used to weed n feed my yard every spring to get rid of the dandelions and my hubby would get so irritated because he had to mow the lawn so often. Then we got honey bees so no more weed n feed. We still have a nice yard but it also has lots of yellow flowing in the wind and bouncing as the bees move from stalk to stalk. I have even planted white clover in patches and mow around it. It kind of looks like a sculptured rug. I have tried to plant some roadside flowering weeds also but have not had much with those taking root.

Rusty
Reply

Bonnie,

My husband mows around the patches of clover, too. It’s kind of cute.

Erik
Reply

I stopped feeding/coddling our lawn a couple years ago. I mow every 2-3 weeks at 4 inches and just let it grow. I save time and fuel, and have lovely wildflowers (no weeds!) all spring and into summer.

vic
Reply

Without a picture it is impossible to make a judgement. However, while a friend just happened to show me today four types of goldenrod he had sown several years ago none needed a stepladder. I don’t know where sherry lives but back east in Maryland we have what sounds like what she is describing-wingstem, Verbesina alternifolio. Started to bloom august 14 and does need a stepladder. 8-9’ tall. big globes of yellow flowers. It gives me my second big honey crop. Bees love it.

Diane hamby
Reply

I have a garden and property that all pollinators love. My only rule is it must flower to stay…I have many different kinds of goldenrod that blooms for six weeks. Every kind of native weed/flower lives here. The bees love it, native and my honeybees…all kinds of butterflies (the monarchs know to stop here and lay eggs) and stop again in the fall to eat. The hummingbirds love to summer here. The pasture is in wild native flower/weeds till a killing frost and then bush hogged for next season. I love flowers all kinds…

Ian
Reply

My parents had purchased plants die in the pots they were trying to overwinter them in. Next spring a whole bunch of different plants sprouted up in the pots. My mom picked out most but left four to grow to see what they were. They turned out to be joe pye weed which is great for their new new (first) beehive! My mom now wishes she had left all the seedlings to sprout!

Lolly
Reply

I’ve been “busy” and haven’t read one of your posts in a while. Shame on me. You are an absolute joy to read. I love my volunteers. This year tomatoes. Two years ago some very delicious cantaloupe (which was a failed crop from the year before). Keep posting, you make me smile.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Lolly.

Gary Kaufman
Reply

Must be a gender thing [the what is a weed rule]. Last year right about this time, a “squash” of some kind sprouted on the edge of our rather sizable compost pile. No clue where the seed came from since we haven’t grown any type of squash in years. So I let it go just for giggles. Didn’t do anything to it, but let it grow. By the end of October I had 6 absolutely amazing AND RIPE sugar pumpkins. Fastest growing pumpkin plant I’ve ever seen They weren’t jumbo by any means, but they had fully matured and made some of the best pie I have ever eaten. Nope, I’m not the baker in the family, so my wife gets more than half the credit. Best guess is the seed came from the mix of squirrel food we feed and poof, nature did what nature does. AND the outer rind was soft and tender and still sweet enough that our llamas loved the tidbits we gave them as treats.

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

Sounds delicious…and I’m beginning to agree with you on the gender thing.

Sharon Klemm
Reply

With all due respect, there has to be a definition between a weed, a native plant and an invasive. A weed, by my definition, is any plant that does not occur naturally in any given ecosystem. Thus, all of of the mentioned domesticated food crops are, by this definition, weeds. Colorado Blue Spruce, which are native to the US, are not native to my neck of the woods, the Great Lakes, and are therefore, weeds. By that same token, a native plant which is indigenous to a particular ecosystem can absolutely become invasive, particularly if if that ecosystem has been disrupted in such a manner that eliminated all of the natural controls on its reproduction. It can find itself being labeled a weed. And, not all introduced species become problems, they behave and stay well contained; this however, is more often than not, not the case. (And I don’t like them anyway bc they are taking the space of a native plant that belongs there.) The thing is, the interface between plants and insects, including the pollinators, native and introduced, is the foundation of the entire food chain and way more complex than most people imagine. So, to be a weed or not to be a weed, that is the question, and it is absolutely a question that deserves way more attention than it usually gets.

Thanks, Rusty, for bringing this super important issue to the table.

Jon Sumpter
Reply

Hi, Engineer type to your husband — Go for it guy!! Wife’s flower patch had huge green thing growing last year. We let it winter over. This summer we have a Black Hollyhock 10 ft tall. Bumblebees love ’em. Have potato plant in acorn squash plant. Acorn squash 2 ‘ tall, potato 2’4″ tall.

Please keep up to great blog.
Jon S
Waldport, Oregon

Trish
Reply

I love weeds.

Herb Robert is my favourite. Beautiful little pink flowers over ferny foliage that changes colour with the seasons. It is a bonus that honey bees and bumble bees also love them.

Weeds seem to have their flowers and foliage more in harmony with each other, neither overpowering the other and they don’t seem to get pest infested either!

My grand daughter’s favourite is dandelions.

Steven
Reply

Since I got beekeeping, spraying weeds has become anathema at our house. If they sprout in the small spaces in the concrete paths, they get hand pulled and fed to the chickens. Otherwise I leave them alone. But I prefer the aesthetics of a variety of small flowering “weeds” in the yard, rather than boring monochromatic green turf.

Paula Carnell
Reply

Since I began studying herbal medicine four years ago, weeds have become medicine!

My husband has needed much educating during my beekeeping and herbal medicine career. Through research on both of my passions I’ve learned that plants each have a purpose with processing minerals in the soil, moving on once the soil has been re balanced. Dandelions are a common example, their deep tap roots pulling up calcium and potassium into their leaves which are replaced into the soil as they die back. Once they have completed their role the dandelion seeds no longer take in that area! Wow! Therefore ‘volunteers’ thrive because they’re needed in that area.

I’ve started observing plants that appear, teasels recently which provide medicine for my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. The next level is are plants drawn to areas to heal people /animals as well as the soil? So the saying ‘what you resist, persists’is absolutely spot on with dandelions if you ‘let them be’ eventually they’ll move on leaving you with a balanced calcium rich soil!

Ray
Reply

There’s a certain tree-hugging (nay, pompous) attitude to weeds in UK beekeeping circles. I’m supposed to let dandelions, buttercups and daisies thrive in my lawn, but they will take over the world (ok, my little world) unless I ruthlessly wage war on the little blighters! I have a friend who allows ANYTHING to grow in her lawn and, I kid you not, there is now no grass left and yet she moans that her neighbors lawn looks so green and lush compared to her threadbare monstrosity! I’m with your husband Rusty, a weed is a weed is a weed and I could add to his defining qualities by observing that the ‘weeds’ will inevitably squeeze out the plants supposed to be growing, like a cuckoo pushing eggs out of a nest. I should add however that I do have a slightly smug addendum; I live remotely and my little patch is surrounded by fields and boundaries full of thistle, nettle, bramble and a multitude of ‘wild flowers’ (gasp, weeds!)

Rusty
Reply

You are so funny, Ray, as you “wage war on the little blighters!”

Debbie in Ohio
Reply

It’s funny you write about this today because yesterday I was at an Amish farm and saw tons of yellow flowers in the fields with the bees working them. We walked out to look at the flowers and the Amish guy told me if you plant one, next year you will have a field of them, he can’t get rid of them. Of course I could not resist taking some of the seed heads for my field! Tons of them, so easy, what more could a bee want! Plus, they come up at the perfect time of year, August.

I also stop along the roadsides and dig out ‘weeds’ that I like, bring them home, plant them in my ditch and call them ‘ground cover’. I tried bringing home milkweed, it won’t take in the field, but it loves the front ditch at the road, so that’s where the milkweed gets planted.

Beekeepers are strange people when it comes to providing for their bees. You find them taking seedheads from here and there to take home and plant. My mom came out one time, started pulling some weeds from the side of the house, and I stopped her and told her “Stop pulling my ground cover”. Now she brings me seedheads to plant.

We also have a creek that runs through our property, and I filled it with plants that I got along the roads, like ditch lilies, reeds, chicory, etc., and I also put the blueberries and other berry bushes along this creek, this way you don’t have to water the berries and they get replenished with each rain. (ha ha)

Nothing ‘tailored’ about this property … it’s all bee habitat. It looks a mess compared to most, but the wildlife and the bees love it.

Beekeepers love ‘wildflowers’ of any kind. I, too, mow around the clover in the field. Great post Rusty!

Rusty
Reply

I would love to see your place, Debbie. It sounds enchanting.

James Shiloh
Reply

This is a fun article. We weed the little grasses and “scrub” that rears themselves in the garden beds, but if it does flower, we leave it for the pollinators. We have 3 hives also.

Volunteers! We mow around them, give them room to grow, and honestly, give them less attention, and yes, they typically do better than the “well loved” counterparts.

Rusty
Reply

James,

I’m amazed at how many people let volunteers grow. I just noticed that the tomato plant growing under some cedars in the front yard has flowers on it. Who knew?

Steve
Reply

I love the mention of “volunteers” in the garden. I am transported back forty years to helping my dad in his garden. The “volunteers” were carefully tended and nurtured and I smile at the memories. Now, somewhat to my wife’s chagrin, if I notice some small, green leaf that I don’t recognize in the mulch, I tend to it to see what it turns out to be. Sometimes I’m rewarded with flowers and bees, sometimes not. But the process amuses me. Or is it annoying my wife that amuses me? I’ll have to ponder that one…

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

Very funny, but I’ll bet your wife doesn’t think so!

Steve Rodney
Reply

I like this discussion. While we live in a more arid part of the west than Rusty does, at 7200′, in a large ponderosa pine forest, our back yard is full of “wildflowers” by August 1st. My minimalist approach to weeding is to wait and if a stray plant produces some sort of interesting flower (either pretty to humans or attractive to pollinators) I leave the plant alone until it withers. I do occasionally pull up some of the invaders in our overgrown flower garden but only to give the cultivated flowers a little space and a chance to get water and food.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Lots of interesting thoughts. But there are distinct botanical criteria for weeds, although they’re from many different plant families. A weed is:

1. Hardy. Not necessarily cold-hardy – Lambsquarters and Amaranth are frost-tender. But they are tolerant of heat, drought and compacted soil. Bindweed is resistant to Roundup (yaay Bindweed!)

2. Prolific:either productive of abundant seed (Foxtail grass) or with a highly efficient method of seed dispersal (dandelion, thistle) or an efficient alternative to seeds (Burdock’s roots which if broken off, make 6-12 new crowns, Quackgrass’s tenacious rhizomes).

3. Invasive: takes over disturbed ground, whether loosened, compacted, dried or flooded by human activity, and

4. Displacing: thrives in competition with crop species.

They’re not “wildflowers in the wrong place.” If the Bluegrass’s delicate, fragrant Rose Gentian appeared in my vegetable garden, I’d fence around it. It’s no threat to the zucchini, and it’s almost impossible to transplant or propagate. But many of them (Curly dock) are just common ugly. Blue Violets are lovely, make pretty jelly, and are tolerated in our lawn, but not in the Garlic ground.

They’re not “plants whose use is unknown.” Lambsquarters is edible, Burdock is a fine bee forage between Clover & Goldenrod, Chicory is a natural livestock antiparasitic. Foxtail is an indicator weed for low soil Ca. Curly Dock is a great vegetal dye. But they’ll out-compete your Eggplant and Green Beans if not kept in check.

Weeds are hardy because we have selected them to be. We baby our crop plants with fertilizer, water, mulch, row cover, protection from pests and disease: they’ve adapted by becoming dependent on our care. We trample, uproot, mow, burn and smother weeds, and they’ve adapted by thriving on mistreatment. We’ve all found a successfully uprooted dandelion flowering and setting seed on top of the compost pile.

I acknowledge these are all value judgments. If you ate today, you’ll admit their value. I do workshops on weed identification and non-chemical weed control – including how to tolerate Burdock during summer dearth but still keep it from taking over your perennial bed. (How’s your Greek? It’s a “monocarpic perennial”)

Oh, and clover? Not a weed: a forage crop. They only ever called it a weed so they could sell you chemicals to kill it. It’s good for your lawn and bees. Mow it late in the day: it will set new blooms by morning.

Nan

Rusty
Reply

I can see you didn’t go to ag school!

steven olsen
Reply

I have to agree with your husband. It drives my wife crazy. I can’t help it. It’s flourishing, let it be. Let’s see what happens. Everything in moderation though. 😳

Kathy Cox
Reply

Ok, weeds can be wonderful, but the bane of my existence is a ranunculus-type week called buttercup. It has tried to crowd out my new wildflower garden. I am determined to eliminate it if I live long enough. I have read that it is a toxic plant for the bees, so I consider it a non plant and one I must pull, pull, pull. If anyone has had success eliminating it, please let me know.

CLAUDIA A MARTIN
Reply

Oh! To be married to a ‘grass’ man is painful. If I could let the entire yard revert to natural plants, I would. I have endless controversy with his “not over the irrigation.” He doesn’t like cutting grass, but it is his idea of beauty to have the lawn. I’ve been trying to shrink it down with bushy green strawberries, out of control mint and catnip, wild herbs that we have to explore the net to discover its uses.

I’ve spent hundreds on plants, but have had less than 1% success from seeds. The volunteers or bought transplants are the only ones that survive. I truly believe that volunteers come up because the bacteria, viruses, and fungi in the soil welcome the plants…that they have a symbiotic relationship. I use roses as one of my examples. If you pull all the roses out of an area, roses will never grow well in the same soil ever again. I think there is something that ends up pulled into their roots, never to return.

Peanuts have an inoculant that helps spur their growth. (Not one of mine came up.) Inoculant? It’s basically a Rhizobium bacterium in bulk. It’s just we humans don’t know everything. I’d have bees, also, except my area is anti-everything, chickens, goats, etc. They only just got on the xeriscaping bandwagon in the last couple of years. Before the “water-shortage,” cactus and grass was an anathema and subject to a write-up. I wish some of these folks would put their community names. I’d like to move to a few of them in a couple years.

Love this website.

Regency Estates (sounds high-falutin’, but just folks (some) with RVs and troubles like everybody else.

Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Rusty
Reply

Claudia,

Isn’t amazing how many people (i.e. men) insist on a grass lawn and then spend the rest of their time complaining about having to mow it? So strange.

Lee Ellen Hart
Reply

Rusty- I just about fell over laughing with this post. I needed some comic relief today and you came through 🙂 Thank you! I can see my husband and me having this back and forth exchange. You cracked me up. PS: I can’t grow a flower regardless of the gazillion I’ve bought so apparently everything I have is now a weed. My clover looked great until it got hot. And I only dream of an opportunistic potato. Thanks for a great start to the day!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you! A smile is always precious.

Richard Rurup
Reply

Rusty, I think it is a plant that is growing where it is not wanted, so a volunteer, or any plant that comes up in the “wrong place” can still be wanted and appreciated.

Debby from Southern New Hampshire
Reply

Rusty, I have enjoyed this article and all the comments that followed, and I will add one more. A couple years ago, a reservoir’s dam near me was being rebuilt, and there was a long, wide expanse from the top of the dam down to its outlet. I called up the engineer to suggest that it be planted with white dutch clover, because, and I listed its attributes, it only grew about eight inches tall and would never have to be mowed, was hardy so once established the state would never have to attend to it, and it was a great pollinator plant which we definitely need (I did confess that I raised honey bees and admitted my ulterior motive). She thanked me for my interest and would pass the information along to the company hired to do the bank seeding. This year that slope was covered with a thick mass of beautiful white clover blossoms, gorgeous to behold. I was delighted that those in power had listened – perhaps they’ll plant clover on the other slopes they are charged with seeding.

I have volunteer flowers that end up all over and I tolerate them, some I end up cultivating. But one plant that I will always classify as a weed is crab grass or witch grass or quackgrass – I don’t know whether they are all the same thing or not, but I am constantly battling with them. Meanwhile, the dandelions, the hyssop, the mountain mint, cleome, cilandro, poppies, and butterfly weed have free rein.

Thank you for a great blog.

Rusty
Reply

Debby,

That is amazing that they listened to you, and what a great result. Congratulations.

Mark Matsuda
Reply

I really had a sterile view of my yard for decades. I suppose when younger I was busy with interests. Then I got married. I told my wife, “there are no bees here. I never see them.”
Then came the flowers to my Lego looking garden. Pot after pot planted and surprise…bees! Amid my former blueprinted landscape rose a magnificent flower garden!

In recent years i have had great success with surprise upstarts in my crop garden but remained ever vigilant to weeding the yard beds. Indeed amazing results compared to purpose planted.

So this year little tomatoes, sunflower, squash popped up late from composted soil after redoing a shrub area in the front. Fighting the urge to groom the bed, I waited to see what happened. My wife, the flower planter prefers varieties in group clusters. For days it was “Get those tomatoes out of the heather! Those green stalks in the lavender have to go too! And what are those big leafy things in my coreopsis?” Veggies go in the side garden! Not in the front amid my roses and for sure not in the wildflowers. Then the sunflowers began to bloom. She was happy again. The tomatoes out paced those planted month before, hearty lush green squash where those in my garden withered from powdery mildew! Yep! I’m with your husband on this. Volunteers grow like weeds!

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

I added compost from the pile to my front pollinator garden this year and I have to admit, the tomato plant that volunteered there was bigger and healthier than any of those in my garden!

Lisa Wolff
Reply

To keep the precious garden space for what we want to grow, we don’t allow volunteer cucurbits to grow – we did one year & the pumpkin covered half our backyard & not one fruit! Almost everything else is allowed to flourish and I have even scattered dandelion seeds from ‘weeds’ in the lawn, in my veggie patch for winter greens. Thanks. 🙂

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