University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article

HOW TO GARDEN WITH WEEDS

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 

If your garden has become overrun with weeds, perhaps it has become a "weed garden" instead of just a "weedy" one. As the saying goes, "if you can't beat them, join them." Sally Roth, in her book "Weeds, Friend or Foe?" provides a few gardening tips you should follow in order to have, and keep control over, such a garden.

Most may think this topic absurb at first glance, but there are actually reasons you might want to have a garden of weeds.  They can provide greens for cooking, medicinal uses, crafts, or food for wildlife.  Most weeds double as wildflowers, some more attractive than others and so better suited for a garden just for beauty.

Weeds are best suited to a sunny location, and most soils as long as they are well-drained. Locate your beds away from property lines, in order to keep peace with your neighbors!  Unless your whole yard is to be a weed garden, locate it away from more desirable beds and plants.  Weed seeds can drop, and roots can spread, overwhelming less vigorous plants.

The best way to control weed seed dispersal is to cut them off before they ripen.  Use an old-fashioned scythe, grass clippers, hedge shears, or string trimmer to cut back to half height after flowering.  If you don't get to this, as I often don't, then mulch desirable weed plants with at least two inches of grass clippings or similar organic matter.  Or you can weed your weed garden, odd as this sounds, as you would any garden.

For weeds that spread by roots, keep them in bounds with a barricade around the weed garden.  For best results over a long period, install it one foot deep, and with two inches above the soil.  This may include commercial products, plastic panels, metal sheets, even old vinyl siding.  Make any seams tight so roots wont sneak through.

If you don't want the bother and cost of such a barricade, keep a fallow strip around the bed.  Keep this zone weeded, or spot treat spreading sprouts with an appropriate weed killer.  Even then, be prepared for roots of some weeds to travel a distance into surrounding lawns.  Some may even survive there, although at a lower height, with repeated mowings!

Most weed gardens are in reality just meadow gardens or habitats.  For your vision of such a garden, look around at local natural meadows.  Those meadows pictured on cans of seeds or in catalogs are often just non-native, short-lived but showy annuals.  To have the best of both, plan on a "weed-enhanced" meadow garden.  Use local meadow plants, but intersperse some seeds from those packets or cans each year for spots of color.

Collect seeds of local weeds through the season, planting in fall or storing as you would garden seeds.  Prepare a seedbed as you would for a good garden or lawn.  Roots and plant divisions are best dug in spring or fall, planted at once and kept well watered.

Before collecting any seeds or roots, know what plants you are collecting.  Check to make sure they aren't on your local or state noxious weed and invasive plant lists.  Some of those attractive wildflowers have in fact escaped from cultivation, spreading their seeds beyond gardens. They may be extremely vigorous and take over natural habitats, such as the purple loosestrife in wetlands.

If making a weed garden out of some lawn, leave some of the lawn grass.  Allowed to grow to maturity and flower, these grasses can be quite attractive.  Seedheads of these grasses can be especially beautiful on a dewy morning.

Meadows are a succession planting in nature.  Weeds and wildflowers are only temporary until shrubs and then trees can become established.  To keep your meadow garden you'll need to weed out rogue seeds that may blow in, and any tree or shrub seedlings.  Native peoples kept this succession under control with fire.  You can do so by mowing in late fall.  Mowing also helps chop up all the plants, adding mulch and recycling nutrition back to the soil.

If you have the space, want to help your wildlife, or want to enjoy the other uses weeds can provide, consider cultivating a separate weed garden with the above tips in mind.


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