by Ruth T Hill, The Discerning Gardener
With the beginning of spring, too many people head for the local “garden” department and grab some chemicals, to arm themselves for their battle against nature. Long before the start of spring, these stores get well stocked with row after row of chemicals, making the air in the store quite lethal. It’s unlikely that these people know what they will be killing. How many people actually have the knowledge to decide what gets to live and what doesn’t? Perhaps the first question should be: What is it? and why is it there?, instead of how: to get rid of it?
What’s a weed to one person, may be a native plant that wildlife depends on to live. Or, it may be a wildflower that contributes to the beautiful eruption of flowers from spring to fall, that feed birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and then return to being “common weeds”. Theses “weeds”/native plants are adapted to the local soil conditions and climate where they occur and provide nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as the food for native butterflies, insects, birds, and others.Native plants are losing their places to “be”. Housing development destroys a million acres of habitat every year in the US alone.
When a piece of ground opens up, or becomes bare soil, nature heals it with weeds to hold the soil, so it doesn’t wash away or erode. If you have a bare patch you might consider leaving it as weeds fill in, as long as they’re not toxic, like poison ivy, or spreading by underground runners like sheep sorrel, or a tough grass, like Johnson’s grass. Dandelions are one of the ruderal plants, or the plants that are the first to colonize after a catastrophe. Most ruderals establish quickly, but easily succumb to competition from slower growing plants. There’s no reason not to let non-spreading annuals, like lamb’s quarters, chickweed, ragweed, purslane, and spurges hold the ground.
Purslane, dandelions, lamb’s quarters, and other edibles could be found, as praised crops, in plant catalogs not all that long ago, until crops requiring a lot more effort and amended soil took over. NOTE: Some of these plants, including young dandelion leaves, have 2 to 3 times the nutritional value of Swiss chard or spinach.
These weeds, or native plants, can also help to control insect pests, either as a lure, or by attracting beneficial insects that prey on harmful ones. Lamb’s quarter is an example of a lure plant that protects spinach from leaf miners. The flowers of Queen Anne’s lace (not a native, but widely naturalized), goldenrod, evening primrose, wild mustard, amaranth, and dandelion attract beneficial insects.
The tremendous increase in the spraying of herbicides and pesticides has resulted from the widespread planting of GMO crops. Steadily increasing weed and pest resistance to the chemicals has resulted in heavier, and even more toxic sprays. This cycle has greatly affected our food supply, as well as the survival of wildlife. For example, monarch butterflies are in serious decline, mostly because their exclusive host plant, milkweed, has been decimated by agricultural sprays. Milkweed and other “weeds” have typically survived on the edges of fields in agricultural areas, but have been wiped out by the massive spraying in recent years. We just don’t see butterflies in delightful abundance, as we did 20, even 10, years ago.
There’s also a serious dying off of bees. Honey bees are responsible for producing at least 1/3 of our food, but they are being wiped out by the indiscriminate use of Bayer’s neonicotinoids and other pesticides used for agriculture. 90% of the corn grown in the US is treated with these bee-killing chemicals. Bees are feeding on toxic GE crops, as well as toxic plants in our gardens. Many of the plants sold in the big box stores, even those sold as “bee-garden” plants, are grown with these bee-killing chemicals. Again, the tremendous amount of chemicals on the shelves of the “garden” centers is truly alarming. Home gardeners, unfortunately, unconsciously add much more danger to the bees, butterflies, other pollinators, and humans, with their “weapons against nature”.
WHAT CAN WE DO, AS GARDENERS?
— #1 – STOP using chemicals. Learn organic gardening practices, such as composting, companion planting, and attracting beneficials.
— #2 – Adjust our aesthetics, away from the “ideal” monoculture lawn of all the same texture, and ornamental plants that are disease and pest prone TO something much more sustainable.
— Leave the patches of clover in our lawns for the bees. Leave the dandelions, too. Enjoy some tender, young dandelion leaves sauteed with garlic.
— Plant some common milkweed to give monarchs a better chance of breeding and raising caterpillars to adulthood.
— #3 – Give wildlife what they need they need: food, water, cover, and a place to raise their young. Make a wildlife-friendly garden; native plants with berries, seeds, and nectar. Educate ourselves – see future blog posts.
— #4 – Plant native plants.
For more ideas on what to do in your wildlife-friendly garden see my related Pinterest boards: