The Q&A Archives: What Is a Weed?

Question: Yesterday, the weather was pretty bleak, so as a pick-me-up I went down to the supermarket and adopted a fern. After I had picked out the little clovers growing with it, (they were weeds of course, like they always are), I was wondering if they had any value at all. If peas can add nitrogen to soil, maybe clover can do something too. Or maybe dandelions. Do weeds add anything to the soil or they there just to steal nutrients, space and water from other respectable plants? Bonnie Ithaca, NY

Answer: One definition of a weed is simply a plant that's growing where you don't want it to grow. You might say one man's weed is another man's crop. Take your clover, for example. In your potted plant, it could be considered a weed, one that, if allowed to flourish, would steal water and eventually light from a slower growing fern. But many farmers plant clover--it is used as a forage crop for livestock. It is also used as a cover crop, because it is a legume and therefore can fix nitrogen from the air and, when it is tilled in, provide this nutrient to successive crops. And clover is sometimes planted between rows in a garden to help smother weeds. Plants with deep tap roots, like dandelions, can also be good for the soil. Their large roots helpbreak up compacted soil, and they can draw up nutrients from deep in the soil, making these nutrients available to other plants. And you can eat them! Young dandelion leaves make a nutritious addition to a spring salad, and some folks use the flowers to make wine. So you can see that all plants have a place. It's only when we want a particular plant to grow in a particular place that these "weeds" become a nuisance. Generally, it't the fast-growing, fast-reproducing plants that are labeled as weeds--but in my garden, all those tomato plants sprouting from last year's compost pile are weeds to me!.

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