Home Commentary Don’t Waste Those Garden Weeds

Don’t Waste Those Garden Weeds

Dandelion leaves are used here to mulch onion plants in a container garden. Photo by Dan Hemenway.
Note: The author and The Bridge recommend always starting with small servings when trying a new food.

Yesterday my daughter, who happens to be editor-in-chief of this newspaper, noticed that I had removed dandelions from most of my vegetable garden containers and used them to mulch my Egyptian top set onions. I had trimmed the roots, separately set aside for her experiment in using them (roasted for a nutritious, caffeine-free coffee substitute) and the flower heads. Using flowers as mulch would amount to planting hundreds of seeds for each ‘weed’ I pulled. Dandelions are excellent mineral accumulators, and the leaves are probably high in nitrogen, given how fast they decay. So they are fertilizer of a sort. 

Eating Weeds

New Englanders commonly use spring dandelion greens as a potherb. Grandparents on both sides of my family, French-Canadian and Yankee, highly regarded them as a ‘spring tonic.’ That said, they are an acquired taste, with bitterness best moderated with a bit of vinegar.

I don’t know the entire list of useful weeds, but among the highly edible is purslane, a weed that rarely bothers nearby crops, shades the soil a bit, and is another nutrition power house. Add most species of amaranth (probably all that grow in Vermont), and lamb’s quarters and its relatives in the Chenopodium genus. (Quinoa, a Chenopodium grown for its seed, bears edible leaves.) Lamb’s quarters and relatives make delicious cooked greens rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein. It has far less oxalic acid than spinach and a number of other cultivated greens. 

Planting ‘Weeds’

I buy seed of a lamb’s quarters relative, Chenopodium giganteum, to broadcast on the surface of the soil after planting more conventional crops. Its leaves have a magenta cast, but otherwise look like lamb’s quarters. They get big if you let them; I harvest the whole plant when it gets large enough to bother a crop such as carrots, but otherwise I keep them pruned by harvesting the tender tips. They are sometimes sold as ‘magenta spreen.’ 

Dock, a stubborn, taprooted weed, sent shoots right through a mulch of cardboard and stable cleanings in one youth garden I co-managed. But with a spading fork, I found it easy to extract dock because all the weeds of other plants around it (mainly winter rye) had rotted and loosened the soil. I just plopped the dock on top of the earlier mulch. Minerals sequestered by the taproot became available to our tomatoes. Dock leaves are edible, though a bit tart, and are best when just unfurled. They are a close relative of sorrel, a cultivated tart green as well as a weed in places.

Violets volunteer in our Montpelier container gardens. One of our 20-gallon pots is covered with baby violet plants at the moment. Almost all members of the Viola genus have edible leaves (and flowers). Violet leaves are excellent potherbs or, if cut young enough, salad greens. Like many flowers of edible plants, violet flowers are good to eat, though unsubstantial. 

Burdock is an often unappreciated weed, rarely found in gardens but often nearby. Cook young leaves of first-year plants. Dig the roots of year-old plants early in spring to cook like parsnips. Feed tough leaves from other times to animals or try drying them to crumble into cooked winter dishes. 

Plantain, the lawn weed, not the banana relative, also is edible and has shown up in my garden. Humans have reportedly eaten it for centuries. My livestock have always eaten it selectively. I found it quite bitter raw, but a close relative to the weedy type here is eaten in Japan. Cooked mature seeds are like rice.

Pest Control

Besides food, mulch, and compost, some weeds are useful in the biological control of pests. In one garden project I directed, little white flowered plants, perhaps some kind of cress, attracted small insects that lay eggs in garden pests, killing them before they mature. The plant was tiny, but the flowers always had numerous adult beneficials hovering about. I let it go to seed, which I transferred to my home garden. Alas, I never had it identified. 

You aren’t going to be able to eat every part of an edible weed, or most vegetables, for that matter. If, like dandelions, they don’t need help reproducing, put flowers and flower buds where they will do no harm. And do not leave any of the root attached if you use the leaves for mulch. Rabbits, chickens, or other livestock will more completely utilize those weeds. 

When you see a weed in the garden, almost always you can find at least one use for it. If all else fails, compost it. Weeds are competitive plants, so they are good at grabbing nutrients from the soil. In a home garden, utilizing weeds can increase the amount of food you produce.

Dan Hemenway’s homestead produced an estimated 95% of the food his family ate in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he managed or co-managed farm or garden programs for ‘at risk’ high school age youths and later taught horticulture and permaculture courses, served as consultant to the institution gardener and managed an organic greenhouse, supervising an inmate crew. He then broadened his focus as an award-winning permaculture publisher, designer, and teacher until about 2010 when he retired.