For many years I waged war in my garden.

I dug dandelions out of my lawn, using a tool called Grandpa’s Weeder, and I made huge piles of wilting Sheep’s Sorrel, which slowly dried up in a distant corner by the big pine tree.

Every summer my back complained, and every spring the weeds returned with their usual vigor. They never seemed to need any water or care, and they could grow in even the poorest soils.

Dandelions among daffodils

I love the look of dandelions and daffodils together!

It took me a long time to alter my attitude towards weeds.

The first changes occurred when I started studying herbal medicine. My teachers pointed out that many plants we call weeds are nutritious, often more so than similar domesticated plants. A whole new world opened up to me, and my anxiety about future food scarcity lessened when I learned that many common weeds are not only edible, but also palatable as well as medicinal.

Take the dandelion, the plant I once uprooted by the hundreds.

The leaves of the younger plants can be used in salads, or in a lovely side dish when lightly sauteed in olive oil with sea salt. The flowers are edible: they can be used to make wine, munched in a salad, steeped in olive oil to be used in soaps or cream, and tinctured in vodka or pure alcohol. [steep dandelions in honey] The roots can be used in soup broths, teas, and tinctures as well. Dandelions contain vitamins A, C, K, E, and small amounts of B complex vitamins. They also provide iron, calcium, magnesium, and beta carotene. They contain polyphenols, which may reduce inflammation. Some studies have shown that they reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels; dandelions have a diuretic effect, which may lower blood pressure, and the leaves and flowers have been shown to reduce skin damage from the sun. What a valuable plant, not a weed at all! In my estimation, knowing that there’s such a rich source of food and medicine growing wild nearly EVERYWHERE, thriving in poor soil, reduces my own stress levels, and that’s a big deal.

Consider some other important “weeds”.

Nettles are an important food source and defense against hay fever (see my article “The Magnificent Nettle”), and Purple Dead Nettle adds flavor and nutrition to salads. Sheep Sorrel can be used in salads and pesto, but be cautious if you suffer from oxalic acid kidney stones. Curly Dock and Blood Dock contain iron, and wild mustards are a delicious and spicy addition to salads. Plantains, a wonderful medicine for bug bites, can also be eaten, though I find them a bit fibrous. And don’t forget about chickweed, which is delectable eaten raw. Clover makes a fine tea.


I don’t consider nettles to be a weed. They’re a valuable food.

Lamb’s Quarters is another superstar in the world of wild edible plants.

This humble plant provides vitamins K, A, B complex, and C, as well as calcium, iron, potassium, and manganese. In addition to these vitamins and minerals, the plant also contains amino acids. It is a traditional food in many countries and is grown as a crop in India. A close relative of quinoa, it can be used as you would use spinach. You can eat the young leaves fresh, boiled, or sauteed. You can steam them or put them raw in sandwiches, and the seeds can be collected and ground into flour for baking. In Punjab, the leaves and shoots are used in curries, and in other parts of India the seeds are made into a gruel. Dried leaves make a good tortilla flour; just mix ground up dried leaves with water to get the right consistency (I have not tried this yet). Lamb’s Quarters’ high levels of vitamin C help fight scurvy. One caveat – the plant is apparently toxic to sheep and pigs.

Comfrey plant

Comfrey emerging in the spring

Another important medicinal plant, Comfrey, is not recommended for consumption in large amounts, but it’s great for external use.

If you crack a bone or get a bad bruise, make a warm poultice of comfrey leaves and apply it to the affected area. I have done this with good results. Comfrey helps more than just humans, though. With its long taproot, it digs deep into the soil, pulling up nutrients from down below. The leaves make wonderful mulch and compost activators. I plant comfrey around the drip lines of trees, and those trees are thriving. When the plants get too big or spread too much, I tear off the leaves and tops and lay them on the ground. This technique is called “chop and drop”. Comfrey is also popular with bees of many types.

Like comfrey, many “weeds” provide food for pollinators.

Dandelions bloom before most other flowers, and are thus an important food source for insects. My clover absolutely vibrates with bees in the afternoon. And the bumblebees love comfrey. Can these plants really be called weeds? What, after all, is a weed? The online dictionary defines it as “a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop. Any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted.”  A valueless plantI can’t think of many plants that fit that definition. Morning Glory comes to mind, as it is not only virile, but also toxic, and Buttercups crowd out every other plant, taking all the water, space, and nutrients. Otherwise, I can’t think of plants I consider worthless. Even the Canadian thistles that pop up in our yard have a use – when I pull them up, I drown them in a 5-gallon bucket to make a liquid fertilizer. They contain phosphorus, which the plants need. The chickens eat just about any so-called weed that I pull, with the exception of toxic Morning Glory and thistles, which are prickly and unpalatable for them. Besides, I need my liquid fertilizer. And those plants that really do qualify as “weeds”? They actually have a use. We pile them up in a distant spot in the yard, and cover them up with a dark tarp. By the following year, they have become lovely compost.

Perhaps we need to redefine weeds, or at least make a new list of plants that we call weeds.

The list of plants considered to be weeds should be drastically shortened. That said, some of these wild and nutritious plants can take over, so there’s no getting away from the work of weeding. I do pull some dandelions, usually leaving the root, and feed them to the chickens or our rabbit, or I eat them. Ripping up a carpet of creeping charlie, which the chickens can eat, or morning glory is very satisfying. I take out my anger on buttercups, and I pull up extra plantains that have taken root in the wrong spot. I dry the plantains for use in a salve. In this way I cut way back on the need to go foraging; I just use whatever I have to pull up. One can look at this weeding as harvesting.

Dried plantains in a basket

Dried plantains. The seeds can be eaten as flour, or whole on crackers


Mullein, an important medicinal herb

Some consider ground cherries a weed, but the fruit is delicious!

Some consider ground cherries a weed, but the fruit is delicious!

Speaking of foraging, I want to encourage everyone to focus as much as possible on invasive plants. Become an Invasivore. I first saw that word in a post by Pascal Baudar, who forages and ferments invasive plants and publishes beautiful books on the topic. (Look for his books “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine”, “The Wildcrafting Brewer”, “Wildcrafted Fermentation”, and “Wildcrafted Vinegars”.)

Feel free to pull up those wild onions!

Pick those blackberry bushes clean if you can! By doing this, you’re not only feeding yourself, but also performing a public service. You may even be reducing the amount of herbicide that gets sprayed in the war on invasive species.

If you’re foraging for something that isn’t considered invasive, please be ethical in your foraging.

That means don’t over forage. Don’t take a plant if it’s the only one you see, and if you do take whole plants, snip off cuttings and plant them in the same area. If you see five of a plant, take only one. If you’re foraging a plant that is producing seeds, please sprinkle some of those seeds in the area. Leave something for others. If you’re foraging for rosehips, for example, don’t strip the bush bare. Other people may want some, and the wild animals certainly will. Don’t forget about all of your non-human neighbors. They need to eat too. For centuries, native peoples have propagated and preserved wild plants, using these methods.

I try to restrict most of my foraging to my own property, unless someone invites me to come harvest plants from their yard. I have a friend who invites me to collect nettles from their backyard and horsetail from their pond every year. (Horsetail has been used traditionally to heal ulcers and wounds, and it helps in reducing fluid retention.) Everyone benefits – my friend gets his yard and pond cleaned up, and I get free nettles and horsetail. This coming winter I plan to cut as many long nettle stems from his place as possible, after the seeds have dropped. I’m going to harvest the stems for fiber and spin them. The resulting yarn is tough and great for knitting into washcloths for dishes. Plants have so many uses!

I must confess, though, that I have no use for grass. It invades all of my garden beds, making these deep carpets of roots that are hard to pull out. If there is one plant that I label a weed, it is grass, especially quackgrass. I spent all morning digging grass out of a bed of roses, guomis, elderberries, and lenten roses, and I had to resort to my sharpest shovel with teeth running down each side edge. Even with that fearsome tool, I had to hop up and down and pull with all my might. My heavy clay soil makes it extra difficult. The grass grows right next to the plants I want to keep, making it necessary in some cases to actually dig up the plant and separate the grass roots from the trunk of the plant. This spring I’m going to mulch the area about a foot deep, in the hope that the mulch will smother the grass. I’ve had it with that grass!

The solution, it seems, is to learn to value and use most plants that are considered “weeds”, except for a few noxious but easy to pull plants like morning glory. And when it comes to grass, dig out what you can and smother the rest with deep mulch; eventually it will turn into soil. As I struggled in the garden today, cursing the grasses, I tried to balance my anger and aggression with the reminder that the sheep sorrels and dandelions mixed in are just fine. I welcome some of them and am grateful not only for the nutrition and medicine that they provide me and my non-human neighbors in the garden, but for the message they bring, for as weeds heal the soil, they also indicate what is wrong underground. Most of them are helpers.

I’ve made a list of some common weeds and some of the things they tell us about our soil.

Morning Glory

Called Bindweed in the UK (Convolvulus arvensis), grows well in compacted soil, so if you have a lot of it, you may have heavy, compacted soil.

Chicory (Chicorium sp.) 

Grows in richer soils that are high in Nitrogen. It thrives in alkaline, compacted soil.

Chickweed (Stellaria media or Cerastium spp)

Also does well in alkaline, compacted soil, and it indicates a high amount of Nitrogen.

Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Indicates rich soil.

Crabgrass (Digitaria spp)

Indicates that the soil is depleted of nutrients and low in Calcium.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

Grows in poor soil that is compacted and low in Calcium.

Dock (Rumex spp) and Goldenrod (Solidago spp)

Grow in wet, poorly drained soil.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Grows in soil that is high in Nitrogen.

Knapweed (Centaurea spp)

Grows in rich soil that is high in Potassium.

Knotweed (Polygonum spp)

Grows in soil that is compacted.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

Grows in rich soil that is high in Nitrogen.


Prefers soggy acidic environments, and soil that is low in nutrients.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Yells us that the soil is acidic and low in fertility.

Mustards (Brassica spp)

Indicate that the soil is dry, possibly sandy, and high in Phosphorus.

Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Thrives in acidic, soggy soil that is low in fertility.

Plantain (Plantago spp)

Grows in compacted, heavy clay soil that is low in fertility.

Pigweed (Amaranthus spp)

Likes rich soil that is high in Nitrogen.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Indicates rich soil that’s high in Phosphorus.

Quackgrass (Elymus repens)

Grows in heavy clay, compacted soil.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus Carota)

Indicates poor, dry soil.

Ragweed (Ambrosia spp)

Indicates that the soil is low in fertility.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Grows in rich, acidic soil.

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Thrives in dry, acidic, possibly sandy soil that is low in nutrients and Calcium.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Indicates that the soil is dry, possibly sandy, and low in Potassium and fertility.

When I look at the weeds in my yard, it is easy to become frantic about my soil. But don’t forget that while weeds may indicate a lack of a nutrient, they are also repairing that lack. Dandelions grow in compacted soil, and they have a long taproot that helps break up the soil, for example. You may find that dandelions are growing in only one area, so you can assume that soil is compacted, but you may find a weed such as Yarrow elsewhere, which tells you that your soil may be dry and sandy. I find it interesting to examine what weeds grow where. And some of those weeds are working for you. That said, there’s no need to leave a yard choking in weeds, just to repair the soil!

Eat some, compost some, feed some to your chickens, and read the messages they are sending you.