Weeds are the bane (pun intended) of most allotmenteers’ lives. However, while this article is not exactly in praise of weeds, and it only skims the surface (like hoeing), I hope it might redress the balance a bit and make for a slightly more positive outlook! Some weeds have a surprising number of virtues and can be used to our advantage.
At its simplest, you just don’t want weeds, the things that appear wherever they want, competing with your precious fruit and veg, the things you’ve chosen to sow and nurture. They compete for nutrients and water and, at certain times of year, they can grow faster than your seedlings and swamp them, especially slow to germinate seeds such as parsnips.
Weeding can be pretty hard work, and I won’t dwell at length on tools (every gardener swears by their favoured implement, be it hand fork, Dutch hoe, swan neck hoe, onion hoe – whatever sort you use it needs to be sharp). I find it rather satisfying to weed by hand, although this is best done in damp soil. Hoeing in drier conditions should be done by skimming along or just under the surface. Don’t hoe too deeply – this will just bring weed seeds nearer to the surface where they can germinate more easily.
Prioritise the workload and let some plants do the work for you, for example once cabbages and potatoes are well established, they will suppress most weeds. Concentrate on plants which won’t stifle weeds, such as onions. And weeding between rows but not within rows can at least reduce weeds substantially while saving some work.
Don’t use carpet as a weed suppressant!! It is banned at both our sites. It is effective but it all has to be taken up one day, by which time it is invariably wet and heavy and very hard work to remove, and it can't be burnt.
Weeds are only plants where you don’t want them or a wild version of something you might like growing in the garden - think Achillea / yarrow; geranium / cranesbill – they all look right in the right place. And it may be counter-intuitive, but leaving a few weeds undisturbed can attract a greater variety of beneficial insects to the plot.
Fat hen was eaten by Iron Age people as a grain, and the leaves are edible too. It was commonly eaten until the 16th century, when it began to be replaced by things like cabbage and spinach, but it is still cultivated in parts of India as a food crop. Ground elder was reputedly eaten as salad by the Romans and of course nettles can be used for soup, not to mention a fertiliser: visit http://www.nettles.org.uk/nettles/activities/nettlemanure.asp for instructions on making a plant food from nettles (if you can stand the smell while you brew it)
Plenty of other weeds are still eaten today. According to https://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/eat-dandelions-9-edible-garden-weeds.html the following weeds are edible: dandelion, purslane, clover, lamb’s quarters, plantain, chickweed, and wild amaranth. And there is much advice on the web about uses of edible weeds: see, for example http://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2016-05-12/edible-weeds-and-how-you-can-use-them/7406004
Apparently dandelion roots can be used for a coffee substitute (I did try this once: I confess I thought it was pretty awful, but that’s only my take!).
Some say that really pesky weeds such as couch grass and bindweed should just be burnt. But others believe that, provided they are dried out before being added to a compost heap, followed by covering the dried pile for a few months, they can make very good compost. As a non-driver with limited ability to take heavy stuff offsite, I include practically all weeds in my compost heap (woody material goes to the Burn Bin of course – more shameless plugging). It all rots down eventually to usable compost and I don’t think this causes my plot to be any weedier than average.
Deep rooted plants like dandelions and docks can bring nutrients to the surface. Chickweed, if allowed to grow in autumn and dug in during the spring, can act as a green manure, reduce rain splash and reduce leaching of nutrients.
If weeds never grow on your plot it might indicate that your soil has problems. They can also tell you a bit about the type of soil you have and how it is working: horsetail, creeping buttercup and silverweed will grow where there is poor drainage; clover and vetch thrive on low nitrogen; and sorrel and plantain like acid soil. By contrast spurge, chickweed and groundsel like humus-rich, well aerated soil which is higher in nutrients.