Most would agree that a great lawn is thick, green and easy to care for. The controversy starts when you add the words “weed free”. What is a weed? Generally defined as “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted”. Makes sense and certainly applicable to many plants found in the cultivated landscape with invasive plants seemingly becoming a bigger problem with each passing year.
From an organic, pesticide and herbicide free perspective, we admire and even look to many of these plants identified as weeds as important allies in a healthy lawn environment. Your yard naturally tries to balance itself, fix its own soil and become more nutrient rich; a better environment for turf and less so for these plants popping up in problem soils and bare spots where your grass doesn’t like to, or won’t, grow. The seeds of these weeds often exist in most yards already, in a seed bank, just waiting for the right conditions. Some of these conditions can be pre-existing, like compaction and poor nutrient availability, or they can be new, in the case of a newly installed lawn or after a disturbance like construction damage.
Many of these plants are designed by nature to be pioneers in poor soils and are in fact very helpful in building a beautiful, lush and resilient lawn.
The 3 most common, and arguable most beneficial “weeds” are:
Dandelion (Taraxxcum officinale) – Dandelion’s roots accumulate potassium, phosphorus, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and silicon while its deep taproot loosens the soil. Often shows up in compacted soils as well, but arguable can be found everywhere. Attracts ladybugs and pollinators looking for nectar, especially important as one of the first blooming flowers and food sources to bees in the spring. It also attracts parasitoid wasps and lacewings; highly beneficial insects. Also edible and very medicinal. You can’t go wrong with some dandelions in your yard!
Plantain (Plantago major) – Shows up when soil is compacted. Plantain accumulates calcium, sulfur, magnesium, manganese, iron, and silicon. Good cultural practices like mowing high to help the plant accumulate these nutrients and leaving your cuttings on the lawn to compost and deposit these nutrients into the soil. Aerating and adding additional compost as a top dress will build your soil further, reduce compaction and ultimately you will see less of this plant over time. Also edible and medicinal.
White Clover (Trifolium repens) – White clover shows up in nitrogen-lacking, dry fields and lawns that cover hardpan clay soil. Nitrogen is necessary for all plants to grow. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria live on the roots of clover and change the atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is useful to both themselves and surrounding plants, like turf grass. Phenomenal habitat and attractant to beneficial insects such as parasitoid wasps, spiders, and ground beetles and also the ideal egg laying plant for lacewings. Clover’s many benefits yield to its wide use as a cover crop in progressive agricultural settings. It can also be planted at the base of fruit trees to further provide nitrogen to the tree, increasing growth and fruit yields.
Leaving these “weeds” in your lawn to run their natural course is a simple, safer and often more affordable alternative than resorting to a chemical lawn. You’re not only keeping your family safe from potential chemical hazards but you’re protecting the environment of your home and surrounding area. Providing habitats for beneficial insects and food for birds, who also prey on pest insects like mosquitos.
Habitat building goes beyond what happens above the soil. Leaving your yard clippings and adding compost and biodiverse fertilizers to your soil has many benefits that go beyond your turf grass. You will ultimately be investing in the health of the trees in your yard as well, helping to foster an environment for beneficial mycelium, pathways responsible for nutrient delivery in roots systems. Beneficial nematodes, tiny worms in your soil existing in a healthy soil ecosystem will actually prey on the larvae of harmful turf grubs, fleas and ticks.
The ideal organic and chemical free lawn is a bio-diverse environment with many different plants and insects all working together, generously provided to you by nature, to give you the green space you want with a natural and safe balance.