Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My! Weeds, Mulch and Groundcover!
I still remember my high school horticulture teacher, Carolyn Rost, saying a weed is just a flower nobody wants. So true! As gardeners, we are often at war with weeds. A neighbor recently gave me a tour of her garden and I spotted a weed that I now know is a Dayflower. My neighbor told me she stopped pulling the weed when she noticed the bugs preferred the Dayflower over her desired plants. I looked closely, and sure enough, the leaves of the Dayflower were badly chewed and almost translucent while her surrounding plants looked great! I am conflicted as Dayflowers are not native to the United States and were identified by the Federal Government as a noxious weed in the Federal Act of 1974, but clearly this plant is caviar to bugs. It gave me pause to rethink my relationship with weeds and to ask is there a better way?
My go-to approach for managing weeds, as an older gardener, has been to lay cardboard with cypress mulch on top (sheet mulching) and dampen it. It turns out this is not a great method as cardboard results in oxygen deprivation for worms. The worms come to the surface for air just like they do after a heavy rain (https://gardenprofessors.com/the-cardboard-controversy/). I naively thought the worms gravitated or reproduced more under the cardboard because they liked the cardboard composting method. A standalone article could be written, and many have been, on the benefits of worms to our environment (see Stephen Albert’s article Benefits of Earthworms in the Garden). Staying true to the concept that nature is the ultimate teacher/gardener and being committed to a reciprocal relationship with the earth means I must view my garden through a different lens and value all living creatures great and small. Sheet mulching, for the same reasons as worms, is likely also detrimental to the leaf-cutter bees who nest in the ground and are especially important for pollinating wildflowers and vegetables (thespruce.com}.
Two years ago, not for altruistic reasons but for financial and physical reasons, I started exploring groundcovers to use in place of mulch for filling in blank spaces while waiting for my other plants to mature and grow and to manage weeds and improve water absorption. We have high water tables in Athens, Georgia and when it rains, it really rains, and water quickly pools. Now my lens is focused on the reciprocal relationship with earth. Mulching is the antithesis of a reciprocal relationship. Healthy trees are harvested just so I can have mulch. Trees provide oxygen for us to breathe and habitat for wildlife to live, reduce storm water run-off, inhibit land erosion, and trees are key to fighting climate change (extreme weather events like heat). However, using a groundcover, just like the use of cardboard, has its pros and cons. An invasive groundcover like English Ivy can in time kill mature trees and shrubs.
Several different groundcover plants are currently growing in our yard. We have Green and White Sedum, Ajuga, Coral Reef Sedum, and nonnative (Europe and Asia) Creeping Jenny to name a few low growing plants. I am currently researching nonnative Elfin thyme and Irish Moss because these plants can handle light foot traffic and grow slowly. All this is to further my goal of eliminating heavy use of mulch, creating a varied habitat for wildlife, and managing weeds better without suffocating worms and bees!
The Creeping Jenny is proving to be extremely aggressive but manageable as it is growing around the plants and not currently in the foliage, and it is loving all the excess water. Given my experience, I do not recommend planting Creeping Jenny outside of pots or in a very contained area. Fortunately, it is easy to manage with shallow roots. I will have to watch my other plants to see if there is too much competition for water and other nutrients. The ultimate teacher, nature, will tell me if I pay attention. The Student Gardener is more than my moniker, it is who I am even after all these years. I am still making mistakes and learning from them. The only difference is now I am challenging myself to think in terms of a reciprocal relationship and not one of conqueror.
Green and White Sedum
So, is there a better way to think about weeds? I Googled for this article “good weeds.” This is what came up: dandelions, goldenrod, field clover, wild violets, burdock, nettles, ground ivy (wild mint), and vetch (Bob Vila, Don’t Kill Good Weeds). I encourage you to do your own research on beneficial weeds as you may be surprised by what you discover. I know I was.Dandelions are a great companion plant as they repel destructive bugs like armyworms and attract desirable bugs like honeybees. The dandelion leaves are nutritious, and the flowers are edible. I still remember making and drinking dandelion tea in Ms. Rost’s horticulture class. Clover improves poor soil conditions by pulling nitrogen from the air and fertilizing the soil through its root system. Yet we pull the plant and then purchase soil amendments to improve the soil’s condition! Wild violets bloom and grow in shady areas where grass cannot survive and are drought tolerant. These three “weeds” are a fitting example of a reciprocal relationship. They are beneficial to us, but somewhere along the way they got a bad rap as undesirable (a plant no one wants)! My guess is it started with the advent of the manicured lawn. In our wisdom, we ignore earth’s wisdom and pull these plants, spray weed killer or, in my case, sheet mulch. Here is my challenge to all of us. The next time we see a “weed” identify it first and then research its benefits before deciding it is an undesirable plant. Let us ask, what is our reciprocal relationship and responsibility to each other?