Weeds have long been the bane of traditional gardener’s lives. Invasive, unsightly and tenacious, they required a lot of effort to get rid of and were always liable to return at the slightest opportunity. Fortunately, permaculture provides another way of considering plants that have commonly been perceived as weeds.
For instance, permaculture recognizes the benefits such plants can have on exposed, damaged soil, such as that which has been planted with a monoculture. The weeds can act as ploughs, improving the quality of the soil and bringing beneficial nutrients up to the topsoil.
Of course, the rampant growth of many weeds and their propensity to self-seed, so creating many more plants, is not good for a permaculture garden once other plants have been added, as they can divert nutrients away from other species and even smother other plants.
So finding a good way to control weeds is essential to maintain the health of your plot. Plant guilds may be one answer, with different species inhabiting all the available niches in a location and so depriving the weed of a foothold. Allowing chickens and ducks to forage across the plot will also help. But another tactic, which has the benefit of adding something to your diet, is eating them.
Now, not all weeds are edible, and there are some weeds that have a similar appearance to other plants that are poisonous. It can be tempting to see which species birds and animals eat and regard them as, therefore, safe for human consumption, but this is not an infallible method, so it is worth doing some research so you can identify the edible varieties. Below are some common weeds that are relatively easy to identify and which make excellent additions to the kitchen.
Purslane is one of the most persistent and adaptable weeds, able to grow in almost any conditions, from full sun to full shade and even minimal water. Fortunately, eating it is very good for you, as Purslane contains good levels of calcium, iron and other trace elements. It is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are valuable elements for maintaining brain function. It can be used as you would spinach, either raw in salads, thrown into stir-fries, in soups, omelets and sandwiches. The taste is similar to spinach as well, with a hint of linseed.
Chickweed is often found growing in shaded areas, and can rapidly spread to cover a lot of the ground. The leaves and young stems of the plant are edible, and can be used in salads, as an addition to pesto, and make a great addition to scrambled eggs. It is rich in protein and antioxidants, and is said to have a flavour that is like a cross between lettuce and comfrey. Chickweed is also suited to steeping as a tea, while making the leaves into a poultice can be an effective remedy for burns, rashes and insect bites.
Among the most recognizable of weeds, the dandelion is adept at finding space to grow, even in heavily concreted urban areas. It is also one of the most well known edible weeds. In fact, European settlers brought it to the U.S. precisely for that purpose. The leaves are great additions to salads, with the tender young leaves giving the best flavour. Dandelions are rich in vitamins A and C as well as beta-carotene, which is a powerful antioxidant. The flowers of the dandelion plant are more bittersweet in taste, so are more suited to using as a tea infusion or for making wine.
Japanese Knotweed is one of the world’s worst ‘invasive species’, having spread to the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It sends down deep roots making it hard to dislodge, and can grow as much a three feet in a single month. Young shoots and leaves can be used steamed or boiled and have a tart taste with a similarity to rhubarb. Knotweed is also good when broken down for a sauce, jam or chutney. If you have a rampant plant, more than you can eat, knotweed can be given to grazing livestock, like horses and goats.
Sometimes referred to as ‘lamb’s lettuce’, lamb’s quarters can be used in the kitchen like lettuce or spinach, going well in salads, but ideally prepared quickly over heat, sautéed in a little oil. It is highly nutritious, with good levels of calcium, protein and vitamins A, C and K. The seeds are also edible. Treat as you would quinoa.
It seems odd to think of watercress as a weed when it is commonly available in supermarkets and is cultivated deliberately, but it is classified as such. Favoring wet conditions, it is typically found growing along the banks of rivers and streams, while it can quickly congregate around a water body on your permaculture plot. Its peppery, spicy tang is a great addition to salads, sandwiches and soups. Whichever way you choose to eat it, it provides a lot of antioxidants, helping keep your physiological processes functioning well.
Sorrel is, like watercress, actively cultivated in modern agriculture, as it has become a more popular ingredient in restaurants and homes. However, it can become an unmanageable weed in certain temperate locations, inhibiting plant growth and sometimes poisoning livestock. Fortunately, it is delicious, with a lemony taste that pairs well with pork, and adds a citrusy kick to salads and stir-fries.
Both the leaves and blossoms of red clover can be eaten. Red clover is high in protein, and makes an excellent tea. However, they can also be used in salads or as a side dish of greens. If using more mature plants, soak in water for an hour or so before cooking to ensure tenderness.
The clue is in the name, with field garlic, although the taste is a lot milder than commercial grown garlic. Both the stems, which resemble grass but are hollow, and the bulbs can be eaten. Prepare and use as you would onion, garlic or chives. As well as being tasty, field garlic is good for your cardiovascular system and in regulating metabolism.