Learn the mysterious language of weeds

By Harriet Behar, MOSES


By observing the weeds growing in your fields you can better understand your soil’s ecosystem and nutrient profile. When Weeds Talk is an updated and expanded version of Weeds and Why They Grow by the same author, Jay McCaman. Detailed information about weed growing conditions in these books can help farmers make wise choices for planning crop rotations, as well as application of soil amendments and fertility products.

When I was a full-time organic inspector I carried Weeds and Why They Grow in my backpack. While visiting fields during inspections, I’d notice different weeds growing in certain fields and areas of fields. Using the knowledge I gained from this book, the weeds became the most interesting things growing in the field, as they had so much to tell. After many field walk overs, it seemed that the weeds really were talking to me.

Nature has a lot to tell us, if we are open to observing and learning. I found that the information in this book allowed me to see weeds much the way that I identify individual bird species by their songs, rather than just hearing a cacophony of noise. Individual bird songs tell us of the progress of spring and the seasons, as well as the health of the ecosystem we’re walking through. In much the same way, collections of individual weeds tell us a lot about soil health.

Using this book to enhance your knowledge of the inter-relationships between soils and plants, you can improve your management of the land. Every day can bring a new revelation in understanding and appreciation of the synergies of the natural world. Your expanded knowledge can be used to help you make wise choices when purchasing and applying macro and micro nutrients, as well as use of cover crops to scavenge nutrients or improve soil tilth for a subsequent cash crop.

The extensive tables in this book list the common name, scientific name, and the 23 nutrients or soil biology factors defining where each weed would typically grow. Although the author has acknowledged there will be some regional variation for adaptions of weeds beyond what is listed in the charts, I have found them a good baseline for understanding the chemical and biological properties of the soils where individual weed species are growing. There are no illustrations or photos in this book—if you don’t know the name of the weeds in your fields, a good companion book would the USDA book Common Weeds of the United States, published by Dover Press. Also, many state extension offices have weed identification bulletins or websites. (See links at the end of this review).

The first portion of the book, written in a “plain folk” style, describes numerous scenarios where weeds are indicators of nutrient imbalances. By observing the wild plants in your fields and pastures, you may, for instance, discover the same types of weeds growing wherever the soil is tight and poorly drained. Reading the weeds, you can make some good guesses about the soil’s nutrient profile, which can be verified through soil testing. You can save quite a bit of money on soil testing and input purchases by “reading the weeds,” and targeting your activities to the areas with the most problems. Weeds can also help track the progress of your soil building program, as you monitor the changes in species over time.

While the book consists mostly of weed and soil characteristic charts, a narrative section includes information on weed and insect interactions, the use of cover crops to balance the soil’s nutrient profile, and the use of various weeds as compost feedstocks. At the end of the book, the author describes in more detail “interesting characteristics” of various plants, including where you will typically find them growing, such as dry, stony, shallow soils. In this section, you also learn about plants as an over-wintering host for aphids. At the end of the book are numerous common names for the same plant. My favorite multi-named plant is velvet leaf, also known as button weed or butter print—I’ve also heard it called elephant ear!

Nature does not waste anything, and there is always a use for a weed. Even if it is just to help you see what might be needed to improve your soils for better crop production.

When Weeds Talk is available through the MOSES Bookstore.

Additional Resources

Harriet Behar is a MOSES Organic Specialist. She represents MOSES in the National Organic Coalition and the National Sustainable Agricuture Coalition. 

March | April 2014

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