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Weeds: The good, the bad, the ugly

They’re a fact of life for all gardeners. Hardy and resilient, they flourish uninvited, sometimes choking out desired crops. Some are useful, even helpful, while others are a bane.

“When it comes to weeds in your garden, the first thing you need to think about are your goals,” said Randy Prostak, Extension educator for the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “You have to ask yourself what you are managing for.”

Such considerations might include whether you want to attract certain types of wildlife or pollinators, if you want color in your gardens or landscape despite potential harsh weather, or if you are the sort of person who simply doesn’t want any weeds anywhere.

Weeds have a tendency to raise a lot of opinions.

“Weeds are in the eye of the beholder. What you think about a plant depends on your values,” said Cayte McDonough, nursery production manager at Nasami Farms in Whately.

Nasami Farms is the nursery for the New England Wildflower Society and specializes in plants native to New England.

“The bigger picture is, you want to create as much biodiversity as possible,” McDonough said.

Jim McSweeney, president of Hilltown Tree and Garden LLC in Chesterfield, quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “What is a weed but a plant whose virtues have not been discovered?”

“No matter what your belief, some weeds are beneficial and some are really miserable,” McSweeney said.

If you are planning a new garden or landscape, or are sprucing up what you already have, here are suggestions and ideas about what to allow and what to expect from the potential weeds you come across.

The good

If you are the type of gardener who’d like to see plenty of pollinators such as butterflies and bees in your gardens, McDonough suggests leaving the milkweed.

“It’s a host plant for the Monarch butterfly. The adults lay eggs on the plant, the caterpillars eat the plant, and then they often will make their chrysalis (from which the butterfly emerges) on the plant,” she said.

Additionally, milkweed creates a large, round, heavily scented flower.

McDonough said goldenrod and wild asters are often blamed for seasonal allergies, but it is actually ragweed that causes allergies. Ragweed blooms at the same time as goldenrod.

“In fact, goldenrod is a great garden plant. In Europe, some people propagate goldenrod specifically for their gardens,” McDonough said. She added that goldenrod and wild asters add a lot of color to gardens and landscape and are good sources of food for beneficial bees.

Thistles can be annoying due to their sharp spines, but Prostak said lots of small birds love to feed on the seed from thistles. Attracting birds to your gardens may also help with pest control.

McSweeney suggests leaving a plant called fleabane because it has a long blooming season and is hardy through “the hottest, driest conditions,” he said. He added that you also may want to leave a plant called devil’s beggartick, which is a green plant with burgundy stems.

“When it’s hot and dry, it’s a fantastic plant (to add color to your garden),” said McSweeney, who also suggests leaving foxtail. “It produces a beautiful late summer seed head.”

McDonough suggests allowing ostrich fern to spread and fill in open areas where there is shade. Ostrich ferns and Canada mayflower are good to leave in areas that are difficult to plant otherwise due to shade, she said.

The bad

Again, in many cases, whether or not a plant is “bad” in your garden or landscape depends on a variety of factors. McDonough said chickweed is one problem plant that often invades gardens and is pervasive because its seed often hitches a ride with other plants you purchase for the garden.

However, what often makes a weed truly undesirable is its ability to crowd out and even strangle other plants. Weeds that overpower other plants have a tendency to be what are often referred to as “invasives.” Invasive species are not natural to the region and they work very hard to take over the landscape.

The ugly

Invasive species are best discouraged for the health of your gardens and from an ecological standpoint. For example, purple loosestrife, “though it may put on a colorful display and even control erosion and filter toxins in polluted wetland,” McDonough said, “so does our native cattail without destroying the great variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects that have evolved with and depend on native species.”

“Purple loosestrife is so deceptive. It’s really pretty but it crowds everything out,” Prostak said.

McDonough said other invasive species seen in the Pioneer Valley include multiflora rose, which she said she has seen grow “as large as a Volkswagen.” Bittersweet and knotweed, like purple loosestrife, were planted originally for ornamental purposes and have become some of the most pervasive invasive species.

McSweeney also said to be watchful for goutweed as it will “completely carpet an area and choke everything else out.”

Besides invasive species crowding out or killing the plants you do want in your gardens, there are also poisonous plants to consider. Prostak noted that, for example, pokeweed might be a pretty plant for its berries and also attracts birds, but it is also highly toxic. At the early stages of the plant’s life, some people eat the shoots, which must be very carefully prepared, he said.

There is also jimson weed, which some have used for “recreational” purposes.

“A couple of seeds might make you feel dreamy, another couple would dilate your pupils, a few more would cause hallucinations, and any more would kill you,” said Prostak, adding that “there is never any way to tell how many seeds it would take to kill you.”

Jimson weed can be attractive but is not good to have around children, pets or livestock.

Prostak said hogweed, which is in the carrot family, and wild parsnip can cause a severe skin rash that is set off by exposure to both the plant and sunlight. Especially with these two plants, Prostak said, you need to be careful weed-whacking due to splatter.

Prostak said that for those who become involved in community gardens, they often are located in areas with plenty of the “bad” weeds, including the poisonous variety.

“I have seen a community garden that started out on a patch of poison ivy,” he said.

Though some may think poison ivy deserves to be in a class by itself, Prostak said the berries provide a good food source for some wildlife. So you don’t want to necessarily eradicate all of it from your property. There are also people who are immune to poison ivy, though Prostak said that for most people, the more they are exposed to the antigens in poison ivy, the more susceptible they become. Remember the old saying: “Leaves of three, don’t touch me.”

Reprinted with permission of Fine Gardening Magazine. All rights reserved.

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