What Your Weeds Are Trying to Tell You

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag


Weeds are the bane of so many gardeners’ lives. But before you pull them out, take a moment to consider what prompted these particular weeds to grow at this time and in this place. They have the potential to tell you an awful lot about your garden.

For instance, the first weeds of the growing season are a visual cue that soil temperatures have warmed up from their winter lows. The weeds are letting you into a valuable secret: Now’s the time to begin sowing, starting with the earliest hardy crops.

Use your weeds as a clue to the state of your soil

Weeds and Soil Type

Weeds can also tell you a lot about the condition and health of your soil. In effect they are nature’s soil test; understand the clues and you can amend your soil appropriately to achieve optimum fertility and structure. With that in mind, here are some common soil types and the types of weeds you are likely to find growing in them.

Wet, poorly drained soil

Docks, goldenrod, chickweed, sedges and horsetail are all indicators that your soil is not as well-drained as it could be. Try digging in plenty of organic matter to gradually open up the soil and build structure. If the soil remains wet well beyond the start of the growing season it will take longer to warm up. Raised beds can help to improve drainage in these circumstances.

Flourishing bindweed may be an indication of compacted soil

Hard, compacted soil

Bindweed, knotweed, plantain and dandelion do well in compacted soils. Chickweed may also thrive. Apply plenty of organic matter to keep the soil covered. End-of-season green manures will send out roots deep into the soil to help break it up in time for next spring.

Heavy clay soil

Plantain, nettles and couch grass or quack grass thrive in heavier clay soils. Clay soils aren’t in themselves ‘bad’, and can be high in nutrients. Their tendency to become saturated in winter then hard-baked in summer is a hindrance but this can be overcome with sustained applications of organic matter to gradually build that all-important soil structure.

Adaptable nettles are at home in both heavy and light soils

Free-draining, sandy soil

Drier, sandy soils are typically given away by the usual suspects of sorrel, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace and thistles. Confusingly, nettles may also thrive in these conditions, but while nettles indicate a nutrient-rich soil, yarrow, sorrel and Queen Anne’s lace are indicative of poorer soils. Barrowloads of well-rotted organic matter should help to increase humus levels, fertility and the soil’s ability to hold onto moisture for longer.

Acidic soil

Sorrel, plantain, nettles, dandelion, mullein and ox-eye daisies grow best in acidic soils. Their presence serves as a reminder to add lime for crops such as brassicas that prefer more alkaline conditions. It is advisable to take an accurate measure of soil pH, so you can gauge exactly how much lime to add.

Chicory thrives in alkaline soils

Alkaline soil

Soil with a pH greater than 7.0 is alkaline. Weeds that grow best in these conditions include Queen Anne’s lace, chickweed and chicory. Again, adding well-rotted organic matter such as compost will help. Compost helps to lower the pH, buffer the soil against future swings in pH and, of course, it will improve its nutrient content.

Those blessed with rich, fertile soil are likely to see the widest range of weeds, including purslane, pigweed or lamb’s quarters, groundsel, knapweed, purslane, chickweed, henbit or deadnettle. You’ll probably have more weeding to do because of this, but take heart in the knowledge that your soil offers all the good things your crops are likely to need to thrive!

What are the most common weeds in your garden? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Show Comments


"We have a wide variety of weeds in the south of France, but this year the Oxalis is like a carpet. If you could eat it as a salad, we'd be very happy. "
Michael Boe on Saturday 8 August 2020
"Wood sorrel has long been eaten, so you may be onto something there Michael!"
Ben Vanheems on Sunday 9 August 2020
"I have tumbleweeds and goat heads"
Cheryl Phillips on Tuesday 11 August 2020
"I find it so hard to identify our weeds, and there have been lots this year I haven't seen before! Is there a good guide? Can some creeping, mat-forming weeds be left in place as a sort of living mulch in veggie beds? And at dhe end of the season, on no-dig beds, can I "pull ans drop' the weeds or will they just take root and grow again? Thanks."
Lydia on Friday 26 February 2021
"Hi Lydia. It's hard to give a definitive guide to all the weeds on this site, as weeds vary so incredibly from region to region. Have a search online, though, as there are some really handy visual guides. Generally, quick-growing annual weeds aren't that bad, but while they add a sort of living mulch, shading the soil as you suggest, if they are allowed to flower and set seed they will only spread. So it's best to get on top of them before they do this. You can just sever annual weeds at the soil surface with a hoe or pull them out, then leave them where they are. In warm/windy weather they will quickly shrivel up and then rot down into the soil. They then serve as a bit of a mulch. Perennial weeds on the other hand - with longer roots and that come up in the same area time and again - really should be completely removed from your soil, roots and all. This takes persistence and discipline!"
Ben Vanheems on Sunday 28 February 2021
"I have an infestation of horsetail in my vegetable garden. The sugar snaps are just coming out of the soil, along with spinach, and some beets. The horsetails are abundant everywhere. I read to ad Dolomite lime. how do I know how much to ad and will it affect my other plants?"
Judy on Wednesday 10 May 2023
"It really depends on how acidic your soil is. Hopefully any lime/Dolomite lime you add would have sufficient instructions on the packet to recommend the exact weight per surface area, according to your soil's pH, which you will need to find out first in order to work out the right amount of Dolomite to add. Horsetail can still grow in alkaline soils, so you will need to look at other ways to tackle it too, in combination with raising your soil's pH. Good luck - I hope you manage to beat it!"
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 27 May 2023

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