What Are Weeds?

“What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.”

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote those words about appreciating uncultivated land after visiting Scotland in 1881, and I can’t say I disagree. As pretty as a picture-perfect garden is, there’s something to be said for a little bit of wildness.

A close up vertical image of a wheelbarrow filled with a variety of different weeds pulled out of the garden. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.

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In her seminal book “Silent Spring,” author and activist Rachel Carson argued that the idea of certain plants being labeled as weeds was a development of a capitalist society.

“Such plants are ‘weeds,’” she said of wildflowers, “only to those who make a business of selling and applying chemicals.”

Some of us look at weeds as a mild irritant, and others see them as a terrible foe. Some people wouldn’t dream of allowing a single errant stem to mar their garden, and other people take a more relaxed approach. Still others even welcome certain weeds.

When it comes to weeds, it seems that sometimes our perceptions and personal feelings come into play more than the facts do.

So in this guide, we’re going to look at what weeds are, whether they’re worth ripping out, and whether they might be worth keeping around.

Here are the topics we’re going to take a look at:

I’m going to stick with as many facts as I can muster, but I should preface this article by saying that I don’t mind most weeds.

I’ll pull them out of my herb garden and raised beds, but certain weeds bring a smile to my face.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s anything goes in my garden. The mere hint of a blackberry bramble sends me into a rage.

But my neighbor lets them grow because he loves the fruits. See? Sometimes what constitutes a weed is a nebulous concept.

Let’s try to make sense of it all.

What Is a Weed?

Before we can decide whether to welcome them or not, we need to define our terms.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a weed as a noun, “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth. Especially: one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.”

A close up horizontal image of ivy growing on a wooden fence pictured on a soft focus background.

Generally speaking, the broadest definition of a weed is something that’s growing someplace where you don’t want it and where it competes with plants that you do want.

By that definition, a hollyhock, rose, raspberry bush, black walnut tree, or lady fern could all qualify as weeds.

To one person, a dandelion is a horrible menace worth drowning in the most powerful herbicide known to man. To others, it’s a valuable species that can be made into a powerful fertilizer.

Most, but not all of these plants are tough, resilient, and challenging to remove. That’s how they manage to spread all over the place.

A lot of times, the roots won’t come out when you pull the leaves, as is often the case with bindweed. Other times, the plant is easy to remove, like goosefoot.

A close up horizontal image of lamb's quarter growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

Even the same plant in your own yard may be considered a weed in one area and not in another.

Think of grass, which you feed, water, and mow lovingly in areas where you want it to grow, and viciously pull out wherever you don’t.

Region matters, as well. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a noxious weed in the Pacific Northwest, but I would have killed to have it growing wild in my high desert garden.

Knowing all this, what should you do about these plants?

When You Should Pull Them

Even if you are tolerant of weeds, there are times when they just need to go.

Plants like mallow, lamb’s-quarters, jimson weed, clover, and wild radish can harbor diseases that will transfer to your cultivated plants, potentially killing them.

Not every weed will need to be pulled, but if you are growing a crop known to be impacted by a disease that is carried by specific species, you’re better off getting rid of those that grow nearby.

Lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), for instance, can harbor tobacco rattle virus, which can be extremely damaging to beets, potatoes, and tobacco plants.

Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) hosts beet western yellows, which can harm all brassicas.

Clover (Trifolium spp.) can carry rust spores that will also infect legumes, and jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) carries viruses like potato virus X or tomato mosaic virus, which can harm cultivated nightshades like tomatoes.

A horizontal image of kudzu that has taken over a corner of the garden and smothering trees.

Then there are those that will become destructive.

Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) is one such plant. Not only can it completely take over a yard and overwhelm outbuildings, but it carries diseases that harm legumes.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) seems to reproduce the second you turn your back.

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a notoriously destructive plant, cracking through roof soffits, pulling off wood siding, and climbing into brick walls through the mortar joints. And that’s just in my own yard.

When my friends ask for advice on how to lay out their gardens, they all know that even mentioning English ivy will get them put on my naughty list. But it turns out, I might just be biased.

A three-year University of Oxford study found that while ivy would exploit existing structural damage, it didn’t generally cause it. It also helped insulate the walls, reducing energy exchange, as well as protecting inhabitants from pollution and dust.

Ivy even regulates moisture, reducing cracking and other damage in brick walls.

Other weeds have the potential to push out native plants. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) originated in Europe but has spread pretty much everywhere in the US except the south.

It has long, tenacious roots and pops out of the soil earlier in the spring than most natives, so they don’t get a chance to grow.

The roots also alter the composition of the soil, making it harder for native trees and shrubs to thrive.

Most affected communities have some sort of collective effort to eradicate this plant because it’s that bad. My local native plant society has a disposal area and tools you can borrow for the purpose of getting rid of garlic mustard.

Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), or morning glory weed, has been taking over gardens and smothering crops for centuries.

Even some native plants can become invasive. Mesquite (Prosopis spp.), for instance, does this in arid areas by sucking up over 20 gallons of water per tree each day.

It can actually lower the water table, making it so that other plants can’t access the moisture, causing them to die off. That wily mesquite then gets to move into the area where the other plant died.

And then there are those that will cause permanent scarring. Seriously.

A close up vertical image of a hand from the left of the frame showing the size of a giant hogweed flower.

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a noxious weed that releases a sap that reacts with sunlight to cause severe burns on your skin. Definitely not one you want in your yard.

The bottom line here is that if you don’t mind the effects of a weed, go ahead and leave it, provided that it won’t also harm the environment outside your yard.

Some areas mandate that certain species must be removed or are prohibited from planting. In that case, there’s no question about what you should do.

There are times when you can safely allow a weed to grow, and we’ll talk about those next.

When You Should Leave Them

Some aren’t a big deal. Dandelions really aren’t all that bad, if you think about it.

They don’t push out natives, they won’t destroy your wood siding, and they certainly won’t cause permanent scarring.

A close up horizontal image of yellow dandelion flowers pictured on a soft focus background.

Their biggest sin is that they reproduce readily in places where we don’t want them, namely lawns.

Let’s talk about lawns for a minute. I’m decidedly against them except in areas where you regularly use them for games or recreation.

I have a big patch of lawn in my backyard, but I won’t grow a lawn in my front yard because I will never play croquet or lay out on a blanket in my front yard.

Who needs a big old piece of monoculture that they don’t use, anyway?

We waste so much time and money, not to mention all the awful chemicals we often use, to keep all that grass alive.

A lot of us do it to impress our neighbors or because an HOA requires us to, but many people are starting to appreciate lawn alternatives.

Personally, I used to hate clover in my grass. I thought it made it look unkempt. But my husband has this magical ability to spot four-leaf clovers. He’s even found a few five-leaf clovers!

He makes me little four-leaf clover bouquets all the time, and now, instead of trying to chase the plant out of my garden, I’m converting it into a clover lawn.

Rather than dumping gallons of chemicals or wasting hours on your knees with a dandelion puller, what’s the harm in letting them just do their thing? Maybe pluck and blow on a seed head and make a wish to bring back the joy of childhood and not caring about harmless weeds.

That said, if you want to pull them, dandelions can be used for food and medicine.

Speaking of, lots of weeds are edible. One of my favorites is mallow weed (Malva neglecta). It forms little round fruits that look like tiny cheese wheels, and anything that reminds me of cheese is welcome in my book.

You can eat the leaves, shoots, and those cute little fruits.

A close up horizontal image of pink mallow flowers growing in the garden.

We have a guide packed full of all kinds of weeds you can use for food or medicine.

Some weeds are native plants that are sneaking into our cultivated areas. I strongly advocate leaving those when you can.

Native plants are beacons for native wildlife, including beneficial insects like pollinators and predators that will devour pests.

I discovered a patch of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) trying to climb out from under a camellia bush in my yard.

Rather than pulling it, I trimmed up the camellia to make it look like I planted it intentionally as an understory plant. I’m even encouraging it to spread itself further and bought it some friends at a native plant sale.

I even plant weeds on purpose, sometimes.

I have a cultivated patch of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and pink dandelions, and of course, there are some monarch-friendly milkweeds in my yard.

By our definition above, these plants wouldn’t be considered weeds at all in my yard, since I’m encouraging them.

How to Eliminate Weeds

If you decide that a weed needs to go, no judgment. Like I said, we all have our limits. But I strongly encourage you to avoid using chemical herbicides.

These tend to do more harm than good, and while they’re faster than hand pulling, they also leach into our waterways and can even cause lung damage and cancer.

A close up horizontal image of a gardener using a hoe to remove weeds from a garden border growing hostas.

Removing weeds takes some work, but that’s part of the joy of gardening, isn’t it?

Put on your favorite podcast, don some gloves and maybe some arm protectors, and make an afternoon of it.

Speaking of afternoon, that’s the best time to pull them.

Contrary to the common advice to pull plants after rain or irrigation, the dry soil allows the roots to come up intact (except in heavy clay), and you can leave the weed in place to die off.

If you weed when the ground is wet and a leaf from a plant you just pulled falls onto the ground, if it roots it’s going to have an easy time re-establishing itself. But a leaf that falls on dry, hot ground is going to die.

The method for elimination is going to vary by species.

Some will need to be pulled up using a digging tool to get the taproot.

Dandelion, chicory, and burdock are like that. Some, like lamb’s-quarters, can be tugged out of the ground because they have shallow roots.

Some species, as with many grasses, can be eliminated by consistently mowing off the seed heads in addition to digging them up. And there are lots that need to be repeatedly pulled to starve the roots, like bindweed.

Unruly patches might call for covering the soil to block light or inviting a herd of goats over for a meal.

A close up horizontal image of a goat browsing in the garden pictured in light sunshine.

Regardless of which method you choose, try to remove as much of the root structure as you can.

It will also help dramatically to plant something that you want around that will smother out unwelcome visitors.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is one of my favorites, but there are lots of ground covers that will do the job.

For some excellent tips on making quick work of weeding, visit our guide. While you’re at it, learn about stale seedbed cultivation.

Incorporating Weeds Into Your Garden

If you decide to let some weeds stick around, it doesn’t have to be chaos. Most gardens look best with a little bit of definition.

The plants you allow should look intentional if you don’t want them to look like weeds.

A close up horizontal image of a gardener on the right of the frame pulling weeds from a garden border.

To use my false Solomon’s seal example above, it looks intentional and attractive with a dense patch of the stuff growing at the base of my camellias next to a concrete bench.

But it wouldn’t be so cute if the same plant were popping up randomly in the middle of my rosebush.

Give the species a defined space and keep it out of other areas.

A patch of something always looks better than a single specimen. Corral that creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) into a thick patch, but don’t let it escape into other areas.

Consider height, too. Stinging nettle that grows up in front of a little bed of hostas is going to look out of place, but if it’s growing behind like a tall border plant, it will look fabulous.

Try to make it look like that plant is welcome there, even if it typically isn’t.

It Doesn’t Have to Be a Battle

I think most of us would be better off if we found a little more chill when it comes to our gardens.

A close up horizontal image of a gardener with gloved hands carrying a handful of weeds.

Sure, you don’t want garlic mustard in your kale patch, but are those cheery dandelion heads really so bad in your lawn?

Sometimes, weeds can offer a real benefit, like when you can eat them or let them attract pollinators.

After getting on my soapbox about ivy, I have to confess that I allowed some to grow over a dilapidated fence in my backyard. It wasn’t worth the effort to fight it, and it has a cottage garden charm climbing over what would have been an eyesore.

Even when they’re not beneficial species, just choosing not to use herbicides can have a positive effect on the garden.

So where do you land in the debate? Are you firmly anti-weed, or is it more about context? Maybe you’re entirely on the side of live and let live? Give us your thoughts in the comments.

Looking for more information on yard maintenance? We’ve got you covered with these guides:

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Kristine Lofgren is a writer, photographer, reader, and gardening lover from outside Portland, Oregon. She was raised in the Utah desert, and made her way to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two dogs in 2018. Her passion is focused these days on growing ornamental edibles, and foraging for food in the urban and suburban landscape.
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Paul (@guest_1802)
6 years ago

Great article! I would only add that you don’t truly know weeds until you have a blackberry invasion. They like to be cut down to the ground… it appears to double their vigor. No part of the plant is safely touched, due to the omnipresent prickers, and even a pair of good leather gardener’s gloves isn’t a guarantee you won’t get stabbed. They seem to thrive in bright sun as well as full shade, and aren’t phased by going waterless for weeks or longer. I like to take a ‘live and let live’ attitude with the plants in my yard,… Read more »