What your weeds are telling you


    By Ali Manns

    In recent weeks I farewelled our family home and with it the garden I had created over the past ten years. It was a bittersweet process to take it all down – deconstructing veggie beds, the chook house and compost systems. But the sadness was softened by the exciting promise of starting afresh in a new location with more space and a blank canvas. 

    It has proven to be quite the adventure as I get a feel for the overgrown tangle of waist-high weeds that is my new backyard. 

    In time the space will return to productivity as an edible garden. But before I make any change there is much to learn from its present state. Plants tell stories and the abundant weeds that clothe the soil here have much to say. 

    Indicator weeds

    Whether you are looking at a swathe of unwanted weeds like me, an outbreak in your garden bed or a single specimen in your lawn, weeds should be viewed as valued messengers relaying the state of your soil’s condition. We have become conditioned to despise them as nuisances, invaders of our curated spaces, but in reality they are, as some wise person once said, just a plant in a place it is not wanted. Let’s take a look at some of the most common.

    The deep rooters

    Dandelion and mallow are tough plants primed and ready to establish in the toughest of soil – compacted clay. They can withstand being trampled on and often appear in high traffic pathways where little else survives. They produce prolific seeds to assure their lineage. If you are bothered by them and curse how hard they are to remove, remember that the long taproot is working hard to amend the hard soil by drilling down into it. Take up the charge by gently aerating your soil with a fork, adding gypsum and compost.

    The acid lovers

    Dock and plantain also enjoy heavy clay soil and can indicate that it is wet or prone to getting waterlogged. You might want to lean into this prompt and locate a frog bog in the spot or take it upon yourself to improve the drainage before the winter rains arrive. These weeds also appear when soil is on the acidic side so amending the pH back to neutral by adding compost is never a bad move.

    The happy campers

    You can welcome the sight of chickweed and stinging nettle! They thrive where the soil is rich and fertile and are a good indication that your garden is happy with your efforts. As with many weeds, these have extra benefits such as being edible and in the case of chickweed, a marvellous living mulch. Plus, as the name suggests, chickweed is also a firm favourite of chooks.

    With my own weed survey completed, my next mission is to raze the meadow-esque garden to the ground and check for myself what lies beneath the weedy cloak. Who knows what lurks beneath. The adventure continues. 

    Ali Manns is a Permaculture Designer and Educator living in Yarraville and can be found at

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