Weeds are making a comeback!

While the native plant movement remains strong in California and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, some communities are waking up to the fact that weeds make valuable contributions to our gardens and the wildlife that lives in them.  The British have always been ahead of us in welcoming plants from all over the world in their gardens.  The British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years.  They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.

The English garden, where plants from all over the world are welcome

In a recent article in The Guardian, an English gardener describes her journey from fighting the weeds in her garden to her new relationship with them:  “I remember writing, many years ago, about my fight to get rid of these dandelions. Clearly, I didn’t win. Now, when I am greeted by them, I am glad I lost the battle. These days, I truly consider them friends…they are welcome in my garden, because I know they do more good than harm.”

The English gardener reminds us that the war on weeds began only recently.  Going deep into agricultural history, weeds were natural forage that were a part of our diet. Weeds fed our domesticated animals, stuffed our mattresses and made twine and rope. Many have medicinal properties, but most have marketable substitutes now. They were tolerated on the edges of agricultural fields and in our gardens.

The typical American lawn, maintained with pesticides and fertilizer is not habitat for pollinators or other insects. Source: Pristine Lawn Care Plus

The war on weeds began after World War II, when chemicals were introduced to agriculture.  Pesticides were considered benign for decades.  We have learned only recently of the dangers of some pesticides. The promotion of pesticides changed the aesthetics of gardening, initiating an era in which weeds were banished from our agricultural fields and our gardens.  

Note the drone hovering over the children in a strawberry field. Drones are the latest development in chemical warfare. They are used to spot non-native plants in open space as well as to aerial spray pesticides. They are cheaper than other methods of application and for that reason are likely to increase the use of pesticides.

Do not underestimate the power of propaganda to promote the use of pesticides:  “A publishing company linked to the most powerful agricultural lobby group in the U.S. is releasing children’s books extolling the benefits of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers.”  Industrial agriculture begins the indoctrination of the public at childhood. 

Bumblebee in clover. Source: buzzaboutbees.net

Weeds made their way back into our gardens partly by evolving resistance to the pesticides we used for decades to kill them.  There is growing awareness of the impact of pesticides on insects and wildlife.  As populations of pollinators decline, we are more willing to indulge their preference for weeds such as dandelions and clover.  Weeds are often the first to arrive in the spring garden, as native bees are emerging from their winter hibernation in ground nests.  Weeds prolong the blooming season in our gardens, providing nectar and pollen before cultivated plants are blooming. 

“No Mow May” comes to America!

“No Mow May” originated in Britain out of concern for declining populations of bees.  Communities make a commitment to stop mowing their lawns in May to let the weeds dominate their lawns.  Weeds such as dandelions and clover give the bees an early boost in the spring that studies show increases bee populations.  Lawns maintained with pesticides and fertilizers provide poor habitat for bees. 

Two professors in the Midwest of the US introduced “No Mow May” to their community in Wisconsin in 2020.  They signed up 435 residences to participate in “No Mow May” and studied the impact:  “They found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks. Armed with this information, they asked other communities to participate.”  According to the New York Times, “By 2021, a dozen communities across Wisconsin had adopted No Mow May. It also spread to communities in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.”

Farmers climb on board

Hedgerows are the backbone of the English countryside.  They are a complex bramble of woody and herbaceous plants that traditionally served as fences, separating roads from agricultural fields and confining domesticated animals.  They nearly disappeared when industrial agriculture dictated that fields be cultivated from edge to edge. They are making a comeback in the English countryside as farmers realize that their loss contributed to the loss of wildlife.  The concept of hedgerows as vital habitat is slowly making its way to America.

US Department of Agriculture reports improvements in agricultural practices in the past 10 years:  more no-till farming that reduces fossil fuel use and carbon loss from the soil; more efficient irrigation methods; broader field borders for pollinators and wildlife; more crop rotations that reduce disease and insect pests; reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous run-off; reduction in diesel fuel use, etc.  These are all well-known methods of reducing environmental damage from industrial agriculture, but there is now evidence that farmers are actually adopting them. 

Nativists are late to the game

We see progress being made to reduce pesticide use and provide more diverse habitat for wildlife, but nativists drag their feet.  They continue to use pesticide to eradicate non-native plants and they deny the value of non-native plants to insects and wildlife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

In a recent comment posted on Conservation Sense and Nonsense, a nativist explains the justification for using herbicides to eradicate non-native plants:  “No one likes herbicides, but in the absence of a labor force willing to abandon its modern conveniences to do very hard work, they are important tools in restoration ecology, and methods are improving as a result of careful science to determine how the least amount of them could be used to gain the greatest amount of benefits to the maximum amount of species. Throwing those tools away is about like tossing chemotherapy or vaccinations because of that “all-or-nothing” black or white point of view that native plant supporters are being (unjustly) accused of.”

For nativists, the harm done by non-native plants is greater than the harm done by pesticides.  This equation does not take into consideration the benefits of many non-native plants to wildlife and it underestimates the damage caused by pesticides to the environment and its inhabitants.   

4 thoughts on “Weeds are making a comeback!”

  1. The sad thing is the solution are the weeds not the chemicals used by the nativists. Horrible analogy. Nature provides the solutions and the nativists get in the way. That is the solution..more plants from all over the world to create an even more diverse landscape not herbicides. Herbicides are not medicine for nature. What a horrible idea!!! How could anyone follow this misguided idea. You should see the damage of herbicides on a conservancy property near my house. Pathetic mismanagement of our natural resources.

    1. Please consider writing a guest post for Conservation Sense and Nonsense about the conservancy property near your house…with many pictures.

      In answer to your question about how anyone could follow this misguided idea, I believe the answer is the power of propaganda aided and abetted by economic interests in selling herbicides and associated members of the “restoration” industry. Thanks for your visit.

      1. One quibble with this post: people have been exposing dangers of pesticides since soon after they came into frequent use. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, published in 1962. Also, take a look at this toxicological profile of RoundUp:

        Click to access ROUNDUP%20tox%20profile%20from%2097%20report.pdf

        It was published early in 1997, it was based on data researched in Ag. departments in 1995. In the citations we see one going back to 1988. While much, much more is known about RoundUp dangers now, look at how much was clear then. We do not need endless further research which always is the strategy of big-name nonprofits which gain their funding by not working to stop toxic pesticide use, but write nice reports talking about reducing use, which has no legal meaning and is why their reports are laughed at by people in Ag. departments, and the users of these toxics (I’ve witnessed this, in person). So I would hope people do not refer to only recent knowledge; we’ve had plenty by anecdotal evidence as a foundation (like clinical observation used by doctors to diagnose). We must reject this notion of need for more studies when the elephant has been in the room crushing people to death, or maiming, all this time!
        And for an excellent set of photos showing a healthy vineyard vs. a typical Sonoma or Nap industrial vineyard, see this: http://www.dontspraycalifornia.org/pixwc.htm. Please realize that if you are drinking any wine that is from Sonoma or Napa, Paso Robles, Riverside County, or other non-organic or biodynamic wines, this is what you are taking in, not to mention lead in the soils from so many old houses being demolished without lead-abatement work being done first or after. Puts a bit of a damper on it, right? If you’re supporting especially biodynanic farmers, it is typical that they may farm 60 out of 360 acres in order to provide habitat for wildlife, and the beneficial insects which naturally keep the balance needed to be able to have a healthy harvest.

  2. Thanks for another wonderful article. I wonder what an effect spreading your information about Britain welcoming plants from around the world might have on nativists, or especially those people wavering or new to being bullied into nativism, because so many in the US worship the British. (I can’t bear seeing how in the Native Plant Society fb groups people who haven’t yet learned to hate beautiful plants being shamed into obeying the nativist line.) I remember when I lived for 6 months in England one of the places I most wanted to visit was Kew Gardens with amazing plants we never see here.

    It’s so good you included that horrific new propaganda piece to teach kids and people to accept poison on their food. It feels like literally evil when they know they are harming people and the environment for profit.

    Max Ventura’s comment reminds me of what I learned from the Ban Glyphosate Now in Marin county, which is that even organic wine from our North Bay counties contain so much glyphosate, likely from contaminated ground water, that they make people sick in ways that wine from other countries doesn’t. (I also learned this from a friend who got stomach aches from Sonoma and Napa county wine, but not from imported wine.

    I wish everyone knew how many people are disabled by chronic illness or have died from pesticides/herbicides.

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