The process of planning and managing your garden for maximum benefit to yourself and the planet can sometimes start to feel overwhelming. I want my yard and garden to be beautiful, productive, low maintenance, low water use, and full of habitat value and other ecological benefit. Even though this is my chosen obsession, even I can get a little overwhelmed by finding the combination of plants and locations that accomplish everything i’m going for. Therefore, when a plant comes along that just does the work for you, I say count your blessings and go with it.
Self-Heal, or Prunella vulgaris, is circumboreal, a word I love, and which basically means it is native to the entire Northern Hemisphere. Commonly viewed as weed, it is very tough and adaptable, spreading to form a low mat of semi-evergreen leaves that cover the ground and do a good job of smothering other weeds. Its short purple flower spikes bloom all summer, goldfinches eat the seeds, it is a nectar species for many butterflies. It is medicinal (hence the name ‘self-heal’), reportedly edible as a pot-herb (though I’ve yet to try), and you won’t ever need to water it.
Self-heal functions a lot like the evergreen groundcover carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans) except it is native! Try it as a green-roof plant, or in the paths between your garden beds.
For more information, check out what Heritage Seedlings has to say.
Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) is another ‘weed’ that keeps coming up in my garden, and I’ve decided to embrace it. Naturalized from Europe, it is not native, but it does have beneficial relationships with other organisms in the vegetable garden – which is not a native ecosystem either. Specifically, it attracts predatory insects such as lacewings which are beneficial garden helpers against aphids. With a long deep taproot it is extremely drought tolerant, and will grow in any sunny area without your help. I wouldn’t advocate introducing it to a natural area, but in an urban ecosystem it adds diversity to the mix.
Another strategy is to introduce desirable natives that grow like weeds – as long as they are weeds you can deal with. Two pollinator-friendly plants that easily naturalize in my garden and aren’t too hard to pull out are Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and near-native California poppies (Escholzia californica, and Escholzia caespitosa, or Escholzia ‘Mission Bells’).
Other weeds that I (kind of) love
- Wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is another Eurasian native that has naturalized in the North America. Like Queen Anne’s lace, I wouldn’t intentionally plant it in a natural area, but since it is well and permanently established in city gardens we might as well celebrate it’s benefits. I like it’s dramatic architectural form, it’s absolute toughness in the hottest driest corner of the yard, and the way it reminds me of the dry Sierra foothills of my youth. Goldfinches eat the seeds in the fall, and the list of its functional and medicinal uses through history is much too long to list here.
- Dandelions – the lawn weed that everyone loves to hate, and that has caused untold numbers of neighborly feuds. The truth is that you will never really get rid of them though, so I have stopped trying. Dandelions are an important early-season flower for bees, birds eat their fluffy seeds, and their nutritious edible greens are best in the spring, before they get too old and bitter. My chickens love dandelion greens, so a quick path weed and turn into a tasty treat for my egg-making birds.
- Lambs quarters (Chenopodium album) is related to quinoa and amaranth, two staple crops from the pre-columbian Americas. All parts of the plant are edible, and in the spring it makes an easy and welcome addition to a salad or pot of greens. The only downside is that the leaves are small, so harvesting takes slightly more work than say kale or lettuce or chard. It always seems to show up in my garden on its own, and I tend to let at least some of it grow to provide me with greens in a pinch.