Weeds can tell a story Garden: Those pesky plants can reveal your soil's type and condition.

August 16, 1998|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While most of us who keep up home grounds feel that weeds are the bane of gardens and lawns alike, these much-maligned plants actually have a great deal to tell us.

Many common weeds, for instance, can give us valuable clues to soil type, to general soil condition and even to the history of a piece of land.

This is because weeds and other native flora have preferences as distinct as any human's for the type of place they will settle.

For example, some weeds find their opportunities mainly on disturbed ground, while others prefer long-settled conditions. All have secrets to reveal about the land around us.

The next time you are out driving, you can make a quick survey just by noting some of the trees you pass.

The eastern red cedar, for example, which one often sees in fine groves along the sides of highways and in fields, is an indicator of worn-out agricultural soil.

If your property sports a fine natural growth of these trees, the soil is probably too worn-out to support either a good garden or a lawn without an extensive program of soil improvement first.

Weeds found on such ground include ragweed, fleabane, the wild mustards, bindweed (which looks like a small white morning glory) and purslane.

Willows usually follow water courses, from rivers and streams to seasonal wetlands. A luxuriant stand of willows, even on a seemingly dry parcel of land, may therefore disclose a seasonal flood plain.

Willows often meander in long lines through farm fields, disclosing the location of small, inconspicuous creeks and old irrigation ditches. Sycamores, too, find these conditions ideal.

Native willows are frequently accompanied by weeds such as cattails, wild mint and marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris). Jewelweed (Impatiens biflora), sweet flag, sedges, skunk cabbage and jack-in-the-pulpit are other indicator-plants of wet conditions.

Naturally occurring pine trees are known as pioneer trees, and from their windblown seeds often grow the first natural upper-story growth on older properties reverting to the wild from previous cultivation. Such land is a rich ecological zone, adaptable to many plant types and very attractive to wildlife. The soil is usually of adequate fertility and well-drained.

Native wildflowers and weeds to look for in this setting are little bluestem, sunflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata), black-eyed Susans, Canada goldenrod and asters. Wild berry bushes and roses also frequent this type of area.

Some weeds are also fine indicators of horticulturally desirable environments. Many of these make their home on the margins of woodlands, where the soil is humus-y and moisture-retentive, but well-drained.

Wood nettle, violets, ferns, columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), quickweed and pokeweed characterize this microclimate. Trees to look for are dogwoods, oaks and the Eastern redbud.

Although the definition of a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it to be, some weeds were introduced to this country on purpose. Many have become our greatest horticultural foes and garden headaches.

Dandelion, English plantain, the familiar orange day lily, naturalized morning glories, many mints and Queen Anne's lace have all escaped the garden fence since being introduced by European Colonists. Areas where these are found have generally been under cultivation a long time, even back to the 18th century.

There are many good guidebooks to North American trees and weeds. If you study them, the next time you take a hike or drive, amaze your companions with your knowledge of the hidden landscape.

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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