Catherine Winter-Hebert

Reading Your Weeds: What's Your Soil Telling You?

filed under: Gardening

soil, garden, earth, amendments, dry soil, acidic soil, pH, soil amendments, weeds, weed, dandelion, clover, mullein, crabgrass, yarrow, plantain, plantago, sorrel, wood sorrel

So, it’s August, which means that September is a few short weeks away, and most gardeners will be reaping the rewards of their labors right about now. Tomatoes will be ripening on the vine, squashes will be plumping up nicely, and apples at the height of their flavor and freshness are just around the corner. If your garden hasn’t thrived as well as you might have liked, there could be a number of contributing factors, including the possibility that the plants chosen weren’t ideal for the soil that you have, and reading the “weeds” that spring up in your space can give you a solid idea of what your soil is like, and what it might need.


Image © Mikkel Ronne

I put “weeds” in quotation marks here because so many plants that are labeled as such—i.e. unvalued, undesired, and troublesome—are actually spectacular plants in their own right: some are edible, some are medicinal, but each and every one serves a purpose. Some, like clover, deposit nitrogen into soil that desperately needs it, while yarrow provides potassium to hungry earth. If you’ve paid attention to the weeds that have popped up in your garden over the last few months, you can probably get a solid idea of what your soil is composed of, and you can then determine whether you’d like to try amending it to suit the plants you’d like in there, or to choose plants that are better suited to the soil you have.


If these “pests” are plentiful in your garden space, chances are that your soil is fairly acidic, but also well aerated: dandelions have a tap root, which helps to break up soil and allow water and nutrients to flow into it. Pulling these out by the root will allow even more goodness to seep into the soil, and you can use the pulled plants for salads, fritters, tea, or even wine. If none of those appeal to you, you can compost them instead. Should you decide that you really don’t want any dandelions in your garden at all, be diligent about popping their flowers off in springtime when they appear: this will stop seeds from developing and scattering around your yard.

Should you decide to attempt to make your soil more alkaline, you can amend it with limestone (calcium carbonate), hardwood ash, bone meal, or crushed oyster shells.


Image © Zachi Evenor

Wood Sorrel

This little plant has clover-like leaves and yellow flowers, and springs up wherever the soil is both acidic, and highly comprised of clay.

It’s edible as well, giving a sour, lemony note to salads and soups, but take care not to eat an entire bucket of the stuff, as the oxalic acid within the leaves can cause kidney issues when consumed in high doses.

Mullein leaves

Image © Seafan


Should you find a significant amount of mullein around, chances are that your soil is extremely dry; chronically dry, even. Since you’ll often find it near beaches, it’s likely that your soil also has a fair amount of sand in it. Should you decide not to harvest the leaves for medicinal purposes, you can use them as a mulch in the fall.


Image © Akabilk


Both red and white clover deposit nitrogen in the soil, and their appearance in your garden can signify either very fertile soil, or poor soil that’s on its way to becoming more fertile: check out the other plants growing around it, as they’ll help you determine clover’s function. This is a great cover crop to sow in an area that you can leave fallow for a year—working it into the soil as a mulch will add significant nutrients to it for the following season’s crop.

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1 Comment

  1. peppyj December 5, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I’m not sure about your comment on crabgrass. I believe it needs dry, infertile soil. See related website

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