When I moved to town from the country a few years ago, this backyard was one of those pristine, closely clipped lawns with a lovely flower garden in the midst of it. Not anymore. The flower garden this year grew corn and beans and squash, and wild sunflowers graced the back of the garage. Smaller oil type sunflowers grew on the south side of the patio, mixed in with millet and whatever else was in that cup of birdseed I scattered there.
Lambsquarter grew to amazing heights in the well prepared soil of a raised bed. It’s loaded with seed right now and bent over from some serious rains. It still looks lacey and delicate from a distance – never mind that the stem is as thick as small fencepost. How I’ll get it out of the garden, I don’t know yet. I might have to hire a tractor to pull it out.
And under the lambsquarter? Purslane! Lots of it. I had to pull some away from the peppers to give them some sun. Dandelions are scattered here and there over the whole place, but mostly under the plum tree, where I’ve instructed my groundskeeper (nephew!) to never mow. He’s learned to not pull “weeds” unless I have told him to and he knows to never put poison of any kind on the grass. Or what remains of the grass.
This year I was pleased to find a patch of panic grass sending its pale yellow flower and seed heads in an orderly scramble upwards. Less pleasant was an invasion of bindweed or wild morning glory. I love the little flower, so let it grow for awhile when it appeared… oops. It hasn’t quit spreading yet and I know that once it gets started, it’s very hard to get rid of.
Mallow, with its whitish to purple blossoms and little green “cheeses,” grow in almost every corner there is – and in my backyard, there are lots of corners! Along the back fence grows a weed that I have never found the name of. It’s rather pretty with tiny yellow flowers early, then three clusters of seeds that explode when they’re ripe, sending them across the lawn to settle in for next year. I’ve been very stern with them, keeping them in that one area, but it takes a lot of weed pulling to convince them.
So now you’re thinking I must be some kind of nut, else why would I purposely let my backyard go to weeds?
Here’s what I do with them:
Lambsquarter is more nutritious than spinach, so I grow it instead. I put it up for winter and eat it fresh in salads and on sandwiches all summer. I harvest the seeds to put in breads and soups. It reseeds itself and grows on its own. I don’t have to worry about when to plant it, I don’t have to weed or feed or water it. It grows bountifully. One small patch provides all I need for the year.
Purslane is one of the few vegetable sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s tasty raw or cooked. I put some up for winter and eat it often in the summer and fall. It doesn’t lose its tenderness or flavor even when it flowers or begins to go to seed. Pickled purslane is a favorite – use the biggest, fleshiest stems and make it just like cucumber pickles.
Purslane seed is used in breads and soups, too. I use it in place of poppy seed when I want to get fancy. As a “weed,” it takes nothing to grow, except a little room. I watch anxiously for purslane every year and keep a few seeds stashed away just in case.
Sunflowers are famous for seeds, but wild sunflower seeds are almost too small to use for human food. Birds love it and find a steady perch in the big stems. You can eat the seeds, of course, if you’re patient (and can beat the birds to them). Sunflower buds are edible and a more easily harvested source of food than seeds. Boil them in water until tender. They taste like artichokes (which family they belong to) and are eaten the same way. Peel away the green and eat the hearts.
Mallow cheeses make a great addition to late summer salads. Mallow leaves can be eaten as greens, but they’re a little leathery and fuzzy to work with. Nevertheless, they’re nutritious and quite edible when cooked.
And dandelions! What can one not make from dandelions? All of the plant is edible and/or useful in some way. The flowers can be frittered or made into wine or jelly, and the buds are a good boiled vegetable. The leaves, of course, are a wonderful spring green, being one of the first to appear. Pick leaves before the first blossoms if you don’t care for the bitter taste. Even later pick a few good leaves and mince to add to a salad. In the fall and winter, dandelion roots can be cooked and eaten like a vegetable or roasted for dandelion “coffee.” If you’ve never tasted it, try it. It’s very good, non caffeine and a little diuretic. Dig the whole plant and cut off the crown (compost the leaves and any flowers). Scrub the root and chop it, then dry in a slow oven. Grind it in a coffee grinder and use it just like coffee.
At first it was hard to make this decision to let my back yard return to a more natural state. It’s not always easy to go against the norm. My decision came partly from a yearning to return to the countryside and partly from a little rebellion at finding myself where I am.
If you’re in the city but you’re yearning for the country, try letting a part of your yard go to “weeds.” You’ll eventually find a very nutritious source of food as well as entertainment as nature does its thing the way it was meant to.