What is a Weed?

Generally speaking, a weed is any plant growing where it is not wanted. Often what we define as weeds are plants that grow in competition with cultivated plants, including crops. It is subjective labeling. And it is complicated.

From my perspective, as someone who is currently letting the yard grow wild, I would define a weed as any nonnative plant. That includes so many of the ornamental flowers and trees in yards and gardens across the country. It also includes most lawns. Yet if I’m going to go with that definition, I should mention that a large number of crops grown in the US are nonnative. Are they weeds? One could certainly argue that they are but many of these nonnative crops are also the foundation of our food system. This includes wheat, alfalfa, most oats, barley, and even corn which is a human invention developed by Native Americans. See? Complicated! And while I believe that our industrial agriculture system needs a major overhaul, I am certainly not advocating for the immediate removal of our staple crops.

Sadly my definition of weed also includes dandelions (which I happen to love!) because they are native to Eurasia and are believed to have been introduced to North America by European settlers as far back as the Mayflower. And what about plants with weed in the name? Milkweed, for example, isn’t a weed at all in North America. It is native to the continent and an important food source for butterflies and other insects. Then there’s cheeseweed, locoweed, fireweed, and stinkweed (what fun names!). These are all beautiful wildflowers native to Colorado.

So, what is a weed? Hopefully this will spark conversation!

From the Files of the Odd, Overlooked, and Underappreciated: Soil

Soil does not get nearly the attention it should, often dismissed as just dirt or mud. Yet, it is not merely the ground beneath our feet or a place to put our gardens or crops. It is essential to life on Earth.

It is soil that provides a place for the roots of plants and trees and crops to take hold and the nutrients for them to grow. It collects and stores rainwater, and can protect against flooding. Soil filters pollutants out of the water. Soil also stores two to three times more carbon than vegetation. Around the world, many homes are built out of soil. And think about the mug from which you drink your tea or coffee – it’s made from soil (clay)!

Soil is also an entire living, thriving ecosystem. In fact, each tablespoon of healthy soil can contain more microorganisms than there are people on Earth. That’s a lot of microorganisms! Those organisms are like the workers in a massive underground factory keeping the planet running. They work together to drive Earth’s water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles that in turn provide us with the food we need to survive – 95% of our food supply relies on soil. Finally, get this, soil provides medicines. Many antibiotics, vaccines, and other lifesaving drugs were discovered in soil’s biodiversity. Not only that, keep in mind that the medicinal plants we use grow in soil.

We need to celebrate soil and understand it’s value, especially in agriculture. Regenerative practices play a role in keeping soil healthy. We can all play a role. That includes not raking leaves, avoiding pesticides, rotating crops in gardens, using mulch or cover crops to protect topsoil, and feeding the soil with compost and other organic matter. Next time you are outside, scoop up a handful of dirt – take a moment to marvel at its essential role and to wonder about the tiny world you hold in your hand.

Belted Kingfisher

On a walk along a rugged Washington coastline, I spotted a bird hovering over the ocean like a hummingbird.

But it seemed much too big to be a hummingbird. And there were no flowers in sight. The bird’s wings beat rapidly as it hung in the air, scanning the water. Then it tucked its wings against its body and torpedoed into the ocean. SPLASH! Moments later it came up with a small fish pinched in its beak and flew away.

I hadn’t known there were other birds that could hover like that! Apparently kestrels, terns, frigate birds, and terns can too. And the belted kingfisher I saw. It’s a stocky bird and slightly top-heavy, but it hovered over the surface of the sea effortlessly. At least it looked effortless to me, but it takes a lot of energy for them to beat their wings that fast (though not as fast as a hummingbird).

Given the time of year, it was likely taking its catch back to the nest where up to 8 hatchlings might have been waiting in a ground nest burrow – one that a mating pair excavates together over 3-7 days and extends backwards and upwards up to 6 feet! The young are born with an acidic stomach that allows them to digest anything their parents provide for dinner – fish scales, bones, and even arthropod shells. When they get older, though, that chemistry changes. As adults, kingfishers regurgitate pellets that contain the remnants of a meal like owls do. Had I followed the bird’s path I might have found that burrow, with a welcome mat of a pile of pellets. Some birds even use the pellets as insulation, lining the nest with them…stinky, yet effective!