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Those aren’t weeds coming up, they’re wildflowers

“The definition of weeds needs to be revised thus: all indigenous plants are wildflowers, and all non-native invasive introductions are weeds.”

— Matt Rees-Warren, “The Ecological Gardener,” 2021

Now that the days are becoming longer and warmer, I have been thoroughly enjoying watching the accelerated growth of my overwintering kale, cabbage and broccoli. Last night, I harvested fresh kale for dinner, and it was delicious cooked with black-eyed peas and rice. I’m eagerly anticipating the taste of homegrown broccoli and cabbage in stir-fries.

March is also one of my favorite months to start summer vegetables from seed that will be transplanted into the garden in May. These include peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and Chinese cabbage.

Last year, I experimented with growing starts in coir pellets, but I found that the netting didn’t decompose very well after the seedlings were transplanted into the garden. This year, I’m trying hard not to bring in outside resources for gardening, so I’m starting seeds in leaf mold (decomposed shredded leaves), mixed with coconut coir that I already have.

I’ve learned that seeds don’t need a rich growing medium in order to germinate because the seeds contain all the nutrients they need. Seeds germinate best in a light, fluffy medium so the roots can grow freely.

Once the seedlings emerge, they grow a first set of “leaves” called cotyledons, which do the initial work of photosynthesizing and supplying nutrients to the young plants. Some plants, such as peas, have cotyledons that stay underneath the soil surface and supply nutrients without photosynthesizing.

When the seedlings grow a second set of “true” leaves, it’s time to transplant them outdoors into nutrient-rich soil; thus, timing is important. If planting the seedlings outdoors is delayed, then nutrients can be added by spritzing the seedlings and the soil with a highly diluted amendment, such as fermented plant juice made from clippings and plant debris (see my column for Sunday, May 2, 2021).

In my experience, and based on what other gardeners have told me, the most common reason why seedlings don’t make it once they’ve been transplanted into the garden beds is they stayed too long in the seed tray or pot. (The next most common reason seedlings die after transplanting is they were not adequately hardened off beforehand.)

As much as I enjoy starting vegetable seeds and harvesting overwintering crops, my favorite part of gardening at this time of year is watching the herbaceous perennials break out of dormancy. They’re like old friends who come back to brighten up my garden and my attitude every year. I look for their green shoots to emerge from the earth, and I miss them if they don’t arrive on schedule.

Last year, my western Joe Pye weed (Ageratina occidentalis) never came up, and I really did feel like a friend had mysteriously disappeared.

Joe Pye is one of the native species of so-called weeds that people tend to welcome into their garden. Others include milkweed (Asclepias), sneezeweed (Helenium) and fireweed (Epilobium) However, most gardeners lament the sight of “weeds” coming up in the springtime, and that’s why author Matt Rees-Warren says we need to revise — or re-see — the weeds, not as enemies but as garden-friendly wildflowers.

Have you noticed that weeds — I mean wildflowers — are among the first plants to bloom in the garden? Their flowers provide pollen and nectar for the first pollinating insects seeking food; thus, they kickstart the early spring garden into action. They are particularly important for sustaining native insect species.

Rees-Warren calls annual and biennial wildflowers the “pioneers” of bare, disturbed soil because their seeds lie in wait beneath the soil’s surface until a gardener turns over the earth with a spade. This reminds me of the robins that linger nearby as I dig in new plants; they know I’ve probably brought up a few tasty earthworms for their lunch. Robins, and wildflowers, are remarkable opportunists.

Practicing no-dig gardening and mulching reduces wildflower colonization. Whenever wildflowers take over a patch of bare earth, it tells me that I need to plant something else in that area to increase biodiversity. When I remove wildflowers, I’m learning how to ferment them for a homemade soil amendment.

But mostly I’m learning I don’t need to remove all the “weeds” because they’re actually resourceful wildflowers that have an important place in my garden ecosystem.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.