Guardians of the Soil
by Joseph A. Cocannouer
Author of Trampling Out the Vintage
The Devin-Adair Company
Old Greenwich • Connecticut
1. Weeds and Youth
2. Weeds and Weeds
3. Weeds and the Soil World
4. The Fertility Chain and Soil Balance
5. Plant Roots
6. Weeds as Mother Crops
7. Weeds in the Rotation
8. Weeds and Pasture Improvement
9. Weeds in the Compost
10. Weeds as Food
11. Weeds and Wildlife
12. Sponge Structure versus Dams
13. Here and Yon
14. Nature’s Togetherness Law
SO FAR as we are able to determine this is the first book to be written in praise of weeds.
Many are the books which treat weeds as pests, and each season sees an advance in antiweed
campaigns and techniques; a host of chemicals, mechanical eradicators and even
flame throwers are making life increasingly hard for nature’s greatest and most widely
dispersed group of plants — the plants which stand condemned because they are deemed
That the ordinary garden and roadside weed might have a vital function in the scheme of
things and be of inestimable value to mankind seems not to have occurred to most
agriculturists, whether in the classroom, the departments of agriculture or on the farm.
The author of this book has been teaching conservation and biology for close to fifty
years. But he has been a student as well and a keen field man who has specialized in the
ways of weeds, not only in his home state of Oklahoma where he has spent much time
learning from the Indians, but in other parts of the world — in Europe, India and the
According to Joseph Cocannouer, weeds — the common ragweeds, pigweeds, pusleys and
nettles, to mention four — perform the following valuable services among others:
1. They bring minerals, especially those which have been depleted, up from the subsoil to
the topsoil and make them available to crops. This is particularly important with regard to
2.When used in crop rotation they break up hardpans and allow subsequent crop roots to
3. They fiberize and condition the soil and provide a good environment for the minute but
important animal and plant .life that make any soil productive.
4. They are good indicators of soil condition, both as to variety of weed present and to
condition of the individual plant. Certain weeds appear when certain deficiencies occur.
5. Weeds are deep divers and feeders and through soil capillarity they enable the less
hardy, surface feeding crops to withstand drought better than the crop alone could.
6. As companion crops they enable our domesticated plants to get their roots to otherwise
7. Weeds store up minerals and nutrients that would be washed, blown or leached away
from bare ground and keep them readily available.
8. Weeds make good eating — for man as well as for livestock. The publisher can vouch
for the superiority of lamb’s quarter — a favorite of the author — over any other domestic
form of spinach or cooked greens.
No, Professor Cocannouer does not believe that weeds should be allowed to go rampant
and take over our farms and gardens. The function of this book, a pioneering work, is to
demonstrate how the controlled use of weeds can be sound ccology, good conservation
and a boon to the average farmer or gardener.
Weeds, Guardians of the Soil – chapter 1
1. Weeds and Youth
DURING my early boyhood years on the farm, weeds spelled misery. At the first break of
spring, weeds carpeted the land — yesterday drab; today dense green everywhere. And
mother saw every weed as a separate, individual enemy with which we must join battle.
“Bring the hoes from the loft and file them right away, boys!” I can hear her voice now,
coming out of the long ago. “We simply mustn’t let the pesky things get ahead of us!” I
wonder how many weed hoes I have filed in my dreams!
Our little Kansas farm, even at that period, was in sore need of what controlled weeds
could have done for it. But weed superstition reigned then as it reigns today. We hated all
weeds in all situations because we hadn’t learned to interpret some of the simplest laws by
which Nature maintains the productiveness of land.
Even during those trying years when I could see nothing good in weeds save as potherbs
or as feed for hogs, I always liked to pull or hoe weeds for Sol Benson. Sol was a
successful farmer who owned considerable land — and who didn’t treat me as a kid as did
so many other farmers. Sol also usually gave me a few cents extra when he paid me off.
A certain day in Sol Benson’s cornfield started me on a research journey that has spanned
a half century. I happened to be hoeing in one of Sol’s best fields, which I had contracted
to clean of weeds for a definite sum. The corn was tree tall and the morning promised a
scorching day. This particular field, fortunately for my feet, was quite solidly carpeted
with purslane — the dirt where the sun reached it was hot. “Pusley” was then a much more
common weed in Kansas cornfields than it is now. (When I not long ago queried a young
farmer why that was so, his reply was characteristic: “Good cultivatin’ machinery and
weed sprays — we’re gettin’ the weeds licked!” I didn’t say what I thought then. His fields
spoke for me.)
I was soon so absorbed in those weeds in Sol Benson’s field that I forgot everything
except to keep my toes away from the edge of the hoe. With great spreads of pusley
rolling up over my feet, my battered straw hat pushed back on my head and the sweat
trickling down my face —
“Hold on there!” The voice was right behind me.
I turned — and there was Sol Benson grinning at me. Then Sol very quickly seemed to
forget that I was present. Very seriously he started to examine the roots of a large pusley
plant he had brought with him. It wasn’t one of the plants I had hoed up, for it carried a
husky set of roots. Sol was fingering the pusley roots thoughtfully. I jerked my hoe loose
and walked closer to him, wondering what there was about that pusley plant that made it
Sol lifted his head quick-like then, same as he always did when he was going to say
something important. “Joe,” he said; “Joe, I been watchin’ this pusley weed in my fields
for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it not only don’t do any harm, but it
does good! This thing of considerin’ all weeds as bad is nonsensical. Lot of guessin’
without knowin’, way I look at it. So I aim to do some guessin’ of my own — we’re goin’ to
stop cuttin’ pusley out of my corn!”
I stared at Sol Benson for a long moment, completely dazed. “But — but pusley is weeds!”
I finally managed to gulp. “Weeds is allers bad in fields where crops is growin’ — ”
“That’s only what people think!” Sol interrupted me sharply. “I’m convinced we been
thinkin’ wrong about weeds. Look here — ” he showed me some broken corn roots
scattered among the pusley roots. “Know what that means? It means that the pusley roots
are openin’ up the dirt for the corn roots, so the corn can go deeper into the ground and get
more to eat. Now come with me and I’ll show you somethin’ else — “
Sol went striding away through the corn and I trotted along behind him, still not sure he
wasn’t having a fit. Of all the silly ideas — pusley makin’ a road so the corn roots could go
deeper into the ground!
When we came to a part of the field where there was almost no pusley, Sol stopped and
began pointing out the corn to me. “See the difference?” he said. “Not near as good as
where the weeds are thick back there. Same kind of dirt, too. Somethin’ is makin’ a
difference in that corn, and I figure it’s the pusley. It’s like that in all my fields. Where the
pusley is thickest I get my best corn. Most farmers will say the corn is doin’ good in spite
of the pusley. That ain’t it at all! The pusley is helpin’ the corn to grow better.”
I could see a difference in the corn all right, but the very idea of the pusley being
responsible for that difference! “Sol, it jist must be somethin’ else!” I told him
courageously. “I know yer a good farmer and all; but nobody thinks that weeds is good for
anything but hog feed and greens — ‘
“I know they don’t! Remember, people used to believe the world was flat — ”
“But that was ’cause people used to be ignorant and superstitious-like — “
Amd right then something hit my brain a terrible wallop. People had been ignorant and
superstitious and all, about the shape of the earth. Could it be that people were
superstitious about weeds, too? Somebody had to discover that the earth isn’t flat. And Sol
Benson was smart enough for most anything — even smart enough to discover that pusley
could be helpful to corn!
Sol Benson has long since departed from the earthly scene. His name has been forgotten
save by a few. The pusley of those yesteryears is also gone — most of the present soil on
that Kansas farm of my boyhood will not support it.
But, starting with Sol Benson’s cornfield, I can see a winding trail; a dim trail at first,
winding its way persistently into the years, traversing many parts of my own country and
many foreign lands. Along this trail came soil studies in numerous regions of Asia, with
its ancient agriculture; the desert lands of Africa; the semi-wild man and his crude
farming; Europe offering the best in modern soil science. And with “weeds” ever a major
part of every picture or episode where soil fertility entered in.
During much of my youth my weed trail was beset with skepticism and doubt, despite my
confidence in Sol Benson’s wisdom as a farmer. Weeds helpful to the crop with which
they were growing — all evidence seemed against the idea. Then there were the teachings
of my mother. Those would not give way until I had undeniable proof that her concept of
weeds was wrong.
As I grew older, support of Sol Benson’s conclusions poured in upon me, often from the
most unexpected sources. Weeds could be friends of the land! Day by day this evidence
drove me deeper into the study of Nature’s laws which supported the evidence: the laws
pertaining to the constructive relationship ever existing between soil and deep-feeding
Now as I look back across those years, I am able to evaluate more scientifically my varied
sources of information: sound knowledge gleaned from a Pawnee Indian in his wigwam; a
Chinaman fighting for survival on a small area of land and employing weeds as his
fertilizer; from still wider acquaintance with the jungle man and his “mother weeds” on his
primitive farm — and coming close to understanding the science back of his procedures; or
from some progressive American or European farmer who had discovered weed values
and who was ready to support his findings with proof.
Then, too, there came further penetration into the natural laws of soil fertility; personal
experiments — all have convinced me that Sol Benson was a soil scientist who knew his
pusley and its value in correct land management. Thus the chapters which follow.
2. Weeds and Weeds
“WEED: any plant growing out of place.” But who or what is going to decide when a
plant is out of place? Mustard going to seed in a field of ripening wheat is certainly out of
place, as are weeds that shoot up like a magic green carpet in a field of young sugar beets.
But if a plant is strengthening the soil in a given location, according to the laws of Nature,
it is not out of place as a fundamental in maintaining land productiveness.
Some plants always seem to be harmful: poison ivy, for instance, and puncture weed and
dodder — and many others. Some can be harmful under certain conditions: pigweeds
growing so thickly that they smother both themselves and the domestic crop. Yet, there
are situations a plenty where the wild plant is beneficial both to the soil and the domestic
crop with which it may be growing. An example of this is pigweeds in a heavy-soil potato
field, the weeds spaced far enough apart to permit strong root development without
crowding the potatoes; or a combination of pigweeds and lamb’s quarter and sow thistles,
scattered thinly in a tomato garden or an onion patch — or even in a cornfield. In such
cases the weeds can become valuable “mother weeds” instead of pests.
In southeast Asia there is a wild plant that spreads in tangled growth along the edges of
the fields of the native farmers, often creeping far out into the fields. No other wild plants
in that region equal this one in spreading vigor. Though the Malays relish the young pods,
farmers insist that it is a bad weed, since they must labor to keep it from growing too near
their rice and vegetables. That bad weed in Malaya is the fore-parent of our American
cowpeas. When I questioned the Malay farmers, they admitted they usually harvested
their best crops near where the payaap was growing. Even so, in their estimation it was a
Nature may at times compel us to discover the value of her wild plants; her weeds. In precolonial
times a group of explorers, after navigating the Amazon for a lengthy period,
decided to strike overland to a point towards which they were heading, hoping thereby to
save weeks of time. The little band became lost in the jungles.
After many days of wandering, the men finally came upon a seemingly endless growth of
vines bearing great quantities of pods filled with plump seeds that looked temptingly
edible. But the explorers had already learned jungle caution. After considerable mental
struggle, they decided to cast lots in order to choose a victim, who should risk his life by
eating these habichuelas. Thus were our most popular beans discovered. Not only are
these beans a staple article of food in many parts of the world; they are soil improvers
I call to mind an old woman in south China whom I saw gathering herbaceous wild plants
from an almost barren hillside. She was creeping over the rocks and along the steep banks
in search of a few wretched weeds that would help make her tiny plots a bit more
productive. My guide explained that the old woman was looking for particular kinds of
weeds, though he did not know in what way they were particular. I examined the plants
after the Chinese woman had brought them to her field. They or their relatives are
common in many parts of the world: two or three varieties of thistle, a poppylike plant, a
milkweed and a spurge. There were others I did not recognize. The important thing was
that those wild plants — those weeds — were treasures in that Chinese woman’s desperate
economy. They fed the soil that must feed her.
Once, while in Europe, traveling through rural Bavaria, I came upon a man who was
cutting green weeds from the roadside, apparently to mix with the manure sweepings
which he was also gathering from the road. Among his weeds were nettles, lamb’s quarter,
thistles, mallow, and bindweed. Immediately I wanted to ask questions, but soon found
that my college German was of little use. I did manage to get an invitation from the man
to visit his neat farm, where I was introduced to a daughter who spoke English.
The German farmer did not consider many of our common weeds harmful in themselves.
According to him the harm came from the farmer’s failure to control the weeds while they
were growing in his fields. The German had a most efficient, simple method of handling
barnyard manure. The manure pile was under continuous construction, and as the manure
came from the barn or corral or roadway, it was stacked with layers of manure or litter
alternating with layers of weeds. By this method of manure-pile building, the farmer
explained, the amount of the final fertilizer was markedly increased through the addition
of the food-filled weeds; and firefanging of the manure was prevented because the weed
layers permitted proper aeration.
I examined one pile of this fertilizer that had already gone through the processing. The
stac on the outside looked like any typical manure pile now and then seen in American
barnlots. Inside, the pile resembled true compost somewhat, but was really just mellow,
well-rotted manure of a superior quality. I have since wondered if this German farmer
could not have been employing a fertilizer-making process handed down from the
The Catholic monks in Europe a few centuries back were known to have
employed in their very efficient agriculture some of the teachings of Cato, who had lots to
say on this subject.
While weed prowling in one of our midwestern states, I came upon a farm woman who
had discovered that dry weeds were a real asset in successful gardening. When I first saw
the woman she was collecting the weeds in a thick patch near her garden, and then
carrying them to her vegetable plot where she had already made a sizable pile.
I crawled through the road fence and introduced myself. “Tell me,” I said, “but aren’t folks
supposed to carry the weeds away from their gardens instead of onto them?”
“I suppose so,” she smiled. “I guess I’m a little contrary. Amyway, I like to burn weeds on
my vegetable plots. Am I scientific?”
“Decidedly! That’s what interests me. May I ask how you happened to discover that weed
ashes are especially good for your vegetables?”
“By experimenting, and through the smattering of science I learned in high school and
college. One who has nibbled a bit at biology is likely to wish to try out new things with
plants — don’t you think?”
(For a fuller discussion of burning, see Chapter 7.)
We then walked out into the patch from which she had been gathering her weeds. There
were horseweeds, a lighter growth of lamb’s quarter, annual ragweeds, and thistles: the
usual farm weeds for that locality. I moved the dirt with my foot and pulled up several of
the weeds, most of which revealed strong root systems. I also crumbled some of the
fibrous, mellow soil in my hands, and as I did that I was taken back across the years to
some of the weed coves I had known in the Cherokee Strip during my boyhood. “With all
of man’s knowledge of soil science, he is not able to produce a dirt like this,” I told her.
“And all built by the weeds themselves — the very same weeds that give you excellent
ashes for your vegetables.”
She trickled a handful of the soil through her fingers. I could tell that she knew how to
appreciate good dirt. “There’s one thing I’ve found out about the soil in here: for some
reason it warms up early in the spring. Even when there is frost in the ground elsewhere, I
can get warm soil here for my seed boxes.”
Her words brought back days in the Indian country when I often tramped the woods and
hills with a hunter-naturalist who used to say to me: “If you wanta scare up deer on a
blizzardy day, always make for a weed patch that ain’t too close to any house. Weed
patches are warm even in coldest weather, and the deer know it.”
One spring back there in those boyhood days I decided to explore the soil in one of my
favorite weed coves, with the hopes of discovering just why it should be warmer than the
surrounding land. My patch consisted mostly of giant ragweeds, or horseweeds, bordered
by annual common ragweeds and thistles and mint. Being quite young and unlearned in
the science of geology, I at first imagined that Mother Nature was sending the heat from
the interior of the earth as a special favor to weed coves — or to the deer and other wildlife
that sought warmth in such coves. But the further I dug into the soil of my cove, the more
I came to suspect that the horseweeds themselves were responsible for the warmth. How —
I hadn’t the slightest idea then.
It was not until many years later that I learned why the deer could depend on weed coves
to supply them with warmth on frigid days. The soil in such a cove is close to being an
ideal organic soil, composed mostly of plant materials in various stages of decay. And
since the bacteria that are largely responsible for transforming the weeds into humus are
very active and persistent workers when conditions are favorable for them, as conditions
are in a virgin weed cove, a great amount of heat is being continuously generated. In such
situations the bacteria keep up their work to a degree, even in winter. This heat is the heat
of decay. The woman had discovered this heat in her weed patch, and by using weed ashes
on her vegetable plots, she had discovered something else.
Our common weeds, possessing vigorous root systems, go down into the lower soils for a
goodly portion of their mineral foods because the minerals which plants require are
usually abundant down there. Being strong feeders, the weed roots take up great quantities
of the minerals and then bring them up to be stored in the stems and leaves. So, when the
weeds were burned on the garden, those minerals were deposited there in the ashes, ready
to be taken up easily by the growing vegetables. In this manner — and in many other ways
— weeds are Nature’s true guardians of the soil. They are the farmer’s friends when he
uses them intelligently; often his friends though he fights them.
Generally, the “weeds” in this book are the same old enemies of my boyhood. They were
enemies then because I had not yet learned their worth. Grass is not included herein since
grass does not improve the soil in the same way as do these deep foraging weeds; the deeprooted
herbaceous dicots. They are annuals usually, though a few biennials and fewer
perennials are also reliable soil builders.
Near the top of the list I place pigweeds, two or three strains, and lamb’s quarter, both
familiar throughout the country in garden and field. Under most conditions these weeds
are beneficial to the crop with which they may be growing. The same can be said for some
of the nightshades, the ground cherry, and succulent purslane. Even some of the noxious
weeds, like the cocklebur and bull nettle, are soil improvers where the individual plants
have ample room for full root development.
Then there is the goldenrod, an attractive weed that can be used in fiberizing gravelly soils, or loose sandy soils.
On slopes where water erosion has done its work, the persistent yard purslane along with a few other
creeping weeds will do a good job at starting land comeback.
It is possible that no soil-improving weeds in the United States excel the ragweeds,
particularly the common annual rag, because the latter will establish itself in practically all
types of soil. The giant ragweed, often called the horseweed, is also valuable but is more
selective in its habitats. And not far behind the ragweeds are the sunflower, the milkweed,
two or three thistles, the annual wild morning glory, stinging nettles, annual smartweeds,
wild lettuce, and several wild legumes, including sweet clover, the latter the aristocrat of
all weeds. All of these wild plants have root systems that forage deeply into the soil and
can be employed as mother weeds, or as green manures in a rotation. All of them are soil