Cool stuff to do with weeds



Weeds have been on my mind lately. They always are, really, but after reading the Mabey book, I've been looking at them more closely, even to the point of stopping to examine the countless specimens I see in my daily travels. (Above is a Cirsium vulgare—bull thistle—I spotted at a family event over the weekend.)

While I'm not totally sold on the beneficial properties of weeds/invasive, via a New Zealand newspaper gardening column, I came upon a different way of using them. It’s similar to composting but not quite. Regardless of how you define weeds (it doesn’t really matter), just throw the plants into a barrel with a lid, until it’s full. Add water—preferably rainwater.  Give it a few months and you have liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and used at will. According to the article, the seeds are no longer viable thanks to their lengthy soaking. Important note: a tight-fitting lid is essential.

What do you think? I like the versatility of liquid food and I'm kind of bad at composting (don't ask), so I'm intrigued. I wonder if it would smell as bad as alfalfa tea?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. A screw top food-grade olive barrel works nicely for a custom compost brew. Having left the top of the barrel for a while, as directed by my local master composter, I can tell you that the smell of pure weeds + water is horrendous. My ‘can o’ worms’ liquid or leachate smells much better than what this barrel produces.

  2. Hmmm. I have two rain barrels and don’t really use all of their contents (I have cut way back on my container gardening, ’cause I suck at it) and we get enough rain for basic needs. Convert one to this? But would it freeze over the winter? Or do the decomposing weeds keep it hot enough to prevent freezing? Bad smell? but it on the side of the garage towards the neighbors who are never home.

  3. I’m guessing you don’t open this barrel until you’re ready to spread it out in the garden, right? Or do you add to it over time?

    For years now I’ve tossed all the weeds in one part of my garden into an old wooden fruit bin (4 x 4 x 3′), and it all seems to settle as it dries out…it never grows anything in it, and it never seems to get filled. I’ll have to probe what’s going on there in the bottom of the bin–Maybe worms have crept up in there to take care of things. I’m also a terrible, lazy composter. A worm bin worked really well for me for a year or so, until I got an ant and fruit fly invasion from Hell.

  4. I’ve always wanted to do something more with the weeds I pull, something beyond tossing them in green waste. And Craigslist always seems to have offers of free food-grade barrels…

    A new garden project !

  5. Wow. What an amazing way of “growing your own” liquid fertilizer. Rainwater is a little hard to come by most years on the high desert, but this year is exceptional. It might be worth a try. Lord knows I have plenty of the basic material.

  6. That would be nice if we ever got any rain to actually fill a rain barrel! I don’t know what Buffalo’s been like lately, but here in the Rochester area, it’s been KFC extra-crispy dry since early June……we got .20 inches of rain this morning, and I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven!

  7. Your humbleness, certified after 162 hours in the NY Botanical, Commercial Horticulture Landscape Management, states for the record that many weeds are much more interesting aesthetically, than many of the plants white supremacists on this forum relish…and write tons of crap about…

  8. If you have that pesky chickweed…it IS edible…far more nutritious than spinach…PLEASE! before eating make very sure you properly identify! you don’t want to poison your family!
    You can use raw (such as in salads) or BRIEFLY steamed (as you would spinach). sort (to remove grasses, etc., wash well, and use.) takes a LOT if you steam. but if you are overrun with chickweed – try it! used to use it when my kids were growing…taste is good! Preferable pick before it blossoms for best flavor, tenderness and most nutrition.

  9. As others have said, the stench will make you faint. And in this part of the world, I don’t care how tight that lid is, the mosquitoes will find their way in to lay more silly eggs.

  10. Well, on the surface this sounds like a great idea but then the scientist in me makes me question whether the seeds would be killed by extended soaking.

    I think that seed soaking making the seeds non-viable is an over-generalisation. It would probably work for some species, but could just as probably not work for others.

    Unfortunately the only real way of determining whether this is true or not is to try and see. Maybe suggest it to a not-so-close acquaintance and see how they go after a few months? 🙂

  11. I’m in New Zealand and I didn’t realise the weed-barrel was a cultural treasure!
    Yes, it stinks. The more tap-rooted (hence more nutritious) weeds, the stronger the stench.
    I’d recommend running the weed soup through the compost when it’s done, that way anaerobic bacteria and surviving seeds stand less of a chance.
    My barrel lives next to the compost for ease of application. As for the mozzies, dunks are safe for the garden as far as i know.

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