Reading your trees , bushes, weeds to determine soil needs and type

I’ve talked about it before on many other threads eg. Soil Secrets - #50 by clarkinks but we need to talk about it in detail. We need to quit thinking of weeds as the enemy and realize they are the friend we have that’s always right. Weeds are hard to be around but they are telling us valuable information we don’t really want to hear. You remember my thread we need to read what’s under our feet. There is a huge amount of information on this so I’ve been avoiding bringing this up in a discussion specifically about weeds. Everything is wrong here in Kansas with my soil and always has been. The soil gets better every year but it’s slow progress. The author of this article gets it and even used a title I like. There is way more to be said as many plants and trees and bushes are left out. The truth is many so called invasives are soil correcting. If you go back many years ago plants were different. Think about this man strips soil and then blames the weeds. Here is a link to get started What Weeds Tell You About the Soil: Natural Soil Test | The Old Farmer's Almanac
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What Weeds Tell You About Your Soil


Using Weeds to Read the Soil

Robin Sweetser

November 24, 2021

Read your weeds! They are an indicator of your soil’s health. If you have large patches of one kind of weed, your garden is trying to tell you something. Here are common weeds and what they say about your soil—plus photos. Let us know what you learn!

When weeds arrive, it’s often an index of what is wrong (though sometimes what is right) with the soil. For example, weeds with deep taproots such as dandelions and burdock indicate compacted soil lacking in water, air, and nutrients.

However, weeds are also nature’s way of repairing the soil for a more stable, healthy system. In the case of dandelions and burdock, their deep, strong roots also help break up that soil.

Weeds are not inherently the problem. They are a symptom, and generally a troubled system. If we learn to read the weeds as clues to our soil’s condition, we can help the soil recover. In the meantime, we can cultivate plants that fit our soil and also use the weeds that are present.

Common Weeds and What They Say About Soil

Before you pull a weed, consider what it’s telling you. Is your soil lacking nutrients? Do you have an excess of fertilizer? Is your soil not draining well? Is it too compacted? Let’s find out!

  • Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) grows in crusty or compacted soil.

Common chicory can be an indicator of rich soil.

  • Chickweed (Stellaria media or Cerastium spp.) and chicory (Chicorium sp.) like rich soil—high in nitrogen—and will grow well in alkaline, compacted soil.

Chickweed grows well in compacted soil.

  • Common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is an indicator of rich soil.

Common groundsel. Remember: “If you have groundsel, you have good soil!”

  • Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) grows where the soil has been depleted of nutrients and is low in calcium.


  • Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) generally indicate poor soil that is low in calcium, as well as compacted. The dandelions’ taproots, however, are doing the job of breaking up the soil! Look into aerating your soil so it’s not compacted. In the meantime, check out our dandelion recipes!


  • Dock (Rumex spp.) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) grow in wet, poorly drained soil.

Dock might grow if you’ve planted near a swampy area.

  • Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis) grows in near-neutral, dry conditions. This pretty fern is the weed of the fernery and will propagate and overpower all other plants.

Fragile fern.

  • Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) indicates high nitrogen.


  • Knapweed (Centaurea spp.) indicates rich soil, high in potassium.

Knapweed looks like its cousin, bachelor’s button.

  • Knotweed (Polygonum spp.) grows where the ground is compacted.

Prostrate Knotweed.

  • Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) indicates rich soil, high in nitrogen.


  • Moss of most kinds indicate soggy, acidic soil that is low in nutrients.

There are many kinds of mosses that thrive in moist, shady locations

  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) grows in acidic soil with low fertility.

Common mullein indicates that you might need to make your soil more alkaline

  • Mustard (Brassica spp.) grows in dry, sandy soil, high in phosphorus.

Mustard is commonly found in pastures & fields

  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) indicates an exceptionally fertile location.

Ostrich fern grows in rich soil

  • Oxalis, or wood sorrel, indicates low calcium and high magnesium.

Common wood sorrel (which you might mistake for clover) shows that your soil might need a calcium treatment

  • Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) grow in acidic, often soggy soil with poor fertility.

Ox-eye daisy is found in areas of low fertility.

  • Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) grows in acid soil that is low in nutrients.

Pearly everlasting.

  • Peppergrass (Lepidium verginicum) indicates sweet soil.


  • Plantain (Plantago spp.) grows in compacted, sour soil with low fertility and often indicates heavy clay. Like prostrate knotweed, it has evolved to survive being trampled and can grow in heavily trafficked garden paths.

Plantain is a stubborn weed that often grows in heavy clay.

  • Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.) grows in rich soil with high levels of readily available nitrogen.

Photo: Red root pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus). Credit: AnRo0002 / Wikimedia Commons.

  • Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) prefers rich soil and is an indicator of high phosphorus. Like dandelions, purslane is edible and offers health benefits. Make the most of your common weed education and explore some purslane recipes.


  • Quackgrass (Elymus repens) will grow in heavy clay or compacted soil.


  • Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) grows where the soil is poor, but on the sweet side.

Queen Anne’s lace indicates poor dry soil.

  • Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) indicates low fertility.

Stinging nettle doesn’t just indicate rich soil; it also has some valuable qualities

  • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) indicates dry, sandy, acidic soil depleted of nutrients and low in calcium.

Sheep sorrel grows in acidic soil that is low in nitrogen.

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) grows where potassium and fertility are low and the soil is sandy and dry.

Yarrow is found on poor, dry, sandy soil where little else will grow.

Using This Information

The weeds listed above provide important clues about your soil’s fertility. Use this information to your advantage when amending your soil or deciding what to plant where.

If you have a hard time identifying your garden weeds, look at this list of common weeds.

After discovering what they mean, find out how to get rid of your weeds, if you so desire.

Dandelions and purslane are not the only edible weeds! Find out which of these weeds you can eat.







13 Common Garden Weeds

Eat Your Weedies

How to Get Rid of Garden Weeds



Very interesting and informative set of information.

But, like so many broad statements…there are some presented
that are theory, or that have so many exceptions as to be rather
useless in ‘reading’ the soil.

For instance, dandelions. Their presence doesn’t indicate poor or compacted soil! Their presence indicates a mother dandelion plant (maybe from even a mile from the location) produced a bunch of seeds. Dandelions thrive in rich soil too.

Another ‘for instance’ as to the questionable assertions: I’ve observed mullein thriving in crevices of limestone rock outcroppings…they are not indicative of acidic soil as the article insinuates.

But, still, overall, very good articles.



Correct the article needs to be more specific I’ve not had and won’t have for awhile time to write it up. What you say is true though. Examples I would use are things like you walk up and see a field full of mullein. Mullein is a plant that when growing in large numbers indicates very poor soil. Lambs quarter indicates very rich soil like a former barn yard. Elderberry indicate very wet soil. All these plants in large numbers have a very big meaning. Like you say dandelions are a weed that are not that picky but the author is correct they like that poor soil. Dandelion roots are far from a daikon radish in terms of breaking up compacted soil. When I buy a property the weeds allow me to read what I’m buying. Purchased the part of my property where my pond is because I read the elderberries saying there was water there. At the time I went and got an old timer he pointed out the ancient pond confirming I was right but it had not held water in 50 years proably. Located the ancient well within an hour. The people here before me in the 1800’s and 1900’s read that property just like I did. Something you might find interesting about that property is rust would run out of the ground in places there and tornadoes drop things in that spot. My old shed was dropped in that spot before I bought the property. My guess is things have been dropped there since the beginning of time it’s a low spot. My fruit trees in that spot never sustain damage unless it’s from beavers.


I like the idea of plants as clues to the soil composition. Most of those presented are not weeds, in my opinion. And my yard is full of a variety of micro-compositions from my own and former owner activity, decomposing roots and pets, and the ever-present activity of mycorrhiza moving things from place to place.



Interesting you brought that up about pets. One way people located battle fields in the past was by blooms. Specifically the claim is battlfields for reasons unknown to me become covered in white poppies shortly after battles. All About The Poppy Flower: Flanders Fields To Growing In Your Garden
In this case red poppies What Grew on the Battlefields of the Western Front & Became the Symbol of Remembrance? | Synonym

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What if I have mullein and lambsquarters growing well a few feet from each other?

I enjoy articles like this, but they are far too broad to have any real use IMO.



Means you have a good balance remember only large numbers matter. When i get some time i will prove it to you. Have large strips of manure 2 feet deep and other bare ground where there is none. Promise you lambsquarter will be highly concentrated in the manure but not in the strips on both sides. Some people read this but don’t understand. Prove it to yourself go to any abandoned barn lot you will find lambs quarter in large concentrations from the manure.


If you tilled the ground in both areas, you’d have lambsquarters in both…just they’d look a lot healthier in the manure!



The concentrations will be higher in lambs quarter in the manure I’ve had both tilled. 5 or 6 lambsquarter on the tilled non manure side and 500 or 600 lambsquarter on the manure side. Drive around if you can afford it and check me. I know someone will say lambs quarter seeds are in manure which is true. After the first year that seeds idea don’t hold water the seed spreads but plants still like manure. Have done this experiment a lot. I’ve repeated it at least 50 times in my life. Not exactly on purpose but the results where the same. We eat lambsquarter I know where to look. Bet when you all hunt morels you look around dead elms why is that? We know why.

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I’ve got plenty of both mullein and lambsquarters growing in the same areas. I know this because I’ve spent hours and hours and hours hand pulling them out of my foodplots. I also have ragweed growing alongside them both.

The article should suggest the possibilities of soil indicators, not state them as facts.



Your absolutely correct the article is repeating what people like us told them but not understanding it without the experience you just described. It’s like me saying Check in that grassy area find us some morels it doesn’t mean that morels like grass.

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mullein grows in gravel mostly here but ive seen it in fallow fields that has alot of gravel in it. it likes good drainage.

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As a general rule mullein prefers well drained soil. It will also grow anywhere the seeds get a foothold. It grows just fine in my 6.5 ph not gravelly or sandy clover plots.



Yes in Kansas if I see a lot of mullein in a field I manure that field and in 1- 2 years I see it much less. It tells me the soil is getting poor. Keep in mind clay is very poor soil the nutrients are locked up. Adding composted manure unlocks a lot of nutrients. The result will be much better yields from the hay field but not lambs quarter the manure is applied to thin to move the field the other way. Like @smsmith said we are looking for the perfect soil with a mix of both plants. In areas where nothing else grows an autumn olive will grow. People hate autumn berries but they will convert terrible soil to rich soil in time.

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ive planted 4 rooted cuttings of named cultivars of A.O in my food forest. i put them in the drier more gravelly part of my yard. they put on only about 1 ft of growth but they were only 6in. when i got them. gonna put the manure to them this spring.

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If I desired to spend the time to argue the point…I’d sterilize the soil of both the manure and the non-manure tilled soil…and introduce an identical amount of lambsquarter seeds to both.
I’m not going to spend time doing ‘science’ on this.

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Great article as usual Clark.
Scientists have doctored soil, without putting any weed seeds in it, then said, “This weed will grow here, the other weed there, and the other weed there.” and it happened. The weeds are responding to the habitat we give them. As Clark said, the weeds are correcting the soil. Most of us, from tilling, spraying, and not letting the soil heal, make the soil more bacterial and less fungal. As fruit growers, we want a more fungal soil, so we dig out the weeds. Disturbing the soil like that makes it perfect for weeds and worse for fruit trees! Nature is trying to build the soil through the microbes and succession. Dr. Elaine Ingham has found the appropriate elements in every soil. We just have to have the right microbiology to allow biological succession to occur so the more advanced plants (fruit trees) can grow. There is so much to learn. I appreciate all of you sharing these ideas so we can figure this stuff out.
John S


mulching for me has also corrected soil issues esp. for trees and woody bushes. by mulching dry gravelly spots in my yard for the last 6 yrs., its converted these areas to the point i dont have to water or fertilize the plants there anymore.



Sterilizing compost is a bad idea anyway that’s the point of compost it’s not sterilized its alive. Besides if you ever cooked composted manure in your oven and I have its not the best smell.

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I just listened to a podcast that talked to some professor in Washington State University and basically the takeaway was mulch and compost solve a lot of issues. Water retention, talked about how they don’t know why but it helped disease pressure such as cankers. Makes me want to get a chipdrop haha