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Dynamic Accumulators for Better Soil

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The much-maligned dandelion is an excellent nutrient accumulator. Photo by *Micky.

The much-maligned dandelion is an excellent nutrient accumulator. Photo by *Micky.

Gardeners can reduce or eliminate fertilizer costs and improve soil naturally with a category of plant known as "dynamic accumulators." Dynamic accumulators gather nutrients from the soil and make them available to other plants.

Dynamic accumulators are similar in function to nitrogen fixers, such as clover, lupines, and beans. These plants have a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria in the soil that allows them to capture atmospheric nitrogen and store it in the soil. Since most plants require nitrogen to grow, but cannot use atmospheric nitrogen themselves, nitrogen fixers play an important role in both natural ecosystems and home gardens. Plants growing near or among nitrogen fixing plants will generally be healthier and more vigorous than those grown without nearby nitrogen fixers. In fact, a few patches of clover in your lawn can eliminate your need for nitrogen fertilizer entirely.

Dynamic accumulators work much the same way, only instead of drawing nutrients from the air, they draw them from deep in the soil, through their root systems, which are often extensive.

Since many dynamic accumulators specialize in particular nutrients, growing them is a great way to fix a deficiency of any particular nutrient in your soil, or you can use them to improve soil health in general.

How To Use Dynamic Accumulators

There are a number of ways you can use dynamic accumulators to improve the health of your soil.

  • To increase a specific nutrient. If you have had your soil tested and know you are deficient in a specific nutrient, grow a patch of dynamic accumulators that specialize in that nutrient for a season or two before planting your garden.
  • As a cover crop. Because most dynamic accumulators are relatively fast growing and deep rooted, they work great as a cover crop to enrich and aerate the soil or prevent erosion before or between plantings. When you are ready to plant your garden, simply dig them into the soil.
  • As a mulch. Many fast growing dynamic accumulators can be cut back several times a season without serious harm to the plants. You can leave the leaves and stems where they fall or move them to an area where the extra nutrients are needed and use them as mulch.
  • As compost. If you prefer a neater garden, cut back or pull up dynamic accumulators and add them to your compost heap.
  • As companion plants. Plants located near dynamic accumulators are often noticeably healthier than those that are not. Some dynamic accumulators make more attractive companion plants than others, so do your research before planting anything you are unfamiliar with.

Selected Dynamic Accumulator Plants

Here are some of the known dynamic accumulators:

  • comfrey
  • dandelion
  • meadow sweet
  • lamb's quarters
  • garlic
  • yarrow
  • fennel
  • watercress
  • purslane
  • buckwheat 
  • parsley
  • wild strawberry
  • peppermint
  • chamomile
  • stinging nettle
  • thistle
  • vetch
  • plantains

A more complete list, including information about nutrient specialities.

But most of these are weeds!

One man's weed is another man's dynamic accumulator!

In nature, dynamic accumulators are most prevalent during the first stage of succession. Their ecological function is to restore damaged and disturbed ecosystems in order to prepare them for higher quality plants. So yes, most dynamic accumulators are generally considered weeds.

If you have damaged or disturbed soil, however, as most of us do in today's world, weeds can be an important ally, if used properly.

If you live in the suburbs or in other areas with zoning requirements, nosy neighbors, or noxious weed regulations, choose more attractive and well-behaved dynamic accumulators, or keep your patch well-groomed by cutting it back regularly.

When planting non-native dynamic accumulators, always check to make sure they are not invasive in your area.

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If an especially strict set of laws prevents you from using the plants you need, try to get them changed. Even if you can't, simply by paying attention to what kind of weeds try to grow in your soil you can get some important clues about what nutrients may be lacking. For example, if you spend a lot of time battling mustard, your soil might be trying to tell you it needs more sulfur and phosphorus.

Many dynamic acumulators have other benefits as well. Rotted or composted dynamic accumulators add organic matter to the soil as well as nutrients, while their extensive root systems aerate soil in life and enrich it in death. The roots also improve soil stability, preventing erosion. Dense plantings can be used as a living mulch to keep the soil moist and cool, reducing the need for watering. Many dynamic accumulators attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs or pollinators, while others provide food for humans. Permaculture designers and enthusiasts use dynamic accumulators extensively due to their multifunctional qualities, and are generally the best source of information about them.

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peanutroaster from New England on May 17, 2011:

Thanks for a great article

Merry Teesdale on May 17, 2010:

Thank you for this most useful article.

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on December 24, 2008:

I love weeds. Thanks for shedding some positive light on their negative reputation.

kerryg (author) from USA on December 22, 2008:

jim10, neither can I! But a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. The previous owners of my house planted a beautiful redbud tree smack in the middle of the best vegetable garden site in my yard, so I'm stuck with a weed disguised as one of my favorite trees. :(

Lgali on December 22, 2008:

very informative hub

jim10 from ma on December 22, 2008:

So weeds are good. I wish someone had told my wife's dad when she was little. She absolutely hates all yard work because as a child she spent weekends weeding for hours. I can't blame her with that experience.

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