Weeds compete with productive crops or pasture, ultimately converting productive land into unusable scrub. Weeds can be poisonous, distasteful, produce burrs, thorns or otherwise interfere with the use and management of desirable plants by contaminating harvests or interfering with livestock.
Weeds compete with crops for space, nutrients, water and light. Smaller, slower growing seedlings are more susceptible than those that are larger and more vigorous. Onions are one of the most vulnerable, because they are slow to germinate and produce slender, upright stems. By contrast broad beans produce large seedlings and suffer far fewer effects other than during periods of water shortage at the crucial time when the pods are filling out. Transplanted crops raised in sterile soil or potting compost gain a head start over germinating weeds.
Weeds also vary in their competitive abilities and according to conditions and season. Tall-growing vigorous weeds such as fat hen (Chenopodium album) can have the most pronounced effects on adjacent crops, although seedlings of fat hen that appear in late summer produce only small plants. Chickweed (Stellaria media), a low growing plant, can happily co-exist with a tall crop during the summer, but plants that have overwintered will grow rapidly in early spring and may swamp crops such as onions or spring greens.
The presence of weeds does not necessarily mean that they are damaging a crop, especially during the early growth stages when both weeds and crops can grow without interference. However, as growth proceeds they each begin to require greater amounts of water and nutrients. Estimates suggest that weed and crop can co-exist harmoniously for around three weeks before competition becomes significant. One study found that after competition had started, the final yield of onion bulbs was reduced at almost 4% per day.
Perennial weeds with bulbils, such as lesser celandine and oxalis, or with persistent underground stems such as couch grass (Agropyron repens) or creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) store reserves of food, and are thus able to grow faster and with more vigour than their annual counterparts. Some perennials such as couch grass exude allelopathic chemicals that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants.
Weeds can also host pests and diseases that can spread to cultivated crops. Charlock and Shepherdâ€™s purse may carry clubroot, eelworm can be harboured by chickweed, fat hen and shepherdâ€™s purse, while the cucumber mosaic virus, which can devastate the cucurbit family, is carried by a range of different weeds including chickweed and groundsel.
Insect pests often do not attack weeds. However pests such as cutworms may first attack weeds then move on to cultivated crops.
Some plants are considered weeds by some farmers and crops by others. Charlock, a common weed in the southeastern US, are weeds according to row crop growers, but are valued by beekeepers, who seek out places where it blooms all winter, thus providing pollen for honeybees and other pollinators. Its bloom resists all but a very hard freeze, and ig recovers once the freeze ends.