Every garden has weeds. Some are edible, and a few are highly nutritious. Most, however, are just a nuisance. They self-seed freely, sometimes putting down deep roots, and they steal water and soil nutrients from your plants. Left alone, they can grow large and shade out the garden plants you treasure. Their seeds may remain viable for 20 years or more. Learning how to deal with them will allow you to enjoy your garden more than ever.
Identify Your Weeds
It is not always easy to tell a weed from a plant you want to keep. Make sure you don't dig up the wrong plant. Use a garden reference book or consult your local County Cooperative Extension Office (listed in the phone book) to learn the names and habits of the dozen or so weeds you might find.
Many weeds produce seeds while very young. Common groundsel, for example, will produce seeds when it is only a couple of inches tall. Leave it alone for a couple of weeks and you will have common groundsel for years.
The time to take care of weeds is when they are so small you have to bend down and get close to the soil to see them. This is what farmers call the thread stage---the weed has a tiny thread-like root and stem with two or three tiny leaves on top. Merely dislodge it from the soil with a quick swipe from a hoe, and it will die. But give it a week and it will have a deeper root and several larger leaves. The only way to deal with it now is laborious hand-pulling.
A stirrup hoe is the best tool for dislodging tiny weeds. The sharp, double-edged blade sweeps quickly and easily through the soil just 1/2 inch or so below the surface. You can zoom up and down your rows and around plants with little effort. In the spring, do this about twice a week.
Don't allow weeds to go to seed. Keep your garden weed-free from the earliest days of spring to break the weed-seed cycle. If you find yourself confronted with a garden filled with semi-mature weeds---which has happened to all of us at one time or another---cut the plants down and get rid of the seed-filled tops. If you have the time and energy, it is, of course, better to hand-pull all the weeds and totally eradicate them. Make sure you remove the whole root, for which you might need a garden fork or a sturdy trowel, or it will re-sprout.
Weeds Are Good for You
Some gardeners allow certain weeds to grow wild because they are highly nutritious. Purslane, for example, contains more Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid, in particular) than any other leafy vegetable plant, plus vitamin C, vitamin B and carotenoids, as well as dietary minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron.
Lamb's quarter, another common garden weed, is one of the most nutritious plants you can eat. One cup of raw lamb's quarter leaves contains vitamin C, vitamin A, phosphorus, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and iron.
Be careful not to confuse lamb's quarter with red-root pigweed, which is vaguely similar in appearance and contains what can be a dangerous amount of oxalic acid. As the name suggests, this plant has a noticeably red root. Lamb's quarter has creamy-white roots.
About this Author
Peter Garnham has been a garden writer since 1989. Garnham is a Master Gardener and a Contributing Editor for "Horticulture" magazine. He speaks at conferences on vegetable, herb, and fruit growing, soil science, grafting, propagation, seeds, and composting. Garnham runs a 42-acre community farm on Long Island, NY.