THERE’S AN OLD garden adage: One year of seeds equals seven years of weeds. Weeds, sometimes described as anything growing in the wrong place, are in fact a group of plants that have developed amazing reproductive capabilities and tough constitutions that allow them to survive where other, more “civilized” plants cannot. In this way, weeds play a valuable environmental role in covering bare ground and preventing erosion. But, as another saying goes: NIMBY.
In the garden, weeds crowd desirable plants, competing for water and nutrients. Keeping the ground covered, whether with mulch, ground covers or spreading plants, is the best defense against weeds gaining traction in the first place. Nevertheless, when weeds do show up (and they will), eliminate them as quickly as possible before they have a chance to spread.
Digging out the plants is the most effective; there’s even a term for it — weeding! Weeding is never more satisfying than in soft spring soil that’s easy to dig. But first, you must learn to identify and assess your target. Here are some common spring weeds to watch for:
● Chickweed (Stellaria media) is an annual that flourishes in previously cultivated soil that’s rich in organic material and nutrients, which is why you’ll often find it carpeting the vegetable garden. The tender plants and their delicate roots are easily removed with a hand fork. As the name suggests, chickweed is a flavorful and nutritious treat for chickens — and it’s not too shabby in an early spring herb salad, either. It’s especially satisfying to eat your weeds.
● Shotweed (Cardamine hirsuta) is easy to identify. If you’ve ever tugged on a plant and been sprayed with an explosive shower of seeds, chances are you’ve met shotweed. One of the earliest weeds to emerge, shotweed thrives in cool, damp conditions. While relatively harmless in small numbers, its prolific seeding capacity means shotweed numbers don’t remain small for long. Get out there and remove the plants while they’re still in the juvenile, nonseeding form.
● Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), with sunny yellow flowers and puffy seedheads, is the common weed everyone knows. In fact, dandelion is a bit of an eco-hero. The plant’s tenaciously persistent taproot helps break up heavy soil and compacted clay, and the prolific early spring flowers are a valuable food source for pollinators. Remove the entire root, or dandelions surely will double down on you.
● Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is the bane of my gravel driveway. Don’t let those ferny leaves and delicate pink blossoms fool you; this one’s a stinker. Literally: The plant is distinctly malodorous. Remove plants before they set seed, taking care to dig out the entire brittle root system. A prolific seeder, this weed is classified as a Class B (for stinky Bob?) Weed on the Washington State Noxious Weed List (nwcb.wa.gov). Legally, a noxious weed is a nonnative plant that, once established, is highly destructive, competitive or difficult to control. Herb Robert thrives in both sun and shade, and it often can be seen aggressively carpeting the ground in local parks, ravines and greenbelts.
● Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is an ancient native plant that thrives in wet growing conditions and is nearly impossible to eradicate. What if you didn’t even try? The good plantspeople on the Sky Nursery blog write, “The fern-like foliage is actually quite beautiful combined with other wetland plants, like spirea, willow, red-twig dogwood and iris.”
Whatever you do, please steer clear of toxic herbicides that indiscriminately kill all plants and pose a danger to fish, wildlife and you.