Gardeners sound like warriors when they talk about their weeds. After all, a grower’s reputation rests on having an adversary of stature, a foe worthy of one’s determination and skill.
Don’t tell a Californian you envy her climate. Listen to her epic tale about battling wood sorrel. The green-thumbed Vermonter might acknowledge the leg-up he gets from his fertile limestone soil, but only because he keeps it free of red-root pigweed. A Connecticut friend succeeds despite rampant nutsedge. A Colorado one wrests her farm living from bindweed’s clutches.
Weeds have their favorite regions and likewise their seasons. With warm weather behind it, purslane hangs up its fat little boxing-glove leaves and retires, but soon chickweed is sprouting everywhere it can. As a rule, winter is not a weedy time, but chickweed revels in it, springing to life in the light, fertile, moist soil of our fall garden, then rejoicing in our cold frames and greenhouses.
Handpicking tiny chickweed plants from closely planted carrot and spinach rows is not a task for the impatient soul or the creaky back. But let them send out their trailing stems of small, round, pointed leaves and they can easily smother a crop, weaving through a crop’s stems — as well as their own — to create billowy mounds. To weed one out, you must find the place it has rooted, then yank out the tangled mess.
The best prevention is to keep the plentiful seeds from germinating. We use a mechanical flame weeder on some of our beds, but you can also solarize them in summer with a covering of clear plastic. Sunlight coming through the plastic will bake and kill the weed seeds.
Cultivating the soil shallowly and often, with a draw hoe, will also forestall germination. If you do end up having to pull or chop the plants out later on, remove them promptly or they will stubbornly re-root where you have left them.
One word of warning. The day after you valiantly eradicate every speck of it from your garden, someone may take you aside and explain how excellent chickweed is to eat. According to our friend Deb Soule, author of “A Woman’s Book of Herbs,” “Chickweed has a delicious, fresh taste and is high in minerals and vitamins. Consumed in salads or made into a tea … its demulcent properties soothe the digestive system, kidneys, bladder, urinary tract, sore throat, lungs and bowels.”
It does, in fact, taste good and is a favorite of wild food enthusiasts. One fall we got a call from a professional forager who needed 5 pounds of chickweed for a world-famous chef. We managed to find a good healthy patch that was trying to overpower the last of the summer zinnias. We made $20 but felt a little guilty about it. After that, when asked for feral foods, we simply pointed out a patch that needed weeding and let them keep their harvest for free.
Kind of hard to complain about that.