Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent Ohio. Professionally he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented .91 acre urban farm. His blog – thesnarkygardener.com – assists others with growing food in Northeastern Ohio and beyond. He is also the founder of the Kent Ohio chapter of Food Not Lawns. In Spring 2015, he received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland Ohio based Green Triangle. Please like him on Facebook as he likes to be liked. Please contact the Snarky Gardener at [email protected]
Weeds are some of the most misunderstood garden inhabitants. Let’s embrace these misplaced plants and make friends with them.
Yes, I’m one of THOSE people. I actually love weeds. Well, maybe love is too strong of a word. Appreciate might be more appropriate. It all started a few years back when I discovered a local event advertised as a “Garlic Mustard Pull”. I’d never heard of garlic mustard, but my curiosity got the best of me. After some Internet research, I learned 4 things: 1) it’s a mustard with a garlic taste (not a garlic with a mustard taste), 2) it’s considered an invasive weed, 3) deer and other animals will not touch the stuff, and 4) people can eat it. All very Interesting but not overly memorable. A few days later (or weeks, who can remember?), I was working on my blog and adding pictures to a post. In one particular image, I noticed something I had not picked up on before. There was garlic mustard growing right under my nose IN MY OWN BACKYARD!
Once I knew what I was looking for, garlic mustard was everywhere, including the unused wooded lot next to my house. It was indeed invasive, especially in semi-shaded tree covered areas. My favorite pastime became declaring “Look! Garlic mustard!” while riding bicycles with my girlfriend as in “Look! Garlic Mustard! Hey, there’s garlic mustard. More garlic mustard. Yum, garlic mustard! Oh by the way, garlic mustard!” There were plants every foot or so on the trails we rode, and she quickly became agitated with my shenanigans. Did I let that stop me? Of course not. It’s a fun game to play if you have OCD or like to drive others crazy.
During my research, I came across a simple recipe to make “Garlic Mustard Pesto”. Harvest a whole bunch of garlic mustard (don’t worry, you’ll never pick it all). Chop it up in a blender with garlic, olive oil, salt, and walnuts (or other kinds of nuts). Add parmesan cheese. Eat it on crackers or with pasta – very easy and tasty. I’ve made a point of whipping up this dish on Earth Day (April 22nd) every year as garlic mustard is at its best in the spring. I’m still amazed at how many people (including those ecologists and naturalists who are fighting garlic mustard’s spread) don’t know it’s edible.
“The history of weeds is the history of man.” – Edgar Anderson
Do you know your weeds?
It’s a question that makes one ponder. Maybe it makes you think “This guy is a little crazy”, but nonetheless, it does open up your mind. Every garden has plants the gardener doesn’t want there. Question is, “Have you even tried to identify them?” The easiest weed to spot is the ubiquitous dandelion. It has many uses, including salad greens, the yellow flowers made into fritters, and the roots as a (decaffeinated) coffee substitute or beer. The flowers make great forage for native bees and the tap roots bring up needed minerals from way down below the soil’s surface. Imagine what the other strangers in your garden and surrounding yard could do for you. Do you know who they are and where they come from?
Your best chance of recognizing your strange unwelcome plants is the Internet, specifically Facebook groups. I’ve tried using Google searches but it’s hard to describe them with the exact details to pull up your plant or to compare pictures one by one like you’re at a police lineup. The groups you need to find usually go by names like “Plant Identification”. They are a godsend for us curious gardeners. After you join and get accepted, take pictures of your unknown weed and post them with your general location. The more closeup pictures you post, the better your answer will be. One note – you may want to unfollow the group once you have put names to your plants. I found I just want to view every plant that comes up in my feed no matter what else in my life should take precedence. It’s a sickness, I know.
After putting a name to a, um, face, please do a little Google research. Many of the plants we call weeds are in your yard because somebody in the past had a food and/or medical use for them. I will have to say that I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV (an oldie but a goodie) so please check more science based sites for detailed information on any given plant. I have a bad habit of tasting unknown plants if I think I know what they are. Don’t be me.
Fact that only interests me:
You’ll find that many weeds are described as tasting and cooking like spinach. It’s the plant equivalent of people saying “It tastes like chicken”.
Here are a few of my weedy friends:
Plantain is one you will see everywhere once you identify it. It likes compacted soil, so just check for parts of your lawn where you walk along and you should find it. The leaves are good to eat in the spring and the seed pods can be fried up. Rumor has it rubbing smashed up leaves on your bug bites will help take the sting out.
Violets are those perennial purple flowers with heart shaped leaves. Again, the leaves taste like spinach (see I told you). The flowers are also good in salads.
Dame’s Rocket is in the mustard family. It has pretty purple blue flowers that release their scent in the evening. This one just spontaneously appeared in my garden last year, probably through a bird’s droppings. In years past, I would have pulled it before it got big enough to identify, but my garlic mustard experience taught me to keep an open mind. Leaves and flowers taste like arugula.
Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie is technically edible and makes a decent tea from what I’ve read, but I’m not a big fan. It’s in the mint family, so it’s naturally invasive. In my garden I use Creepy Charlie (as I like to call it) as a groundcover (just like it was intended to be used). It keeps the soil covered until it’s time for planting, then I just use my trusty Cape Cod weeder to easily remove (see picture below). If you believe companion planting books like “Carrots Love Tomatoes”, growing mint with the cabbage family is supposed to deter cabbage worms, so I figure Creeping Charlie should work the same way. Seems to have the strong mint family odor.
Lamb’s Quarters was discovered on my property by me just being observant. I noticed it growing around one of my backyard trees. My friendly neighborhood groundhog loved munching on it, and I was lucky to have any seeds to harvest. I have since spread it throughout my garden, with one reaching over 10 feet high! Another name for Lambs is “goosefoot”, referring to the shape of its leaves I’m a guessing. It’s in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.
So, are you ready to meet your weeds and get to know them on a first name basis? Use them in all their yummy veggie goodness? My advice is to start with one, maybe dandelions or plantain, and go from there. Let me know how it goes at [email protected].
One last note:
If your weeds have been sprayed with lawn chemicals, you probably don’t want to consume them. This might be obvious, but I thought it needed to be explicitly stated.