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Identifying Weeds: A Guide to Common Garden Weeds


By Linda Ly

Most people weed their lawns and gardens religiously throughout the growing season, pulling up unwanted plants that often sneak into the vegetable beds or line the edges of their walkways. But did you know that many of the weeds in your landscape are actually edible? You might be surprised to find that you have an entire (free!) salad available in your yard! Before you reach for that weeding fork, learn to identify what you have growing and what you can eat from it.

Common Weeds in the Garden

The most well-known (and perhaps most dreaded) weed is one of the first to appear in early spring. Its name, dandelion, is derived from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth—a reference to the leaves’ distinctive jagged edge. It has an earthy and slightly bitter flavor and is best harvested when the leaves are young and tender. If you’re the adventurous type, you can even make coffee from the taproot and wine from the flowers!

Sow Thistle
Often mistaken for dandelion, this lookalike resembles the dandelion when it’s young but as it matures, the arrow-shaped leaves become more prominent and more prickly, and they continue to grow all the way up the stem. Each stem then terminates in a cluster of yellow blooms (rather than a single flower, like a dandelion). The leaves, flowers, and roots are all edible, but the flavor is less bitter when the plant is harvested early.

This easily recognizable weed starts popping up in cool, damp areas in late winter to early spring. Its geranium-shaped leaves have lobes of five or seven, but its most defining characteristic is one that it’s also named for: a fruiting head that looks like a miniature wheel of cheese. This is why some call it the cheeseweed. The plant’s extremely mild flavor means the leaves will taste like whatever you cook or dress it with; harvest when young for the best texture.

Though it’s considered an invasive weed on the coast of California, fennel does have some redeeming qualities. The umbrella-shaped flower clusters attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The plants are natural habitats for anise swallowtail caterpillars and the entire plant is edible, including the bulb, stems, fronds, flowers, pollen, and seeds. In fact, you can harvest the seeds while they’re still green and juicy to add a fresh anise flavor to food.

Wood Sorrel
Also known as common yellow oxalis (as it has delicate yellow flowers), wood sorrel is often mistaken for clover with its three-leaf shape. But here’s how you can tell the difference: the leaves on wood sorrel are heart-shaped with a crease down the center, while the leaves on clover are rounded and flat. It has a flavor that’s bright and tart, and you can steep a handful of leaves in water to make wood sorrel “lemonade.”

How to Control and Remove (or Harvest) Weeds

The best defense against weeds overtaking your landscape is to mulch your garden beds well. Add a 3-inch layer of organic mulch (such as straw or shredded bark) over the bed, leaving a few inches of breathing room from the stems of your plants. (Placing mulch directly against the stems can hold excess moisture and promote rot.) Replenish the mulch as needed throughout the season to ensure it’s spread evenly and thickly enough to smother weed seeds.

If you want to remove the weeds (or pull them up for dinner), saturate the soil first with a thumb control watering nozzle and Flexogen Super Duty hose then let the water soak in a few inches. Moist soil will make it much easier for you to remove the entire plant (taproot and all), especially if you have heavy clay in your yard. You can also wait to weed after a good rain, which will help release weeds with hardly any effort on your part.

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