Archive for ‘Weeds’

October 3, 2011

Volunteers – Take ’em or Leave ’em?

Walnuts and Pears… In my yard you will find two pear trees and three walnut trees growing.  I have to be honest though, I can’t take credit for planting the walnut trees, the squirrels did it.  Well, actually they buried the walnuts, saving them for a rainy day, but instead they apparently forgot about them, it rained and walnut trees were born.   Therefore, the walnut trees  are technically volunteers, but since we thought the squirrels did a nice job of placing them we let them be.

I’m kind of a sucker for growing things that way.  I LOVE volunteer plants.  As much as I love growing plants from seed propagating, grafting and the like, there’s nothing quite as cool as nature placing something for you.  As humans, we often times try to design things in an effort to make the setting look “natural”.  What better way to do that than to just leave it?  If it grew there on its own, there’s no guessing as to whether the growing conditions are right in that location.  If they weren’t, it wouldn’t have started growing to begin with.

I understand that not all volunteers come up in the best spot and if that’s the case I’d say remove it.  If it’s in a bad spot chances are it won’t make it in the long run anyway. I had a volunteer trumpet vine growing in my yard that I left for a while.  I was going to train it into a standard so I would look like a dwarf tree. I had also started to braid the trunk thinking it would be really cool down the road.  The problem is, the trumpet vine was growing right in the middle of a natural pathway through the back yard.  At first I tried to shift the path around the plant, then after watching others awkwardly duck around it and try not to poke an eye out on the thing I decided it was time to get rid of it. Which, if you’ve ever tried to get rid of a trumpet vine, you know that’s no small feat!  So I know, not all volunteers make sense to keep.

I have a number of other volunteer plants growing in my yard right now too.  In addition to the walnut trees, there is a volunteer oak tree in the front garden.  It’s all of maybe 10 inches high after two years, but it’s doing well and I intend to leave it there.  Long term it will overshadow the plants currently in that location, but that won’t be for many, many years, so I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

Then there’s the volunteer elm tree.  I struggle with that one.  I discovered it during the timeframe that I wasn’t feeling well and I really didn’t want to keep it, but I literally didn’t have the energy to dig it out at the time.  I think it knew that.  It completely took advantage of the situation and made itself right at home in the middle of one of my perennial beds in the back.  It’s now close to twice my height so I’m pretty sure it thinks it’s staying for good but little does it know its days are numbered.

I can pretty much count on having volunteer tomatoes come up in my veggie garden or some other random place in my yard every year too.  Most of the time I’ll pull them (especially to try to keep a good crop rotation in the garden) but occasionally if I’m feeling nice (or like I just want more tomato plants) I’ll leave them be.

This year, I had the most odd volunteer ever.  I have a plant growing out of the side of my compost bin. (I obviously didn’t do a thorough job of turning my compost last year!)  At first I was excited, I thought it was one of the cool pumpkins I bought last year.  No such luck.  When the fruit began to form it didn’t look like a pumpkin at all: it was too oblong and had very shallow grooves.  Then I thought maybe it was one of those tasty cantaloupe from last year.  Again… no luck.  Turns out it’s just squash.  I wish I could say I’m a huge squash fan, but I’m not.  I like it, but don’t LOVE it.  I’ve even found recipes in the past that I really enjoy, but it’s still squash.  The problem is, I honestly don’t have a clue what kind of squash is growing out there, which means I also don’t know what to do with it and I have a lot of it!

My guess is, whatever it was last year, the seed germinated and reverted back to the genes from its parents… OR it’s an entirely new variety, in which case I’d better get this puppy to the market and make millions!

There have to be squash lovers out there somewhere, right?

Squash anyone?


June 25, 2011

Edible Weed #2, Glowing Vinaigrette & Lessons from Austria

Maybe you saw the comment on my first edible weeds post reminding me of when my eyes were first opened to the concept of weeds being edible.

When I was in college I was fortunate enough to be able to do a study abroad program in Graz, Austria.   That trip left a huge impression on me.  I lived with a wonderful host family and made life-long friends.  It’s also where my eyes were opened up to what incredible consumers we are in the US.  At times I almost felt guilty for being from the US, even embarrassed.  I think we’ve made great strides in the years since I was there, but we’re not even to the level of consciousness now that Europeans were nearly 20 years ago.

Their impression of us was that everything is big.  Big houses, big cars, Big Macs.  My impression of them when I first got there was that they did everything the hard way and everything was small. Small cars, small houses, everything they bought came in small packages, with very little packaging.  That was the first time I’d seen the small rectangular cartons that we can now buy broths, milk, etc. in.  At the time they were foreign to me, including lunch.

Lunch is the main meal of the day in Europe, which when you think about it, is way healthier than eating the main meal in the evening like the majority of Americans do.  When you eat in the middle of the day you’ll get energy when you’ll use it vs. filling up when you’re winding down at the end of the day when we don’t need it and then turn it into storage!

I’ll never forget the day I sat down to lunch with my host family and looked at the salad we were having.  Everything in my bowl looked peculiar.  The vinaigrette dressing was glowing green, but that wasn’t as disturbing as what it was on.  I thought I was going crazy, but this “lettuce” that was in my bowl looked a lot like leaves of the most common weed at home.  Since I’d just gotten to Austria and was still getting used to “Styrish” (the dialect in the part of Austria I was in) I thought something must be getting lost in translation.  Did my host mom just say we’re eating dandelions for lunch?  I laughed so hard at the concept.  I mean seriously, these people are eating for lunch, what we are determined to destroy with chemicals everyday!  Then I tried it.  Awesome!  The combination of the glowing green vinaigrette (made with pumpkin seed oil) and the dandelions soon became one of my favorite salads.  The next phone call to my parents I told them to quit putting chemicals on the lawn – the dandelions were lunch!

So there you have it, edible weed #2.  Dandelions!  Other than your front yard, dandelion greens can be found in co-ops, farmer’s markets and the mixed greens in most supermarkets.

Now run out and pick yourself a salad! (Unless of course you put chemicals on them, then definitely stay away!)


June 24, 2011

Weeds and leaves – cont.

After I published my last post, I realized I forgot to mention one more thing about weeds.  Sometimes, we inadvertently plant them.

The past few years I’ve been putting straw on my veggie beds to keep the moisture in and keep the weeds down.  This year, it backfired.

When buying/sourcing straw there are a couple of key things to keep in mind. First, you want straw, not hay… hay is for horses.  Hay is green and food for animals.  Straw is  grain that has  already been harvested and only the stalks are left to dry. Second, make sure the straw is “seed free”.  In other words, no seeds mixed in with the stalks. We were told this load was “seed free or that there should be very few seeds in it” (red flag #1).  We did notice a few seeds when we originally unloaded the straw (red flag #2), but since he said there would be “very few” I spread it out not paying attention to every piece of straw that hit the beds (foolish flag #3).  Apparently I should have.  After the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that we just had I went out to the garden today to find a little surprise.  The straw is growing!  Now, I not only have tomatoes, onions, peppers, kale, etc.  I also have grain (I’ve yet to do plant ID on it or I’d be more specific) growing in-between the other plants.  When I first saw the shoots I thought perhaps it was just a coincidence and some seeds had blown into the garden, gotten carried by the birds, what have you.  That was until I looked at the small pile of straw I had yet to spread throughout my other veggie bed…

“Weeds” in the straw

So, lesson learned.  Be extremely cautious in the future.  Seeds + water + sunlight = sprouts (whether you planted them there or not).

Oh, and another note about seeds and leaves that I omitted earlier.  Not all seeds produce 2 leaves.  Most do, and those that do are called “dicots” (di = two; cot = cotyledon/seed leaf), there is also a group of plants that only produce one leaf, they are called… you guessed it, “monocots” (mono = one; cot = cotyledon).  Corn, grasses, grains and daylilies are all monocots and, as previously posted in Weeds and Leaves, plants are hard to ID by their seed leaves, even harder when they are monocots!  I can pretty much guarantee I won’t be leaving these to see what they turn into though.  Well, maybe.  At least not in the bed between the other plants. Yeah, probably not.

Your humble, ever-learning gardener


June 24, 2011

Weeds and leaves

Whether you’re a veggie gardener, flower gardener or a lawn lover you will find yourself weeding at some point through the season.  Ever since I was a kid I remember hearing people complaining about weeds and weeding their gardens.  At a very young age, I learned what weeding was all about.  My mom would send me out back to weed the veggie garden.  Oh, man!!! Why did I tell her I was bored?!? What was I thinking?  I’d drag myself out to the garden, sit on the edge of the bed and start in.  I consider this to have been my first Plant ID class. (This is also when I snacked on everything in the garden!)

If you’re going to weed a garden, you definitely need to know what to pull and what to keep.  If you’re not sure, leave it a few days or a week (or longer if necessary) until you can identify what it is.  Once you’ve got your plant ID down or at least know what the plants you put there are “supposed to look like”, the rest would be considered “weeds” (a.k.a. – any plant in a place you don’t want it).

I used the “leave it” method on a plant in my backyard a couple of years ago.  When I first noticed it, it wasn’t very big, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was in a very bad spot in my flowerbed, but I was too curious to pull it.  By the time it got to be 7 feet tall (I kid you not) it had multi-lobed leaves and strongly resembled Mary J. except that I don’t have any experience growing that so I couldn’t say for sure one way or the other.  So I waited, curious to see what it would “do”.  Finally, near the end of the summer, it blossomed. Since the bloom was so far above my head, I may be short-changing it, but it ended up with a little, non-showy cluster of nondescript flowers.  Then, it got pulled.

Before you start weeding, I should back up a moment… make sure you know what you planted and what it looks like in each stage of growth.  Most seeds start with 2 cotyledon/seed leaves.  Seed leaves are made using energy stored within the seed and don’t have much character, so it makes it really hard to tell plants apart at this stage.  It’s not until they develop their 2nd set of leaves, their “true leaves”, that plant ID really becomes possible and weeding becomes safe.  As a side note, some plants will also have juvenile leaves which won’t look like their seed leaves or their mature leaves.  This can sometimes trip you up a little, but once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be fine.

The best time to weed is after a lot of rain or after you’ve watered.  This makes the soil loosen up and allows weeds to come out by the root, which is always the goal.  It’s not always possible, but when it is, try not to just snap off the top or the root will just regenerate new top growth and you’ll literally end up weeding the same plant over and over again.

That’s it for now.

More edible weeds to come.