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Gardening

Chickweed and horsetails: Weed them now, while it’s early in the season

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 28
  • Published May 28

Equisetum arvense - also known as horsetail (Getty Images)

Most gardeners are so absorbed in planting at the start of the season that they ignore early weeding. Weeds are just not on the list. They should be if you want to save yourself a lot of work later on in the season. Right now weeds have small root systems, and they have not started to produce seed. If you cut them — literally — off at the beginning, your life and the life of your flowers and vegetables will be so much easier.

Two weeds come to mind because they are both universal and so prolific. Veteran gardeners know them well: chickweed and equisetum. (That sounds the name of a gardening rock group). If you do nothing else with weeds, get these.

The first, Stellaria media, for those who might need to look it up, is the worse of the two. All Alaska gardens have it lurking in the soil, and when they are the least bit disturbed they germinate. Stick a trowel in the soil, expose the seeds to light and away they go. If you don’t get them, the chickweed plants will grow around and over crop plants, outcompeting them for light, water and nutrients.

Right now the chickweeds are perfect for plucking. It is still easy to pull and you will get all the root, so provided you take it out of the garden, it won’t come back until you disturb the soil again — leave it on the soil and it might reroot. Put on a set of earphones or listen to nature, get into the moment and clear your gardens. People pay big bucks for this kind of mindfulness therapy.

I hesitate to mention that chickweed is very edible (and apparently nutritious), having been served a big bowl of it at a fancy gathering after the last time I mentioned this in a column. However, it is, and was purportedly even more popular than spinach a hundred years or so ago. It doesn’t freeze well, or you would be able to buy it today. All parts can be consumed. If plants are old, you might find the stems a bit daunting and may want to stick to the mouse-sized leaves.

Chickweed sprouting in an Alaska garden. (ADN/Julia O'Malley)

The next universal weed is Equisetum arvense. You can look it up or go out and find it in your lawn, assuming you have not mowed yet. It is a strange, prehistoric relic plant that produces spores instead of seeds. You cannot kill the stuff. It has an extensive root system. Don’t waste time spraying it to try to kill it off.

While you can’t kill it off, you can hide its existence. That is because the stalks appear once; remove them above ground and that is it for the season. So if it is in lawns? Just mow it down and you won’t see it until next spring. Similarly, you can weed eat it, hoe or hand pick garden beds, around and under trees and bushes and along fences.

Mulching is the second way to deal with Equisetum arvense. If you put a thick enough layer of mulch on top of live plants, say an inch or so, they disappear for the year. Remember those bags of leaves I always tell readers to collect in the fall? Here is a great use for some of them.

Horsetail is hailed as a miraculous, medicinal herb by some and you can actually find plants and product for sale on the internet. Other than use as a scouring pad, however, I can’t find many confirmed uses. I will note that if the claims are true, Alaska’s economy need not worry about the virus. We have enough in Anchorage, alone, to supply the universe.

There are other weeds, for sure. Isn’t the definition of a weed any plant growing in the wrong spot? I don’t know what invades your yard, but I know that mulch is the answer to weed problems in general. Once wanted plants are in and properly watered, a layer of mulch over all bare soil will really keep weed growth down. At the same time, mulch will feed the microbes that create soil structure and feed your plants, lessening and perhaps eliminating the need to fertilize.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for the week

Alaska Botanical Garden: The garden trails are open with proper social distancing. As for classes and more, do check alaskabg.org to see what is up and when. There are all manner of things going on. Join for discounts at the nursery and to support a great organization.

Plants in: If you have not planted, do so now. Harden off all plants first, even though it is late.

Seeds in: I am assuming we will have a nice long summer, so now is when you should plan on getting second harvests by starting seeds for new plants which will go into the ground a month or so from now. Lettuces, kohl crops, determinate tomatoes are all good candidates. Start seed outdoors if you like.

Plant a Row for The Hungry: Please plant one row in your garden — or bed or container — dedicated to feeding the hungry. When it is ready, take it to someone or some place that needs food. Easy and simple in these difficult times.

Delphinium defoliators, cotoneaster leaf rollers: Hand pick. Spray with Bt or spinoza products.

Dandelions: Yes, they are back, and this is their first flush. Mow them over. Pick flowers, pull weeds. Do not spray with synthetic herbicides. Once you mow them down, you shouldn’t be bothered.

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