Weeds In Your Garden? Bite Back!
I always say: A gardener’s best revenge is to eat the weeds. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and can testify that my health and the health of my garden has never been better. Here are a few hints for gardeners who’d rather eat their weeds than hate them, and for non-gardeners who are adventurous enough to try out nature’s bounty.
View your weeds as cultivated plants; give them the same care and you’ll reap a tremendous harvest. Harvest frequently, and do it when the weeds are young and tender. Thin your weeds and pinch back the annuals so your weeds become lushly leafy. Use weeds as rotation crops; they bring up subsoil minerals and protect against many insects. “Interplant” (by not weeding out) selected weeds; try purslane, lamb’s quarters or amaranth with your corn, chickweed with peas or beans, and yellow dock, sheep sorrel or dandelion with tomatoes. Most important, harvest your weeds frequently, regularly and generously.
Overgrown radishes, lettuces and beans are tough and bitter. So are weeds that aren’t harvested frequently enough. Give your chickweed a haircut (yes, with scissors!) every 4–7 days and it will stay tender all spring, ready to be added to any salad. If you forget a patch for two weeks, it may get stringy and tough and full of seed capsules. All is not lost at this stage. Chickweed seeds are easy to collect: Put the entire plant in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2–3 days and use the seeds that fall to the bottom of the bag. They’re highly nutritious, with exceptional amounts of protein and minerals.
Unthinned carrots and lettuces grow thin and spindly. So do unthinned lamb’s quarters, amaranth and other edible weeds. Wherever you decide to let the weeds grow, keep them thinned as you would any plant you expect to eat. Here’s how I do it: In early spring I lightly top-dress a raised bed with compost (which is loaded with the seeds of edible weeds). Over this I strew a heavy coating of the seeds of lettuces and cresses and brassicas (cultivated salad greens), and then another light covering of shifted compost.
Naturally, weed seeds germinate right along with my salad greens. When the plants are about 2 inches high, I go through the bed and thin the salad greens, pulling out all grasses, smartweeds, cronewort, clear weed and quick weed (although the last three are edible, I don’t find them particularly palatable). Then I thin back the chickweed, mallows, lamb’s quarters, amaranth, garlic mustard and other edible wild greens.
Keep those annuals pinched back. You wouldn’t let your basil go straight up and go to flower; don’t let your lamb’s quarter, either. One cultivated lamb’s quarter plant in my garden grew 5 feet high and 4 feet across, providing greens for salads and cooking all summer long, and a generous harvest of seeds for winter use.
When a crop of greens has bolted or gone to seed in your garden, you pull it all out and replant with another crop. Do the same with your weeds. We eat the greens of garlic mustard all spring, then pull it out just before it bolts (making a horseradishy vinegar from the choicest roots). Doing so often reveals a generous crop of chickweed lurking underneath.
Here’s how to tend some of my favorite garden weeds:
Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus): Young leaves, old leaves, even non-woody stalks are delicious as a cooked green; chop and boil them for 30–40 minutes. Serve in their own broth; freeze leftovers for winter use. Use instead of spinach in quiche— you may never need to grow spinach again! Collect seeds throughout the autumn by shaking seed heads over a lipped cookie sheet; at harvest, dry the entire seed head. Winnowing out the chaff is tedious but soothing. There is a special thrill that comes when you toss the chaffy seed into the air, and the breeze catches it just so. The seeds fall back into your tray, while the prickly chaff scatters to the four winds.
Chickweed (Stellaria media): Use young leaves and stalks—even flowers— in salads. Blend with virgin olive oil and organic garlic for an unforgettable pesto. Add the seeds to porridge.
Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium alba, Chenopodium quinoa, and related species): Put young leaves in salads. Cook older leaves and tender stalks. Dried leaves can be ground into flour, which can replace up to half the flour in any recipe. Dried seeds can be cooked in soups and porridge.
Mallows (Malva neglecta and related species): Leaves of any age and flowers (the closely related hibiscus flowers too!) are delicious in salads. Roots are used medicinally.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea): The fleshy leaves and stalks of this plant are incredibly delicious in salads and not bad at all preserved in vinegar for winter use.
Burdock (Arctium lappa): Roots of non-flowering plants harvested after frost make vinegar that is deep and richly flavorful, as well as a worldrenowned tonic. Petioles of the leaves and the flowering stalk are also edible; for recipes see my book, Healing Wise.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis): A year-round salad green. Leaves used in any season, even winter. Harvest the roots before the plant flowers. The seeds are a spicy condiment.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota): Chop the leaves finely and use in salads. Flowers are beautiful, edible decorations. Harvest and cook the roots of non-flowering plants in the fall.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): The leaves can be eaten at any time, raw or cooked, but are especially tasty in the fall—not spring! Roots can be harvested any time; pickle them in apple cider vinegar for winter use. Dandelion flower wine is justly famous.
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella): Leaves add a sour spark to salads. Cooked with wild leeks or cultivated onion and potato, they become a soup called schav.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): These young leaves, cooked for 40–45 minutes and served in their broth, are one of my favorite dishes. The seeds can be used in baked goods and porridge.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): Pickle these roots in apple cider vinegar; they’re tasty and a boon for enriching the blood. The leaves, especially young ones, can be eaten raw or cooked.