Bindweed in the garden

Garden weeds: Identifying the unwanted plants in our gardens

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Every spring, I see various iterations of this quote superimposed over various plants or in some fancy graphic: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” It’s by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Can someone please tell me what the virtues of bindweed are? I haven’t discovered them yet. In fact, this insidious weed makes me want to move.

Not all weeds are created equal. I don’t freak out at the dandelions that pop up in my lawn. I do try to keep them in check a bit, but dandelions actually have their virtues. The roots, which can reach pretty deeply into the soil help to loosen hard-packed soil. They’re also edible and the pollinators like them. And so, as long as my entire front garden is not a dandelion patch, I can happily co-exist with a few.

Clover is another rather innocent weed that’s gotten a bad rap. In fact, a lot of green thumbs now recommend it in place of grass. In some parts of my lawn, the clover bits are the only parts that are still green in mid to late summer! Plus it’s pretty soft underfoot. Weeds in general are much more tenacious than grass, that’s for sure.

Identifying garden weeds

For the extremely stubborn weeds that keep reappearing or aren’t easily eradicated, what’s a green thumb with an organic garden to do? Weeds make for extra work in the garden and compete with the plants we’re actually trying to grow. We have a couple of great articles with strategies for reducing garden weeds and organic ways to control them on this site. But here, I thought I would help identify a few types of common garden weeds that I have to deal with.

I also thought I would rate them on a scale of wanting to move at 5 dandelions, to happily cohabitating until I feel like pulling them out (1 dandelion).

Bindweed

I have bindweed on the south side of my house along the side of my garage. The soil is absolutely terrible. And the bindweed loves it. This horrible garden weed can spread 30 metres into the ground. When I first moved in and started playing in that garden, I discovered landscape fabric. The bindweed basically had spread its tentacles, which look like spaghetti, underneath until it found the end and was able to pop up. I pulled and pulled, but apparently that wasn’t the best idea.

I tried to smother it with a few inches of cardboard and a few inches of mulch, but the same thing happened. Those spaghetti tentacles reached out until they found the light of day.

This year, I am trying a new tactic for the bindweed that’s made a reappearance. I am snipping it at the soil level, which I read about on Garden Making. A friend said he tried this and it seems to work.

So far (knocking on ALL the wood), it’s only on the one side of my house. A lot of my neighbours heading down the hill from that side of the house also have bindweed in their lawns. I can tell because it’s in bloom at the time of writing this.

bindweed in the garden

Rating: 5 dandelions
This garden weed is the WORST.

Bittersweet nightshade

The other day I found a bright red berry in my raised bed, which was weird because there is nothing in that particular garden that would produce that type of berry. I peeked behind the cedars at the edge of the garden, and there was bittersweet nightshade growing with both its purple flowers and those telltale red berries, which are poisonous. I’m usually able to keep this perennial weed at bay by mulching around my cedar trees after pulling it out (this is where I’ve found it growing in my yard).

bittersweet nightshade

Rating: 3 dandelions
It doesn’t make me want to leave town, but it’s a nuisance if left unchecked.

Common purslane

Years ago, when I was working at a gardening magazine, I received a book about all the leafy greens you could eat. It included purslane, a “weed” that looked exactly like what I was pulling from my garden. In her book, The Wildcrafted Cocktail, author Ellen Zachos even makes a Purslane Margarita! It kind of looks like a succulent, with these chocolate brown stems. and the leaves resemble of those of a jade plant. A lot of foraging sites feature warnings not to confuse it with some of the spurge weeds, like hairy spurge.

purslane is considered to be a garden weed, but is edible and easy to pull

Rating: 1 dandelion
It’s super easy to pull.

hairy spurge

This is hairy spurge. I would also rate it 1 dandelion because it’s easy to eradicate and not a horrible spreader.

Poison ivy

Poison ivy isn’t the most common weed found in gardens, but I live on a ravine and have it along my back fence. In my province, it’s actually considered a noxious weed. We tried to smother it last fall, but it seems to have come back. When I first moved here, I got a horrible rash the first or second summer. I thought at the time it might have been from mountain biking, but I realize now that it could have been from pulling weeds from under my one peony and not paying attention to “leaves of three, let them be.”

We’re waiting until fall, so we can cover ourselves head to toe, don rubber gloves and dig it up, while being VERY careful not to let anything come in contact with our skin. I may also look into getting a “poison ivy suit,” which Jessica recommended in her garden gear for hardcore gardeners article. The plant will go in the garbage, not the compost, and the clothing will be washed in hot water. Never burn poison ivy.

Poison ivy creeping out of the garden

Rating: 5 dandelions
I would prefer not to have to worry about getting a rash in my garden.

Thistles

To add insult to injury, not only do I have to contend with bindweed on the south side of my house, but I have to walk among thistles to do so. For these I need to pull on my rose gloves with the gauntlets to protect my arms, and use my soil knife to loosen the soil around the base of the weed, so I can pull it out by the roots and avoid the thorns. But still they return.

thistles in the garden

Rating: 3 dandelions
Yes, it’s annoying to step on one in bare feet or have a thorn sneak through a glove, but I’m resigned to pulling out the few that I have.

Crab grasses aka finger grasses

Last year, I extended my front garden a bit and my husband put in a stone pathway (which makes an appearance in Gardening Your Front Yard. Despite the fresh mulch in the garden and the screening in the pathway, crab grass still takes root. It’s not the worst thing to pull out and at least it’s greenish when it’s in the lawn.

crab grass

Rating: 2 dandelions
While it’s annoying to have to remove it, it’s not the worst weed in my garden.

Creeping Charlie aka Ground ivy

Admittedly, the Creeping Charlie in my backyard grass has gotten a bit out of control. It’s now creeping into the firepit. It’s part of the mint family (shocker!), and anywhere the plant touches the soil, it takes root. It’s fairly easy to remove, but if spreads, you’ll need a garden kneeler because you’ll be at it for awhile!

creeping Charlie aka ground ivy

Rating: 4 dandelions
This weed is really starting to creep around the edges of my garden.

Bishop’s weed

When I moved in to my current home, that first spring I discovered there is a lovely semi-circle of variegated leaves around an old stump and a peony, just off my deck. Bishop’s weed is a type of goutweed and amazingly, you still sometimes see it at garden centres. My sister managed to remove goutweed from her front garden by digging down deeply to remove it all. This proved successful.

Bishop's weed, a variegated type of goutweed

Rating: 1 dandelion
I’ve managed to keep my little semi-circle in check and it hasn’t crept out of the garden.

Garlic mustard

Garlic mustard isn’t just in my garden and all around my yard. I see it on the trails where I bike and hike. Often, I’ll see piles of it on the side of a trail because someone has pulled it while they’re out and about. It’s an invasive species and displaces plants that are native to Ontario, such as trilliums and trout lilies, and endangers species at risk.

In its first year, the plant is more of a small clump that grows close to the ground. In its second year, it flowers and can grow to about one metre high. The seed pods are called siliques, and drop garlic mustard seeds as they dry out.

Pulling up the bindweed before it produces those seeds is important, and pulling out both first and second year plants is essential. It’s recommended that you cover the area with at least two inches of leaves or mulch to hinder seed germination.

garlic mustard in a front yard garden

Rating: 4 dandelions
It doesn’t make me want to move, but it’s pretty prolific—and an invasive species, so important to control. Luckily it’s easy to pull (be sure NOT to compost)—and you can eat it.

Which weed is the bane of your gardening existence?

Garden weeds: Identifying the unwanted plants in our gardens

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9 Responses to Garden weeds: Identifying the unwanted plants in our gardens

  1. valerie walton says:

    very concise, yet easy to follow. unfortunately I fight all of the aforementioned weeds!

  2. Annie Fearon says:

    I have wild strawberry plants I can’t get rid of . I have had most of the ones you mentioned but creeping Charlie and the strawberry plants need to go Any suggestions?

  3. Veronica Shukla says:

    Hi there! Composting rules always intrigue me. Why do you recommend not composting garlic mustard? Because of seed germination? Or it’s allelopathic qualities? On a side note, I love purslane. It’s so delicious, but I generally don’t disturb the soil in my landscaping much, so unfortunately I don’t get it anymore. A few weeks ago I was excited to see purslane in an organic spring mix from Target!

  4. Lux says:

    Horsenettle. If someone can tell me how to remove this without digging up the entire yard or resorting to Roundup I’d be thrilled!

  5. randell jarvis says:

    My problem in East Texas is Dallas grass!

  6. vicky t. says:

    thistle can be removed from your lawn and garden if you carefully dolip a bit of ammonia on the plant itself. It will leave a burn spot for a short period of time before your lawn reclines the spot. if doing this in your garden with perennials and annuals be extra careful and don’t plant anything there for a month or so. the plant lady in port wash. wi

  7. Jan says:

    My worst weeds are bindweed and thistle. I actually have almost eradicated the bindweed in one area by just constantly pulling it out, but it took about 5 years! The thistle is getting the better of me. It is just everywhere no matter what I do.

  8. Dr Tracey says:

    I wonder whether a lack of nutrient in the soil will foster the growth and regrowth of the same “weed” in that spot. The solution must be to amend the soil and make the area more diverse to competing plants that are favourable to you. The same occurs in your gut biome where diversity is necessary for our health.

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