Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.
    -- A.A. Milne

Ground ivy (Margo D. Beller)
Summer is a time when daisies, brown-eyed susans, some flowering shrubs and other plants are at their peak. But it is also the time when I start to take note of all the weeds in my lawn, flower garden and in the waste areas along the road.

Any flower that is in the wrong place is a weed. So when you see the familiar yellow dandelion flower in your lawn, and you know that soon there will be the uglier seed head, it is time to go out and eradicate it before there are more.

My main lawn problems are ground ivy, quack grass, sorrel and assorted vines, some of which can be poisonous when handled.

I have a book that identifies weeds and tells you how to pull them out, their bad qualities and how you can use some of them. That is how I learned that lamb's quarters, picked when small, can be used like its cousin, spinach.

Knotweed and another common roadside weed I can't identify.
(Margo D. Beller)
Some weeds I leave alone. One year a clump of lamb's ears came over from a neighbor and started growing in my garden. I dug it up, moved it to another, unnetted area and it has since thrived, spread and flowered. Deer don't like it but the bees do.

However, most weeds I would not want in the yard. I don't mind clover or the yellow ground cover called cow vetch or its pink cousin the crown vetch, used by many to hold dirt on a hillside, but Japanese knotweed is invasive and will grow everywhere.

Some invasive plants can be useful. Raspberries, for instance, or wild rose. Both spread widely and, at least in my yard, I am carefully pulling them out of the wrong place because they both are covered in very sharp thorns and thus have to be picked when very small. I spent an afternoon recently crouched behind my rhododendron, behind the deer netting (always fun, gardening behind deer netting), because along with the many rose of sharon seedlings and wild mint (both active spreaders) was at least one wild rose.
Raspberries (Margo D. Beller)
But if you go along the roadside and find raspberries growing, pick your fill but carefully. They taste as good as the ones from the store. I have some wild strawberries in places in the yard and the small berries, while not as large or sweet, are tasty. But, again, they are not growing in the "wrong place" and so I leave them alone. What I don't eat, the birds or deer assuredly will.

Milkweed (Margo D. Beller)
Milkweed is another useful plant you'll find blooming along the road now. Butterflies, particularly the endangered monarch butterfly, lay their eggs on them and the resulting caterpillars feed on the leaves. Many organizations give away seeds to encourage more of these flowers, and many towns plant them in parks and other areas where they can spread. There is also butterfly weed, an orange milkweed, but this is a plant where once you have one growing it is not easy to move it because of the long taproot. But it draws butterflies the same way.

Five-leaved Virginia creeper and three-leaved poison ivy
(Margo D. Beller)
Thanks to my guides I now know a bit more about vines, but not that much more. There is one vine with oval leaves I see waving its tendrils as it grows tall enough to grab onto something, usually a rose bush where removing it can be a painful experience thanks to the thorns.

I've learned the vine I find every so often in my hedge is belladona, which has purple berries that are poisonous. The vine, if grabbed with bare hand, will make you itch so put your gloves on.

Another common visitor is the Virginia creeper. It has five leaves and will grow up trees, around yards and generally all over the place. Unlike the trumpet vine, it does not provide the lovely orange flowers that draw hummingbirds. Or at least not in my yard. The leaves will turn dark red and it will produce blue berries for the birds but I usually don't let them get that far.

Dead areas of my lawn are quick to fill with ground ivy, quack grass and other weeds I can't identify except for the three-leaved clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel, another weed (like young dandelion greens) you can use for supper if you like. There are many other weeds in many other shapes that I can't recognize. I pull them out just the same.

Maple sapling (Margo D. Beller)
Even trees can be a problem if they are growing in the wrong place. Sometimes squirrels or chipmunks bury their nuts and don't get back to them, or forget about them. Then I walk around the yard and find small oaks, beeches, elms or the occasional poplar from another yard. These get pulled out, too, although once I tried planting an oak sapling with nut still attached in a pot. A chipmunk dug it up and took the nut, leaving the rest to die.

But for me the absolute worst is poison ivy.

Thanks to all the rain this past spring, it seems to be everywhere. If left alone it will climb up trees and get so thick it will kill them. I have to be very careful when I pull it out or if I spray it. If you do get into poison ivy you have 20 minutes to wash the affected area with cold water to have any hope of avoiding itching.

However, earlier this year, despite my best efforts, a bit of rash came up on my right arm two days later and lasted for weeks. It was after that I started using weed killer, which may seem like an extreme measure, and is surely less than ecological, but it is better than my arm getting covered with an itchy rash or my lawn covered with this pest.

Poison ivy covering tree (Margo D. Beller)
Many wild and native plants are good. They need less in the way of water or food and they look pretty. Many, such as yarrow, have been "cultivated" so their more destructive traits are bred out and they can sit in your garden and not take over while looking pretty. And deer don't eat native plants. (I wish they would take out some of that knotweed.) If a wild New England aster or more goldenrod springs up in my yard this fall, I'll be leaving it alone.

However, when it comes to weeds I do not like, I do my best but pulling or spraying them is a losing battle. I can only hope to keep them under control enough for the plants I like to survive. I can put mulch down to smother them, dig them out by the roots or spray them but they will always come back if there is a bit of dirt, some sunlight and water to make them grow. They are survivors. They will be around long after I am no longer in this house.