Jennifer StackhouseTurning your weeds to good use

In late winter and early spring weeds can get the upper hand. These opportunists are quick to get growing to fill the empty spaces left by plants that have been pruned back or died down over winter. They grow fast and flower quickly ensuring they set seed to keep their seed bank in the soil well stocked.

Hand weeding now (or spot treating with a herbicide) can rein in these early growers. I’ve been on the case in my garden, teasing out cleavers and chickweed, which are trying to take over the world. These weeds are scramblers, growing over the top of other plants. When you remove them be sure to pull out the roots as well as the leafy growth. Mulches slow their appearance but don’t keep them away all together.

But there is another way to reduce the number of weeds in your garden and its much less work and easier on the back. The answer is to reclassify them! Change their name from weed to useful plant and start harvesting instead of weeding.

Stellaria media Photo Hugo.arg

Stellaria media Photo Hugo.arg

Chickweed for chicks
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a good example of a weed that can be re-classified as this plant isn’t a weed to bird lovers and poultry farmers. Chickweed, as its name suggests, is a treat for poultry providing a dose of green goodness when other green pick is scarce.

It isn’t just good for chooks. Chickweed is an edible weed that can be included in salads (wash it well). It can also be used as a medicinal herb.

Hens enjoying chickweed

Hens enjoying chickweed

It grows best in cool, moist soils in late winter and spring. It retreats from the garden as summer warms the soil although you may find some quietly growing in a cold sheltered spot.

Cleavers for health
If I am forgiving of chickweed, I couldn’t find it in me to like cleavers (Galium aparine) or ‘sticky’ weed as gardeners sometimes call it, acknowledging its ability to cling to everything.

Cleavers cleaves to everything - including Kerrin

Cleavers cleaves to everything – including Kerrin

I spent most of last spring hauling swags of it out of the garden where it was smothering bulbs, invading the shrubs and generally making the garden look a mess. This garden weed is quick to form seeds (those small hard green burrs that get stuck in your clothes and pet’s fur) so it is important to weed it out as soon as it is spotted to reduce its spread.

It turns out that cleavers have a good side too. They can be fed to chooks, turned into a health giving tea, eaten fresh in a salad or used to make a medicinal tincture. Herb growers Marleen and Ronald van der Winkel from Marleen Herbs live up the road from me at Barrington in Tasmania. They use cleavers that grow on their organic certified farm to make tinctures that are included in herbal medicines.

Cleavers under cestrum

Cleavers under cestrum

I visited Marleen to learn more about cleavers and found myself sipping on cleaver tea. Daughter Emma, who studied natural therapy and biodynamic farming, had made the tea by combining dried cleaver leaves with dried orange calendula petals and deep purple lavender flowers. It was delicious. Cleavers, says Emma, help to clean out the lymphatic system.

There’s a list of uses for cleavers from making poultices to stuffing mattresses. Those annoying burrs can even be ground up to use as a coffee substitute. One of its other common names is ‘goosegrass’ as it is useful forage for geese. I’ve now started tossing the cleavers from the garden into the chook yard where the chooks are eating them with obvious delight.

Another weed reclassified!

[For more on herbs, weeds and medicinal plants see Marleen’s website at Marleen Herbs of Tasmania.]

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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

3 thoughts on “Turning your weeds to good use

  1. Lyn on said:

    My very worst winter weed is ivy-leafed speedwell, Veronica hederaefolia. I have been pulling it out for months and I still have more germinating all the time. I haven’t yet found a good side to it!

    • Lyn – I have this weed too. In part of the garden it is the garden! At the moment it is a mass of little blue flowers and is full of bees. So try reclassifying it as a ‘bee plant’. Jennifer

  2. Helen on said:

    Very interesting! I didn’t know any of that about cleavers. Thanks.

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