Q. My husband has prided himself on being an organic gardener for almost 20 years and has never used any chemicals on our lawn, which looks out of place in our neighborhood of impeccable landscaping. It is full of chickweed, clover, and violets. I find it unattractive and it diminishes the pleasure I have in our property. Is there a way to have an attractive organic lawn? We give organic care a bad name!
- ---Alexa in Macungie, PA
A. The Dirty Little Secret Of Lawn Care is that the most important aspects have nothing to do with organics or chemicals. Having a great looking lawn depends mostly on cutting at the right height, feeding at the correct times of year and watering wisely. Correct feeding and watering, for instance, often eliminate clover problems. You'll find details in the lawn care and clover Questions of the Week we've answered on previous shows.
But all the weeds you mention are edible and highly nutritious. We've discussed how the flowers of wild violets can perk up a salad and make your varicose and spider veins vanish in this Previous Question of the Week and we'll talk about chickweed in a moment.
And that white clover in your lawn? Garden writer Sally Roth, in her 2002 Reader's Digest book "Weeds; friend or foe?" explains that it was an important food for indigenous Americans. High in protein, vitamins and minerals, the fragrant young blooms were collected as soon as they opened, dried, crushed into flour and added to a variety of foods, including stews. She adds that two tablespoons of dried white clover flowers also makes a fine throat-soothing tea. (Got clover, but not the white variety? Don't fret--all clover flowers are edible.)
Q. Mike: We have chickweed in our garden; is there anything we can spray to kill it? We also have voles that eat our parsnips. What can we do to kill them?
- ---Mary in Floyd, VA
A. Yikes! It sounds like Mary has a few anger issues to work out. (Please don't get mad at ME, Mar!) Anyway, vole control is also covered in this Previous Question of the Week, although I say they're doing a good deed if they're sparing you from parsnip preparation.
And your chickweed is far from a tough garden problem; it's easily pulled, hoed and mulched away. And using a flame weeder to torch its distinctive white flowers in Spring and fall will prevent it dropping the seed that fuels the growth of new plants. Just realize before you take such action that it's one of the most nutritious of the edible weeds!
Our good friend and renowned expert on medicinal and edible plants, Dr. Jim Duke (author of numerous books, including the best-selling "Green Pharmacy" from Rodale and the soon to be released (also from Rodale) "The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods"), notes that the young leaves of chickweed; preferably harvested before those little white flowers open; are a favorite fresh addition to Springtime salads. Boil those leaves, adds Dr. Duke, and the taste is a lot like cooked spinach.
Noted forager "Wildman" Steve Brill agrees. In his 2002 "Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press), he says the raw herb tastes "like a combination of corn on the cob and bean sprouts" that even vegetable-shirking kids love, and that the plant is so tender you can eat the leaves and stems!
Dr. Duke adds that chickweed has a long folk history as an anti-inflammatory, both when taken internally (i.e., eaten) and applied topically as a poultice. The science supports this, he explains, as chickweed has been found to contain genistein, a natural COX-2-Inhibitor that functions to control inflammation in a way comparable to the synthetic prescription medications Celebrex and Vioxx. More importantly, he explains, genistein is one of the more promising plant-based compounds for the prevention of cancer, especially hormonally-influenced ones. Genistein prevents blood vessels from feeding new cancer cells, preventing them from becoming full-blown tumors. It's also a great source of the antioxidant vitamins C and E, and the carotenoids that are precursors of Vitamin A.
Q. I would like to use a pre-emergent herbicide on my vegetable garden to get rid of purslane once and for all. Can I apply it in early Spring and then plant my vegetables in June? Or do you have other advice on getting rid of this overwhelming herb?
- ---Gretchen in Barnum, Minnesota
A. You couldn't be more right about the 'herb' part, Gretchen! Purslane may be the most edible of the so-called weeds! Sally Roth says the highly nutritious leaves and stems have a "lemony tang", and reports that Henry David Thoreau raved about a dinner he crafted out of nothing more than purslane collected from his cornfield! She suggests eating it in a salad, nibbled fresh from the field ala Thoreau, steamed like spinach, or even substituted for garlic in garlic mashed potatoes! Wildman Steve Brill says to mix a cup or two of chopped purslane leaves and stems into potato salad to "make this familiar dish seem ambrosial".
Dr. Duke adds that the herb is a nutritional powerhouse. Purslane, he explains, has the highest concentrations of the antioxidant vitamins C & E of any plant he's ever studied (and he studied thousands in his many years of researching the naturally-occurring medical compounds in plants for the USDA). He adds that it's also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, helps the body create vitamin A, contains the potent cancer-fighting anti-inflammatory noradrenalin, and a compound called glutathione that can detoxify some pesticides!
So while an early Spring dusting with corn gluten meal might do away with this seed-borne annual, I'd think twice. It's quite possible that it's a much better edible than anything you planned to replace it with!
And these plants are just the tip of the edible weed iceberg. So before you battle your 'weeds', do some research and make a positive ID. You may want to eat them instead!