The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu famously wrote in the Art of War: “If you know the enemy…you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” When it comes to common weeds, many of us feel like we’ve waged a hundred battles…losing many of them. But maybe that’s because we didn’t know our enemy well enough. So, here’s a list of ten of the most common weeds and some background on how they grow and spread. Learning a bit more about each weed can help you pick your battles more wisely.
These common weeds with yellow flowers hardly need an introduction—everybody knows them, and everybody has an opinion. Some treasure childhood memories of wishing on dandelion fluff blown into a summer breeze, some anticipate the blankets of dandelion yellow that cover spring meadows, and some dread the hard work it will take to root out these omnipresent weeds—yet again—from their front lawns.
Dandelions are perennial weeds spread by seed from spring through fall. They develop deep tap roots that must be dug out completely to eradicate the plant. But before you compost the pulled plants, consider that all parts of the dandelion are edible and are packed with essential vitamins and minerals.
If you have the annual purslane in your garden, you probably have a lot of it. It’s a low growing succulent that spreads in a circle, quickly filling any empty space. Purslane propagates through seeds, which shoot quite far from the mother plant, as well as from small pieces of the stem and leaves. The seeds of this common weed can lie dormant underground for years before sprouting, which means it can be a multi-year project to banish purslane weeds from your garden.
Pull this weed as soon as it comes up and dispose of the plants, (mind you, any weeds pulled with mature seeds on them still have the potential to spread seed near and far as the seeds will continue to drop off the uprooted plants).
Chickweed is often the first weed you’ll find in your garden. It loves cold weather and gets a foothold in your beds before other weeds and plants can compete. Chickweed spreads by dispersing thousands of seeds per plant, and those seeds can last up to eight years in the ground, making this annual into a perennial problem for many gardeners.
Common plantain is a stubborn broadleaf perennial weed that can be quite difficult to eradicate from your garden or lawn. It tends to grow in clumps that, if left unaddressed, will crowd out other more desirable plantings. Plantains spread through seeds dispersed by their flowers – narrow stalks covered with miniscule flowers.
Dig out plantains along with their sturdy tap roots when they first appear in the spring. Be careful when cutting lawns with plantains, as your mower can become contaminated with seeds and spread the weeds throughout your grass.
Like it’s cousin, common plantain, the narrowleaf plantain is a persistent perennial weed that spreads quickly through seed. Neither the common plantain nor the narrowleaf plantain is related to the fruit, from the same family as the banana, popular in Central and South American cuisine. That said, narrowleaf plantain leaves have been used for years in folk medicine to treat everything from dysentery to earaches to insect stings.
Lambsquarters is an annual weed found in gardens around the world. Each plant produces thousands of seeds and several generations can infest your garden in one season. Though lambsquarters will compete for nutrients with your other plants, it’s actually an attractive plant —with delicate silver-dusted leaves, often blushed with purple.
Lambsquarters is an edible plant and is grown as an agricultural crop in India and other parts of the world. A member of the same family as spinach, lambsquarters’ leaves can be used raw in salads or in sautés and stir fries—a great alternative to cool-weather greens in the hot summer months.
After dandelions, or maybe even before, crabgrass is one of the most despised garden weeds among homeowners. Though crabgrass is an annual, each plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds, which can survive several years in the soil before germinating. Furthermore, the weed can set roots at stem nodes, meaning cutting it down just encourages more growth.
Because crabgrass is a grass, both chemical and nonchemical (salt, vinegar) weed killers will also damage the lawn grass near the targeted weed. The best way to get rid of crabgrass is to dig it out completely.
Another difficult to get rid of lawn and garden weed is nutsedge, a quick growing tall grass that can take over your lawn or garden. Nutsedge is a perennial sedge and spreads through both seeds and its roots, called rhizomes. These grow horizontally under the surface of the soil and can generate multiple new nutsedge plants along the length, forming widespread colonies of the weeds that can last for years. This is another common weed that’s best eliminated by digging it up by the roots.
8. Creeping Charlie
The perennial weed creeping Charlie, also known as ground ivy, is a close relative of mint and has many of the same invasive properties as that herb. This common lawn weed spreads in shade and partially shaded areas, through seeds, roots (or rhizomes, like nutsedge), and nodes on the stem (like crabgrass). Even a minuscule node left in the clippings after cutting the lawn can set off a creeping Charlie infestation that lasts for years.
9. Yellow Wood Sorrel
As prolific as creeping Charlie, yellow wood sorrel will quickly establish itself in any empty space in the rich soil of your healthiest garden beds. This sorrel propagates itself through seeds, tens of thousands per plant, which readily stick to garden tools, mower blades, clothes, and pets, and through extensive root systems that sprout with new plants along their length.
Pull this weed the minute it appears in the spring to have a chance at removing all its roots and discouraging new growth. And if you can’t beat this weed, then you might want to eat it! All parts of yellow wood sorrel are edible. The leaves and flowers make a tangy and attractive addition to salads.
10. Common Ragweed
Common ragweed is a nondescript annual weed found in yards, brush and empty patches of garden. And though this weed looks no different than so many others growing along the edges of roads and in fields, its pollen is the cause of most cases of hay fever—a good reason to learn to identify common ragweed and pull it before it flowers and releases the seeds that perpetuate the weed and the pollen that causes such misery to so many.
Weed seeds often need sunlight to germinate, so once you’ve cleared an area of weeds, mulching is the best way to make sure they won’t return. Read more about how and when to use mulch
in your garden.