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seed popping weeds

Seed popping weeds

Even if you didn’t recognize it outright, maybe you’ve had the experience of being out in the garden pulling winter weeds when you’re pulling what looks like a small “innocent” weed only to find it exploding seeds in your face and all over the nearby garden? The most likely culprit is Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), which starts growing almost immediately with the onset of the late winter rains. It originally looks like a small, flat rosette of small leaves and then in what seems like the next day, quickly produces small white, four-petal flowers on wiry green stems. Most of the problems with this weed can be “solved” if you pull it at this stage or at least before it flowers. Seemingly overnight, the flowers form needle-thin seed pods, which explode at the slightest touch, sending seeds in all directions (averaging around 600 seeds per plant… and the bigger the plant, even more seeds). Besides your garden, the seeds are easily propagated in cracks in flagstone, brick or concrete walkways.

I’ve become fascinated with this weed, at least so far. I’ve more-or-less got it under control in my garden. I really don’t remember it from years ago, but it sure has been a pest the last 5 years or so. Not a native of California, it is now here for the foreseeable future… and beyond. I can’t say it’s the worst weed in the garden, but it sure requires attention to keep it under control. Especially these days when it will be competing for available water.

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Because Hairy Bittercress thrives in moist conditions and disturbed soil, it is also a pest in nurseries, and can be brought home via plant purchases. If you think that’s a problem for you, some cautious gardeners carefully remove the top inch or two of soil in the pots before planting. (If you do this, you should dispose of the scraped-off soil in your green can.)

If all else fails, Hairy Bittercress is a member of the mustard family and is edible, but you need to do your own research to find the right recipe to enjoy it (for an example, see http://www.eatingniagara.com/2013/04/weed-wednesday-make-that-hairy.html). To get ahead of its persistence in the garden, it’s definitely worth patrolling your garden for this weed once or twice a week during the winter and spring. It’s easy to hand pull when young. Once the seeds pop, you’ll be fighting a much bigger crop next year and it’s rare that herbicides would be considered appropriate for control in a home garden.

Another reason it’s my “favorite” weed? I still remember a fellow student in our Master Gardener class relating how she had “convinced” her young son to help weed the spring garden and he was complaining about the weed seeds popping in his face. She answered him by telling him to go in the house and get his safety goggles on and keep on weeding… something you might be considering adding to your gardening tools if you let Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) go to flower and reseed.

If you scalp the lawn, weeds will thrive. If you water it frequently for short periods of time, weeds will thrive. And if you feed the poor heat-stressed thing in summer, weeds will take over.

Its small white flowers are similar to those of chickweed, another ‘unwanted plant’ that blooms early in the Spring. But chickweed is more of a flat, spreading, mat-like plant. And its seedpods aren’t faster than a speeding bullet. Both weeds are remarkably easy to control in flowerbeds; just pull them, roots and all, out of wet soil. Chickweed comes out in big clumps, while bitter cress has a nice little stalk that gives you a handle to grab onto. Just remember to soak the soil first; all weeds come out of wet soil MUCH easier than dry.

If I don’t get to them in time, I toast the seedheads with my trusty flame weeder before I pull the plants, just like I do with dandelions that have progressed to the puffball stage. Dandelion seeds burst into little flares of color—like Munchkin fireworks. Bittercress seeds explode with a loud ‘pop’. (Organic gardening is SO much more fun than spraying hormonal disruptor around!)

For a Northern, cool-season lawn (one composed of cool-season grasses like rye, fescue and/or bluegrass) that means never cutting shorter than three inches, never feeding in summer, watering deeply but infrequently, and giving the lawn a big natural feeding in the Fall.

If I’m paying attention and life cooperates, I’ll pull the weeds while they’re still in flower and before they set seed. Both weeds get composted—mixed into a good amount of shredded leaves hoarded from the previous fall; at least two parts leaves to every part green weed. The bitter cress typically comes up with a good amount of soil attached to its roots, which adds microbial life to the pile; and the chickweed has a lot of water content to help keep the moistness levels right.

But I like to wait until after the little white flowers form to pull these weeds. Their flowers open up right before the blooms on my fruit trees, attracting lots of the pollinators and beneficial insects I’ll need to get a good fruit set and to fight all the pests that want to eat those peaches as much as we do.

Both weeds are also highly edible, especially when young. Chickweed is more nutritious than the salad greens that many people remove it to plant! And, although hairy bittercress (a member of the mustard family) doesn’t have nearly as many wild food fans as chickweed or purslane (perhaps the most edible ‘weed’), it does have some of the peppery taste of its namesake watercress, and it’s loaded with cancer-fighting nutrients. Pick it before the flower buds form and it won’t have nearly as much of the bitter edge that older plants take on. (Flowering changes the flavor of virtually all herbs and greens for the worse.)

In turf, weeds like bittercress are a sure sign of poor lawn care. The answer is not to poison yourself and the environment (and kill your grass) in a futile attempt to remove the weed, but to care for your lawn correctly and deny the weed a place to live. Take good care of your grass and a harmless little plant like this should never have a chance to get established, much less thrive.

Oh—and don’t use chemical herbicides. We hear they’re murder on the poor grass….