The art of weeding

Canada thistle seedlings are easily mistaken for Oriental poppies.

This may sound crazy, but one of my favorite things about spring is weeding. As everything is coming up, I find it kind of meditative to sit on the ground, sorting keepers from invaders. Sometimes it’s easy to tell a desirable seedling from a weed—dandelions give themselves away every time. (Did you know that dandelions are also known as blow balls, faceclock and Irish daisy?)

But often, even for experienced gardeners, the job of weeding can be tricky. Especially in the spring when the early growth of many weeds closely resembles that of annuals and perennials. A few good examples of weed/desirable seedling look-alikes are: morning glories and bindweed, liatris and crabgrass, Oriental poppies and Canada thistle, some types of asters and Canada thistle, black-eyed Susan and creeping bellflower, bachelor’s buttons and spotted knapweed, brown-eyed Susan and giant ragweed, Jacob’s ladder and crown vetch and butterfly weed and marestail (horseweed).

Spotting the difference between weeds and plants you want to keep will take time, and you’ll need reference photos and descriptions to help you. I’m going to recommend some sources, but first let me also offer some strategies you can use to help you make your choice. Consider soil health. Weeds love poor soil, so if the green thing you’re contemplating is thriving in a pretty tough spot it’s probably a weed. Did the plant sprout up seemingly overnight or grow unimaginably quickly? Yep, it’s probably a weed. Are there a zillion of whatever they are? Probably a weed—but they could also be the offspring of a plant that went to seed like crazy in the fall so you probably don’t want all of those seedlings anyway.

OK, there are a lot of weed guides out there, but my favorite for our region is “Weeds of the Northern U.S. and Canada: A Guide for Identification” by France Royer and Richard Dickinson. Among the many helpful things this book offers are photos of weeds in all stages of growth, so you can easily compare them to what you’re seeing. Notice the subtle differences between some perennials and their look-alike weeds. Oriental poppy foliage is nearly identical to thistles but thistle leaves are covered with spines. Butterfly weed leaves have smooth edges while horseweed leaves have some teeth-like ridges near their tips. One thing to note is that the book lists some plants that gardeners in our state consider desirable, such as yarrow and ox-eye daisy. Invasives in one area may not be invasive in another.

Don’t want to buy a book, or prefer using a smartphone or other device? Check out the University of Minnesota Extension’s online tool “Is This Plant a Weed?” On the site you’ll find photos of weeds as seedlings, as well as mature plants. But I especially like how entries also include a handy list of plants that have foliage similar to that of the dreadful weed you’ve looked up. Stinging nettle leaves, for example, look a lot like those of wild aster. And garlic mustard in its early stage could easily pass for cultivated violets. To really hone your weed-versus-perennial skills, explore the University of Missouri’s Weed ID Guide, which offers descriptions and photos of more than 400 plants that are considered weeds.

Weeding may never be a cinch, but keep at it and you’ll get better over time. Especially if you try, as I have, to embrace the late horticulturalist Christopher Lloyd’s graceful approach to weeds. “Not all seedlings are weeds,” he wrote. “You may feel that life is too short to leave a seedling in till it’s large enough to identify. My own feeling is that life’s too interesting not to leave it there until you can identify it.”

Check out Meleah’s blog: for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.