"Cuttings" is your source for garden updates and horticultural tips from Reeves-Reed Arboretum's horticulture staff. Check back monthly to find out what's blooming at the Arboretum, get the inside scoop on upcoming events, and learn some timely tips you can put to use in your own garden.
August Garden Tips: Just Weed It!
We at Reeves-Reed find weeding to be a nice, relaxing garden activity – which is lucky for us, since in August, there's no shortage of weeding to do! For this month's edition of "Cuttings," we thought we'd peer a little closer at some of the weeds you're likely to encounter in your own flowerbeds this summer. Although these plants are often uninvited guests in the garden, they all have their own unique qualities, histories, and even useful purposes – something to think about when you're ripping them out of your lawn or perennial border!
Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta):
Although its leaves resemble those of clover, yellow woodsorrel is easily distinguished by its five-petaled yellow flowers, which are usually visible on the plant throughout the summer. Though you may not welcome it in your garden, yellow woodsorrel is actually native to most of North America, including the state of New Jersey! What's more, its leaves, flowers, and seed pods are edible and have a pleasantly tangy, sour flavor. This flavor is imparted by oxalic acid in the plant's tissues – interestingly, this is the same compound that gives rhubarb its signature taste! In addition to being good for the occasional nibble, yellow woodsorrel also has a long history of medicinal and household use by Native American peoples. The Iroquois used it for stomach ailments, fever, and as a refreshing mouthwash; and the Menomini and Meskwaki tribes boiled the plant to make a yellow dye.
Yellow woodsorrel in bloom – just prior to being weeded out of a garden bed! (Photo: S. Edelson)
Garlic Mustard (Alaria petiolata):
Garlic mustard is another weed you're sure to encounter in our part of New Jersey – but unlike yellow woodsorrel, it hasn't always made its home in North America. Instead, garlic mustard is native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and was only introduced to the United States in the 1860s. Since that time, it has spread vigorously across much of the continent, outcompeting native plants and gaining a reputation as an invasive species. In fact, it's currently listed as a noxious weed by 9 U.S. states, and there are programs in many places aimed at eradicating it. So, you might ask, why was this scourge brought to our shores to begin with? Well, as it turns out, garlic mustard is highly edible, and was first brought to the U.S. as a culinary herb! A member of the mustard family, it gets its common name from the fact that the young leaves smell and taste like garlic. In its native home, the plant has long been popular in soups, stir-fries, and even in salads as a fresh green. The seeds can also be ground and mixed with vinegar to create a mustard-like condiment. Unfortunately, many of the pests and diseases that keep garlic mustard's spread under control in its natural range are not to be found in North America, with the result that the plant finds few checks on its expansion here. What's more, the plant produces a compound that inhibits the growth of mycorrhizae, beneficial fungi that support the health of many native plants. Once nearby native plants are thus weakened, the garlic mustard can easily outcompete them, quickly taking over the understories of entire forests! Luckily, it's easy to rip out by hand – so if you're looking to become a true weed warrior, garlic mustard makes an excellent foe!
Garlic mustard looking invasive (yet delicious) in the Arboretum woodlands. (Photo: S. Edelson)
Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis):
Like garlic mustard, field bindweed is a non-native – and highly invasive – weed here in New Jersey. Unlike garlic mustard, however, this weed is not edible for humans, and was probably introduced to North America accidentally, as a contaminant in crop seed sometime in the mid-1700s. As its attractive trumpet-shaped flowers suggest, field bindweed is closely related to morning glory. However, its rampant, twining growth and tendency to smother nearby plants in a dense mat of foliage make it a serious problem in meadows, farm fields, and waterside habitats. Once present in an area, field bindweed can be very difficult to get rid of – its tuberous roots are perennial and easily overwinter in the soil, and its seeds remain viable for up to 20 years! When you consider that individual plants can produce up to 500 seeds a year, the magnitude of the problem posed by field bindweed becomes readily apparent. So what can you do to control this pesty plant? First, be sure to remove as much of the underground root system as possible when hand-weeding. Second, pluck out any newly-sprouted bindweed plants as soon as you see them germinate from seed. And third, if you can keep bindweed from going to seed in the first place, by weeding before the plant begins to flower, you'll prevent a massive seed population from getting established in your soil.
Field bindweed may have a lovely flower, but it's a true scourge of the garden. (Photo: S. Edelson)
Volunteer in Our Gardens:
Practice your weeding skills with us this August! Please come out and join us for a morning of fun outdoor work on any of the following Saturdays this month:
Saturday, August 3: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Saturday, August 10: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Saturday, August 17: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Saturday, August 24: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Due to the Labor Day holiday, there is NO volunteer session on Saturday, August 31.
We welcome all volunteers ages 12 and up, and are happy to provide documentation for students seeking community service hours. We ask that all volunteers wear close-toed shoes and dress for the outdoors.
To sign up, or to learn about other volunteer opportunities at the Arboretum, please e-mail Lisa Martin at email@example.com or contact her by phone at 908- 273-8787 ext. 2222.