If you live in the West, you've been living in a very wet place indeed, and one thing we can count on during our rainy winters is WEEDS. (Apologies to those of you in other states; I know there's been cold, snowy weather going on where you are, but eventually your wet spring will come, and then you'll have weeds, too.) Even in my garden, which is heavily mulched and full of organic matter, I still get weeds. Most often they are not weeds at all, just seedlings of trees or bushes that have germinated below the canopy. Those are easily pulled, though certainly it is not a fun job. But I don't really consider those weeds. To me, weeds are something blown in on the wind, or 'placed' there by birds, something I didn't intend to have in my garden. So, for instance, my pepper tree releases thousands of seeds each year, and many of those germinate and start baby trees. Those are not weeds, because I placed that tree there knowing that I'd have seeds to deal with. (Or at least one would hope I planned that far ahead, and chose the tree with that knowledge; certainly that's the way I'd do things now, but I'm not at all sure I did things that way at the time I planted the pepper tree.) But lately I've noticed a lot of Veronica persica (Persian or Bird's Eye Speedwell) in my pollinator beds. This is a plant I didn't intend to be in my garden, and even though, as weeds go, it's not a heinous one, it's something I will take steps to control.
Veronica persica is a pretty little thing, with small, hairy, heart-shaped leaves, and sweet tiny purple flowers. It's a weed that likes disturbed places, gardens, turf, orchards, vineyards, and roadsides. I disturbed the soil in this particular area by pulling out some annuals, and that, plus wet, overcast conditions, caused this weed to move right in. I don't use herbicides, but this one is resistant anyway, so don't bother with that (and honestly, you never need to resort to that). You need to remove the plants before they set seed, but of course removing the plants means you're disturbing the soil even more. These plants don't do well in sun, so likely they'll disappear once we have long, hot, dry days. Mulching these (with a little cardboard underneath) would take care of the problem, but this in my pollinator gardens, where I'm also trying to germinate annual wildflowers. Likely those will crowd this little guy out, so for now, I'll just cut off the tops and make sure they don't set seed.
Here's one we're all familiar with, the good old dandelion, or Taraxacum officinale. I remember my dad going out with his special dandelion weeder on Saturday mornings when I was a kid in Maryland, trying to pry these things out of his well-tended lawn. Dandelions are special because their roots can grow new shoots. This is unusual. So if you cut off only the top of a dandelion, its root can send up new growth in the form of a shoot. Most plants can't do this (unless it's the type of plant that spreads by rhizomes underground). If you've ever tried to get one of these out of the ground, you'll know that it has a long taproot which makes it difficult to remove; and if you don't get the entire root, that darned thing will send up a new shoot. Personally I rather like dandelions; the flowers are a boon to pollinators, and I have no precious lawn to ruin. However I do not let them set seed in my garden. Still, there's plenty of dandelion seeds in the neighborhood that blow right in.
Here's another weed with a long taproot - common mallow, or Malva neglecta. Folks around here call it cheeseweed, because the seed pods look like little wheels of cheese. This plant is entirely edible, but it doesn't taste like much of anything to me. However the greens are highly nutritious, so it doesn't hurt to throw it in a frying pan with some kale or chard. Mallow is ubiquitous in my neighborhood, colonizing neglected yards and hell strips. It shows up in my garden sometimes, in back corners where I haven't been in a while. It's best to pull this guy when small and young; the taproot develops considerably as it gets older and it is extremely hard to pull out at that point.
Many weeds are edible, and here's one I collect frequently when hiking to add to salads and omelets, though only when the leaves are young and before flowers appear. The thing you taste in all Brassica species (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, mustard etc) is called 'myrosin.' As the plants get older, the myrosin gets stronger, and it's often distasteful at high levels. But when the mustard leaves are young, they have a pleasant spiciness that can really wake up a plate of greens. Many people grow them for that reason, and they are a fancy-restaurant specialty. Around here, they are invasive. There might be 60 different varieties of mustard plants (all in the family Brassicacaea) growing in the hills in California, and they make a beautiful yellow haze this time of year when they bloom. But make no mistake, it's dangerous to let these guys go to seed in your garden. They will take over.
And speaking of taking over, this is a weed I see next to every sidewalk in my neighborhood, in huge quantities. This is Senecio vulgaris, or common groundsel, or Old-Man-of-Spring. As you can see from this picture, the seeds are incredibly abundant. This weed grows everywhere humans are, next to roadsides and freeways, in nurseries, gardens, vineyards, and orchards. It does have a taproot, but you don't have to remove the entire thing. This is one weed that benefits from shallow tilling. You can also mulch it. It likes wet and cool, so it cannot live in hot and dry. Apparently there is some promising research on a fungal control for this guy, but meanwhile, do not let it set seed. Get it out of your garden.
How about this pretty little weed? This picture was taken in front of my next-door-neighbor's fence. Bittercress, or Cardamine oligosperma, flourishes in that location every year, and I work hard not to let it cross the 'line' and come into my garden. Bittercress is also a Brassica, so it is edible, but it's so tiny that you'd need a lot of it to make it worthwhile (come on over, I'm sure my neighbor won't mind if you forage her front fence, and you'd be doing me a big favor). This little plant grows in nearly every plant community we have in California, and it's wicked: It is also called 'pop seed' because the seeds pop out of the pod and fly everywhere if you so much as graze it with your shoe. Do not let this plant get to that point. Hand pull it before it flowers or sets seed. Again, it prefers wet conditions, so it will die out in the summer here. But the seed can live in the soil forever and anytime you disturb it, up it will grow.
This is a pretty weed too, called Herb Robert or Geranium robertianum. This developed from an escaped cultivar at some point, which makes it sound very exciting and might convince you that you should keep it around. The experts say it's not invasive, but it's another weed I see everywhere humans are. It is attractive, but it's sneaky. I say get rid of it. I find it in my vegetable beds where it hides cunningly until it grows to gigantic proportions. This weed is easily hand-pulled which makes it somewhat ok in my book.
Finally, we have Euphorbia peplus, or petty spurge. Gosh I see this one on the margins of gardens everywhere, and I'll bet you do too. It's mildly toxic and can cause a rash, so use gloves when removing this plant. And remove it you should, the entire thing, including the root. It also prefers moist shade, like a lot of the weeds coming up right now. This plant often comes into our gardens through nursery stock, so check the plants you buy carefully before putting them in the ground.
This is by no means a complete list. I haven't mentioned purslane, or oxalis, or many of the most common weeds found in gardens. These are just a few I am noticing right now. In many ways, this is the best time of year to remove weeds, because they come out of the wet soil easily. But a note of caution: So many of these weeds like both disturbed and compacted soil. Walking near the plants or on them will cause our sodden earth to compact terribly and the weeds will proliferate even more. Be careful when walking around your beds. Use the paths, or if that's not possible, take a board out with you to step on, to diffuse your weight. If possible use long tools to help you, so you don't need to step in the beds. If you can cover the weeds with cardboard and mulch, that will not only prevent compaction and block photosynthesis, it will also improve your soil and acidify it so that weeds will not enjoy living there. Remember, lots of organic matter is key to improving your soil and making it inhospitable to weeds. Disturb the ground as little as possible. Be vigilant about removing flowers and seed heads. Over time, this will overcome even the most difficult weed. I've witnessed this as my battle with bindweed seems to be finally over, after many years of eagle-eye weeding. Keep at it and you will succeed!