Showcasing Kent, Ohio and the surrounding
Northeastern Ohio Region.

The Snarky Gardener

I JUST LOVE WEEDS. No, not weed, you silly hippie. Weeds, as in those unwanted pests that grow where you don’t want them, whether that’s in your garden or on your lawn. I know you’re asking yourself, “Why would anyone want weeds around? I spend every summer trying to eliminate them.” Maybe love is too strong a word. Respect might
be a better term. Weeds grow in poor soil, live through drought when your domesticated plants are wilting, become resistant to our poisons, bring up inaccessible nutrients from deep underground (think of the dandelion’s long taproot), and protect otherwise barren soil. Weeds are resilient survivors, which is why they are the bane of farmers and gardeners alike.

Here’s a fact that will blow your mind. Many weeds are edible. As in free food that grows itself! Most of these no-cost beauties are best as salad greens. Now, before you go out and start eating the lawn all willy-nilly, you need to know the good from the bad. I hope that this article will give you some guidance on my favorites. Also, if you see a plant and don’t know what it is, please join a Facebook group like “Plant Identification and Education”. I forced myself to unjoin the group as I was spending too much time on my Facebook feed. It’s quite addicting for a gardener like me.

Of all the weeds out there, my most adored is Alliaria petiolate, otherwise known as garlic mustard. I discovered this little guy while doing Internet gardening research. There was an article about an invading European plant taking over forests in Ohio and beyond. In my overactive imagination, these broccoli and kale relatives wore Viking helmets while carrying spears and shields. “Attack!” they yelled while choking the native flora with their little non-existent hands. We obviously had to do something before garlic mustard took over the world.

While out in the yard several months later, I noticed a bunch of two-foot tall plants with small white flowers. I had garlic mustard in my own yard! It was just growing there outside the wooded lot that borders my property. So it turns out, I was part of the problem. These vile aggressors were literally in my own back yard. Being the inquisitive gardener I am, I went inside and looked them up online. The two words that kept coming up were “invasive” and “edible”. What do you call a plant that’s both of those words? Delicious. The roundish leaves are salad fodder, the seeds are ground into mustard, and the roots make a wild horseradish.

The following spring, I was describing my garlic mustard love during a gardening presentation. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two-and-two together and realized we were discussing garlic mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring. How better to
remove this stranger in a strange land than to eat as much as possible? Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”, I will never have to grow it on purpose. Garlic mustard fills the woods and yard all by itself, whether I want it there or not.

During my search for knowledge, I came across a recipe for garlic mustard pesto. Pesto is normally a basil-based dish, but other greens can be used in its place. I’m only an average cook but the number of ingredients (six) and preparation steps (five) were well within my skill set. What really brings this recipe together is the grated cheese (or nutritional yeast if you’re vegan). On crackers or served over pasta,
it’s something I look forward to every spring, usually on Earth Day (April 22nd) to demonstrate nature provides if you look hard enough.

Villanelle for Garlic Mustard
I fell in love with an uncommon weed
Garlic mustard is the way she’s known by some
Though others name her an invasive breed
Immigrants concealed in their coats her seed
America bound via boats they’ve come.
I fell in love with their uncommon weed.
During spring I gather, harvest, and bleed,
Loading bags until my hands are numb.
And people dub her an invasive breed!
In times when skies are dry and there’s great need
Gardeners grow her without a green thumb
I fell in love with this uncommon weed
Abundance and charity are my creed
This strong herb fills many stomachs with yum,
Though experts term her an invasive breed
Prepare pesto with her bounty, I plead!
For us, many a meal she will become
I fell in love with my uncommon weed
Because they call her an invasive breed.

In the fall of 2016, I took a creative writing class at Kent State University, as I wanted to learn how to write short stories. What I didn’t know at the time was the first half of the course was writing poetry. Until then, I had literally never written a poem, nor did I have any desire to do so. One of the five poems I produced (somewhat against my will) was a villanelle about garlic mustard. A villanelle is a 19 line fixed form poem with the most famous being “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. It’s “a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions” (according to Wikipedia), and if you can’t tell by now, I’m obsessed with garlic mustard.

Matt Keffer, who does a great job every time, snapped these photos. We had to reschedule several times as winter kept interrupting spring with snow and wind. The delays did help, though. Because of the cold month of March, many of the weeds that would have been up already were still hibernating. I must be the only gardener in the history of gardening that asked, “Where are all the weeds?” Fortunately, we were eventually able to photograph six distinct early weeds, all in my garden. I only had one garlic mustard plant, as they tend to stick to the woods’ edge, but it was a nice specimen, nonetheless. Here are the others.

That’s all I have to say. We all know what they are and most know they are edible. The important fact to remember is that leafy greens are better earlier in the season, whether they be lettuce, spinach, or weeds. I’ve eaten some dandelion greens that were quite bitter. The reason was not because dandelions are not good to eat, but once a plant puts out flowers (also known as “going to seed”), the leaves turn less edible. Another positive about dandelions is their roots can be made into a coffee substitute (albeit without caffeine – what’s the point?) and the yellow flowers can be battered and fried to make fritters.