Help identifying and dealing with common things found in gardens in the Pacific Northwest, specifically the weeds and other plants I encounter in my garden.
Plants in My Garden
Western Bittercress, otherwise known as Shotweed – Cardamine Occidentalis
This delicate and completely pervasive weed is a member of the mustard family and is found throughout the Pacific Northwest. This is most commonly found at lower elevations, in disturbed and open forest areas. It will most prolifically grow in more moist areas than others. When this goes to seed, it will fling the tiny round seeds it holds in its pods far and wide, which is how it got its nickname Shotweed.
As far as plants in my garden go, this one is definitely a pull-on-sight. Fortunately, it’s root system is pretty shallow so as long as you’re careful, you can pull these completely by hand in one try. As long as you pull it before the seed pods dry out, you’re in good shape.
Dovefoot Geranium – Geranium Molle
This annual is the first of many fuzzy common garden plants on this list. I sort of consider this a friendly weed in that it’s not terribly difficult to pull and it’s on the cuter site of the weedy plants. It has soft leaves and sweet purple flowers. This most commonly grows in fields, lawns, moist clearings, and other low elevation landscapes with lots of sun exposure. An early flowering plant, it adds an adorable wash of pinky-purple to any lawn or pasture it inhabits.
For the most part, I will pull this when I encounter it in my vegetable or flower beds. My lawn is another story. Considering that I’m struggling to get grass to grow right now in most of the areas that are supposed to be lawn right now, I’m happy to have something growing in these areas in the spring.
Forget-Me-Not – Myosotis Laxa
This is a shorter-lived perennial or annual, depending on where you are living. It has clusters of small blue flowers on tall fuzzy stems and clusters of ovular green leaves. Frequently found around the northwest in moist, open areas, it’s also a frequent garden bed interloper. Many might may have noticed it commonly advertised in seed catalogs as well as in packets for sale at hardware stores. This “weed” was actually a cultivated flower introduced from Europe and a member of the Borage family. In fact, I remember planting Forget-Me-Not seeds in a dixie cup to grow indoors and eventually give to my mom for Mother’s Day as a Kindergarten class project.
So, for me this is sort of one of those plants that I treat as I mention above – a garden interloper. It can both be a desirable garden plant, and I have grown it as such, and also a weed when it becomes too predominant. I tend to leave it be until it gets in my way or looks tired. At that point, it’s compost bin time and I move on.
Dandelions (and Friends)
I probably didn’t even need to put this on the list, but I thought I would include for some of the extra information that comes along with this. Dandelions, or at least the Common Dandelion, are edible! You may have noticed their greens for sale at the grocery store (I’ve seen them at Safeway even!). I actually really enjoy a mug of dandelion root tea occasionally too, but I have not personally prepared the root myself nor can speak to that process. These common weeds are part of the Aster family and are our most common lawn and garden foe. Most varieties have a long tap root that will regrow a new plant if not pulled completely out.
These are…everywhere at my house right now. So, I tend to focus on trying to pull the ones that are either about to go to seed or will soon. And I focus on the ones in the flower and vegetable beds because the lawns right now…are a little hopeless…more to come on that.
Herb Robert, aka Stinky Bob – Geranium robertianum
Where the name Robert came from is not entirely decided, but I can say the nickname is appropriate. This relative to the Dovefoot Geranium has similar looking purple flowers, but a much smellier presence in the garden. You can tell it apart by the red stems and base it has, as well as the lacier like leaves vs the round frond look of the Dovefoot Geranium. Breaking or crushing the stems or foliage releases a smell that I find very similar to very spicy bad B.O.
Stinky Bob is worst when it grows into a large one-foot diameter hemisphere of foliage with a thick base. This is the worst time to pull this because at this maturity when you break the stems or crush them, you get to enjoy the most pungent aroma that gives Stinky Bob it’s noxious notoriety. For this reason, I try to get this one out of the garden when it’s small and less smelly. That said, it is really easy to pull by hand at any time of its lifecycle, so I don’t always make it a priority depending on what other offenders I need to go after in the garden. Sometimes I just end up dealing with Old Stinky Bob in his prime.
To successfully pull this plant, find its base and grab firmly around and under it before slowly pulling it out of the ground. I sometimes wiggle it a bit as I’m pulling to help loosen up the roots and get it to lift from the ground easier.
This is a wonderful hardy perennial that comes in tons of gorgeous varieties. Growing between two and three feet in size, it enjoys more moist soil and a sunny planting site. Its roots can inhibit the growth of annuals, so it’s best to keep it with other similar woody perennial aromatics.
There is one type of sage that is called pineapple sage, that kind of smells like a pineapple when you crush its leaves. This is wonderful for drinks and using fresh, but not so great for cooking. I have a garden or common variety of sage, which is great for cooking (and excellent with sweet potatoes).
Purple Dead Nettle – Lamium purpureum
This leafy, quadrangularly growing plant was one of my favorites as a kid. It’s soft petal like green leaves and little purple flowers were a favorite ingredient in my mud pies. I also enjoyed that it had a square stem, something I thought was unusual when everything else in nature seemed to grow in such curvy shapes. How strange that this one was square!
As an adult, I still appreciate this plant, that many use as an herb. I tend to leave it unless it’s taking up space, I want to plant out with something else, it’s a good ground cover and the bees seem to like it. It’s most commonly found growing in clearings, meadows, more open forests, and other low elevation areas growing in fluffy clumps along with things like chickweed and Dovefoot Geranium.
When you do need to pull this, it is an easy one as well to use the grab-and-rip technique. Just make sure you’re grabbing close to the base, and it should come out easy in handfuls, roots and all.
Nipplewort – Lapsana Communis
This annual is not my favorite. It grows a tall stalk from a small leafy base, that branches out into tons of tiny flowers that look like miniature dandelion heads that then, instead of fluffing out when they go to seed, just dry in the head and turn into these trebuchets for their seeds every time the wind blows or you bump them or a creature runs by them. Next thing you know, you have ten times as many as you did before, and they are all waist high and taking over your garden beds.
This is one that ideally, I’m pulling on sight. That said, I don’t always have the energy to get to every single one in a day or weekend. So, at worst case, I will strategically plan my weeding so that I get them up before they go to seed. For example, they tend to go to seed in my sunny garden bed a month a head of my shady ones. So I prioritize working through the sunny beds first and monitor them more closely to time when I need to start really ramping up my weeding effort.
One nice thing about pulling these weeds is that they are very easy and quick to pull which is deeply satisfying sometimes. Grab the stalk of the plant at the base and firmly pull. Most will come up easy with few long roots. If they are towards the end of their lifecycle, they might have some more aggressive root structure and it might be a two-hand job to pull the plant from the ground, but usually I can yank these suckers out with one.
Salal – Gaultheria Shallon
This is one of the most common understory shrubs in the Pacific Northwest. This creeping and spreading bush has lovely pink and white flowers that later turn into fuzzy blueberry like fruits that are edible and really delicious (but kind of furry). This bush spreads with suckers so a small planting of it can eventually spread to cover a large area. Between its spreading habit and evergreen foliage, it makes an outstanding low ground cover.
It’s very tolerant of many different growing conditions, including seashores and bluffs though it’s most happy in a wooded area. I like to use it against the foundation of houses and along property lines to fill in around and behind larger trees and shrubs. It can tolerate a fair amount of sun as long as it has plenty of water. If it does not, it will start browning and dying back, but can regrow if it gets sufficient water. I try to keep it from long direct sunlight exposure, mostly using it in partially shaded areas or on the east and north side of my home where it will get limited direct sun.
Vetch – Vicia Sativa
A member of the pea family, this perennial grows slender vines that climb and mound. With slender little leaves and small purple flowers, this super tiny pea-like plant enjoys growing in pastures and meadows. It is often planted as fodder or crop cover, but because of it’s widespread use is now growing wild around the state.
Since it is a member of the pea family, it is a nitrogen fixer so it growing in the garden is not the worst thing in the world. As I mentioned, it is often grown as crop cover. I pull it as I need to, or it starts taking over my other plants. If you find it dry later in the season, you will find that it usually is covered with tiny dry pea pods full of a few seeds. This will spread easily so if you don’t want it to spread, then pull before the seed pods start drying.
Gehring, Abigail R. Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, 2014, p. 173.
Pojar, Jim, and A. MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Lone Pine Publishing, 2016.