Chickweed May Not Be The Worst Weed, But…


I don’t want to call chickweed the worst weed in the garden because I think it is trying to teach us a lesson about sustainable farming. But in its selected field of operation, the rich organic garden, chickweed is almost indestructible.  Oh, you can blot it out with a thick layer of mulch for a whole year. But look out when the mulch decays away. The chickweed comes roaring back.

A year like 2012 seems to tell us that chickweed will be with us always. The winter never got really cold where I live. Chickweed, which can grow when the temperature gets above about 50 degrees F., never slowed down much, even in January. In all the garden plots where I thought I had obliterated it, it spread like the plague. By the end of February it was ready to go to seed, guaranteeing immortality.

Then March came and with it weather that we usually get in May. The ground was soaked; the air was warm. Chickweed switched into super-NASCAR growth speed. By the time the ground was dry enough to cultivate, the weed had formed a four inch thick mat and of course was blooming.  Have you ever tried to take on a carpet of four inch thick chickweed with a garden tiller? Might as well try to chop up a mattress with a hoe.  The tiller just bounced off the stuff. So I sharpened my hoe to a razor’s edge and attacked. Chop. Bounce. Chop. Bounce. Chop. Bounce. I knelt down and started ripping great gobs of the green hellion out of the ground with my bare hands. Where it was really rooted down, I didn’t have the strength to pull it out. Where I could get it loose, it came up in great gobs that removed two inches of topsoil with it. I finally got out my big field disk and tractor and ripped through the mat. Then the garden tiller would, in three or four passes, make the stuff turn brown in big gobs that I could remove by hand or manure fork.

Weedkillers will turn the green mattress into a yellow one. The yellow, half dead growth is just as hard to till through as the green stuff.  And soon, oh so very soon, new green troops arrive at the scene.

I haven’t tried it yet, but other gardeners tell me that the best control is a flamethrower. I am not kidding. They say that it is worth the money to buy a gas weed flamer just for the orgasmic satisfaction you will feel while scorching the living hell out of the stuff. But the flamer doesn’t kill the tangle of roots underground. Let’s say you plant corn following your scorched earth policy. By August, if it rains more than three drops, a million new chickweed seedlings explode by the zillions under the tall corn. It is kind of hard to maneuver a flamethrower in that situation unless you want a lot of roasting ears or popcorn all at once.

Chickens and livestock will eat chickweed sure enough. If you pen a flock of hens on a garden plot, like with a chicken tractor, you will be rid of the chickweed until the next blitzkrieg of seeds float in from somewhere else.

Chickweed’s Achilles’ heel is that it won’t compete with permanent pasture grasses.  It won’t persist in a lawn either. Its environment is regularly cultivated soil. The more you grind at it with a tiller, the better it grows. And that’s the lesson it is trying to teach us, I think. Chickweed is nature’s way of telling us that annual soil tillage is unnatural and unsustainable unless you want to live on chickweed salad, which by the way is not bad.

Some intrepid souls make and sell a chickweed healing salve which they say is effective against rashes, chapped skin, and skin abrasions of various kinds. I wonder if I smeared enough on me, I would live forever.


We have a backpack flame weeder. Not as productive as the 3pt jobby above, but effective, maneuverable, and satisfying!

I don’t think of chickweed as a weed but as free food and forage. My chickens and rabbits love it and so do I. It often helps fill out the harvest basket in spring when there is a slight gap between the overwintered lettuce getting bitter and the new lettuce isn’t big enough to pick yet. I actually encourage the stuff as I prefer it to henbit for eating, tho the chickens don’t care which one they get.

We don’t have chickweed here in western Oregon… I would like some… would anyone be kind enough to send seed?

We have a chickweed problem also, but I have tried to turn it to good. I have used it in the spring to protect my crops from frost by not weeding it out and then used it as mulch for that same crop (peas) when it turned hot (and the chickweed melted) to keep the ground cooler and moist. I know I left billions of seeds, but saved my crop.

Great lesson Mr. Logsdon. And 10 points for using the word “orgasmic”.

I used a flame-thrower contraption that we called Attila (weeds don’t grow back behind it 😉 in an organic farm in Provence, near Tarascon, of Tartarin’s fame. But we used it only on young weeds, not mature ones.

It was most useful on slow germinating seeds like carrots. Basically, we would prepare a false seedbed and water it for a couple of days, then about 10 days later get rid of all the germinated weeds with a shallow rotovator and prepare the real seedbed.
During the 2 weeks or more it usually takes for the carrot seeds to start appearing, we would use the “flame-thrower” once, maybe twice, depending on the temperature. It can be used even after the carrot seeds have germinated, as long as the stem and first leaves have not reached the surface yet.

The device was basically a canister of gas on wheels, with an horizontal copper tube pierced with small holes near the ground between the 2 wheels. You pushed it rather quickly on the seedbed, because it does not have to “burn” anything, the heat will wilt the leaves which is enough to kill the whole young plant. An older plant with its root system unburned would just regrow.

We kept a small row of carrots alongside as a sample plot to check the germinating status of the carrots.

As much as you can eat chickweed in salads or soups, you’ll never get rid of it all, there could be hundreds of seeds in a square meter, some will resurface for years after each pass of the tiller even if there are no external seeds introduced. Birds like chickens may be the best solution indeed, after all, they gave their name to the plant because birds love eating it.

Speedwell, burnet and scarlet pimpernel are 3 weeds similar to chickweed but not as noxious. They usually indicate that you’re doing the right thing i.e. developed a rich soil, just like nettles, so they’re “good” indicator weeds of a sort, or even medicinal. To reflect this, French organic farmers avoid the traditional name for weeds, “mauvaise herbe” (“bad” weed) and use “plante adventice” instead (a plant that is “foreign” to the main culture and grows spontaneously.) Still a weed, but with no negative connotation.

We have wild hogs and they do a good job at turning over pasture which we are not happy with but in our case we end up with an invasion of ground elder. It is not feasible to put in potatoes as the wild hogs would come again to feed off those. I think I would rather have the chickweed!

Get some hogs and fence them in. they will dig up everything and whatever they won’t eat isn’t alive.
i did this once years ago on some “virgin” sod. the farmer i bought from had cleared the trees and pastured in for years. the sod was so thick that i literally couldn’t plow it with a two bottom trailer plow. it kept unhooking itself due to the strain.
i bought 6 sows and a boar (“Boss Hog”) and turned them in with a two wire electric fence. every couple of days i would throw a sack of ear corn over and of course water.
they rolled up the sod like a machine. the sows averaged 8 live pigs each. when it was time to move them it took two days. they were so well trained to the electric fence they wouldn’t cross the line. i took the fence all the way down and cut off their water. two days later they were out and i herded them back to the next pasture.
I folded them into the second half of the field the next year with the same results. the following year i planted potatoes without any ground preparation and there wasn’t a weed in site until the very end of the year. NO CULTIVATION AT ALL.
the next year two of the sows got out. one had her babies in the swamp (10) and brought them up to the barn at about 8 weeks old when she was not making as much milk. you wanted to stay out of the swamp however. she was a little “barky”. the other one got into my corn with her babies. Newsflash!!! you cannot herd a sow and her babies once they get into your corn (it was about 4 feet tall). i thought the field was lost. she and the babies just went up and down the rows eating pigweed and lamberquarters from my less than competant cultivating.
This sow stayed out about two weeks but started to come up in the yard at night to dig for japanese beetles in Mom’s lawn. she didn’t even laugh when i told her that big city folk had to pay money to have their lawn aerated! Have a great photo in my office of me enticing this sow and her pigs across the yard with scraps into the barn in my suit and tie (home for lunch that day and chicken soup was on the menu for dinner that night.
thought i’d died and gone to heaven. found a way to make $$ on a small farm. Hogs dropped to 5 cents a pound however. Even with free hogs and free feed you couldn’t make money.
have tried it since with feeder pigs but they are much harder to keep in the fence – at least for me.
Sorry for the novel, but this is info you can’t get from the Extension folks. Sows will clean up a field. hopefully in the next couple of years i’ll get to experiment some more with using pigs as true “pig iron”.

Another strategy is to eat it. Chickweed makes great pesto and salads. There are numerous recipes available on the web. We mostly hand weed and I prefer pulling chickweed any day over crabgrass. And, yes, our chickens love it.

    Better eat that crabgrass too, Ray, like they do/did in Poland, one plant alone produces up to 150,000 seeds…

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