I have heard it claimed that chickweed is the most common weed in the world and it certainly thrives on fertile garden and farm soils in many regions. I pulled up some frost fleece today that had been covering a bed of early lettuces and the salads were adrift in an ocean of bright green chickweed; it had evidently very much enjoyed the protection of the crop cover.
Now Chickweed grows and flowers happily all year round but it is in the spring that it really gets going, if gardeners are not careful it can quickly get out of hand. As with so many weeds though, the challenge of pulling it from amongst our vegetables is not the whole of the story.
Chickweed (Stellaria Media) goes by many common names including chickwittles; adder’s mouth; stitchwort; tongue grass; passerine; mischievous jack; starweed; starwort; winterweed and, in French, Stellair. It is straightforward to identify: a prostrate and spreading plant with fresh green oval leaves. The leaves attach to the stem in opposite pairs and the upper leaves are sessile, that is they join the stem directly without a stalk. White star shape flowers characterise chickweed and give rise to both its Latin and several of its common names; they can be seen at all times of year.
As its most used common name implies chickweed has historically been used to feed poultry and other caged birds; indeed many domesticated animals will happily eat it. I have not tested the claim, but goats are supposed to be the exception to this rule. It also makes quite a palatable wild food being rich in vitamins A and C as well as several minerals; its seeds are a good protein source. The Plants for a Future database ( www.pfaf.org/database/plants ) does warn that the leaves are high in saponins and should not be eaten in large quantities.
Like many wild plants chickweed has many reputed uses in herbal medicine. Collected between May and July it can apparently be used fresh or dry, in decoctions, poultices or ointments; it is said to be useful in the treatment of skin complaints and coughs. Given its vitamin C content, it is hardly surprising that chickweed juice has also been used to treat scurvy.
It has to be said that whatever its value as a wild food or herbal medicine most of us gardeners and farmers only ever consider chickweed as something of a problem. It seeds very readily and spreads quickly; it is hard to kill and can choke crop seedlings in no time at all if left to its own devices. Until the market for chickweed picks up considerably, the fact that it has so many traditional uses is a poor consolation to the vegetable grower.
Seed beds that look clean can turn into chickweed nightmares within a week or two of sowing. This is most serious for our carrots, parsnips or salad onions; indeed for any crop that we drill direct rather than planting out. There are solutions; chickweed can be controlled, but it is best to be ready for it, with chickweed as with so many other weeds it is best to intervene before the weed challenge is fully developed.
Chickweed is a good indicator of fertile ground that retains moisture; of course that is why we see it so often in our gardens and fields. It may be that high, unbalanced fertility exacerbates a chickweed problem, in other words if we overdo the compost or the muck we might just be encouraging chickweed to soak up the spare fertility rather than doing much to encourage healthy vegetables. So if you grow a good crop of chickweed every year you could try cutting down on the applications of rough organic matter for a season or several; the chickweed itself is a perfectly good green manure once incorporated into the soil.
Use stale seed beds to foil chickweed. Prepare a seed bed but do not sow it; water and leave until the chickweed germinates and then – gently – hoe. Now when you sow the seedlings with have that many fewer weeds to compete with.
To take out chickweed once it has moved past the seed leaf stage there are two strategies you might follow: you can hoe, a Dutch hoe is best or you can use exclusion mulch. If you hoe wait for a dry day; if there is any moisture at all available to the disturbed and cut chickweed it will re-root very readily. This is why rotovating chickweed is usually not a way to eradicate it; partly turned into the moist soil it comes back very quickly.
Chickweed is relatively easy to do away with using a light excluding mulch but this can be awkward around crops; it can be a haven for slugs and it can keep the soil cold in the spring just when you want it to be warm. There are many considerations we need to make when we decide whether to use a mulch or not; they do have many advantages. Whether it is worth deploying a mulch just to control chickweed will depend on how serious the chickweed challenge is, how much mulch material you can lay your hands on and the style of vegetable growing you are used to.
Chickweed is quite a pretty little weed; in small patches I don’t mind it too much. Ground beetles find shelter under it during the heat of the day and emerge to eat slugs after dark; it keeps the soil moist and cool in the summer, never a bad thing. However, like all plants, it has its own plan and sometimes it looks like that involves World domination. The American grower Elliot Coleman says that if you can see a weed then you have left it too late; somewhere between his approach and losing your crops in a mat of weeds there is a strategy to suit each of us.