On Facebook I see several countdowns to spring but for me gardening is a year round endeavor. Although we have had and will continue to have snow and freezing rain here in Northern Virginia, I burst outside when an “almost warm day” appears in February, anxious to get a head start. I pull weeds, remove fallen branches, and throw away the invasive ivy. When the snow comes again, I am indoors updating and sorting my list of seeds and planning my veggie gardens on graph paper. It’s not that I have a large garden, we live in a typical suburban house, but I have crammed so much in so little space over the 12 years that we have been here that I have to keep track of everything on paper and in computer files.
This week we did have a passable day so I pulled as many weeds as I could. By this time, it is easy to identify and pull weeds that have settled down the previous fall and are just as anxious as I am for the spring’s warmth. Pulling them now before they flower reduces their population but also it is easier to pull when the soil is moist and the plants are too small to set anchor. Later, I will put down mulch to prevent more weeds but in February just sitting down and pulling weeds is a horticulturist’s idea of fun.
In my garden I have an infestation of hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). A member of the mustard family, these young’uns appear as small mounds of subdivided leaves, creating a lacy or scalloped appearance. Later, as the plant matures and grows, slender stems will arise from the base producing very small, white flowers. By late spring, slender seed pods will burst open when touched (called “explosive dehiscence”), shooting seeds as far as 3 feet! Also called shotweed, this weed prefers damp conditions and should be removed as soon as possible.
I also pulled purple deadnettle, a member of the mint family. Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is called “dead” nettle because the plant resembles the true nettles (Urtica spp.) but does not sting like a nettle, hence, “dead” nettle. Right now in February, I can only see young, leaves at ground level which makes it hard to identify but in a few months, the striking flower structures will grow tall above the basal leaves and the youngest, smallest leaves at the top will be purple. Tubular-like, purple flowers, typical of the mint family, peep out from under the uppermost leaves.
A cousin of purple deadnettle, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), looks similar but does not have the pronounced purple color on the leaves. Purple deadnettle has stalked leaves on the flower stems while henbit does not: “amplexicaule” means leaves grasping the stem. The pretty scalloped leaves wrapped around the stem remind me of Queen Elizabeth I with her ruffled collar. Also a member of the mint family, henbit has small pink/purple, tubular like flowers.
Looking like a cross between a dandelion and a thistle, groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is a member of the sunflower family. Like a dandelion, groundsel has a taproot and the same feathery type of seed head. It is good to pull while young before the tap root gets established but already in February it is beginning to sport yellow flowers, similar to a dandelion flower but smaller. If I had not been weeding as early as February, the groundsel would have flowered, set seed, and the wind would have dispersed hundreds of seeds to the rest of my property.
Two weeds that I do not have but spotted in my kids’ school garden are common chickweed (Stellaria media) and mouse ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum). There are several different types of chickweed, all members of the carnation family. The common chickweed has smooth, small, egg-shaped leaves and is so named because the plant is used as a starter food for baby chicks. The mouse ear chickweed has hairy leaves, slightly larger than the common chickweed, resembling fuzzy mouse ears. Both have tiny, five-petal flowers but the common chickweed is an annual while the mouse ear chickweed is a perennial. These plants have shallow fibrous roots; their stems spread and crawl and are capable of rooting where the node touches the soil.
The garden is not asleep in February. Vast armies of weeds are growing and flowering so as to disperse hundreds of weed seeds before I even start to plant the tomatoes.