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Beacon Senior News

Learn from the weeds in your garden

Jul 03, 2019 10:16AM ● By Paige Slaughter

July is my favorite month in the garden. Plants are coming into themselves: their colors vibrant, their fragrances potent. Weeds get strong, too, motivating us to get down in the dirt and see soil life up close.

We’re tending to crops, harvesting the fruits of our labor and sowing more seeds for fall and winter bounties. Abundance is all around us, and the midsummer sun invites us to sit in the shade, smell the flowers, listen to hummingbirds and enjoy our little paradises.


Harvest lettuce in the morning and soak in cold water before putting in the fridge. This process of hydrocooling your greens makes for crisper, longer lasting greens that are ready and waiting for you at mealtime.

Harvest broccoli crowns while they’re still tightly in bud, before the florets begin to open up and lose flavor. You can also harvest the lower leaves of broccoli and cabbage, slice into strips and simmer in salt water to enjoy as a midsummer dish.

Harvesting basil is nothing short of an aromatherapy session. To encourage fuller growth, harvest basil by cutting the main stem, taking about a third of the plant. Cut just above a leaf pair, rather than leaving a stub. Keep your basil in a small vase of water or set it out to dry instead of storing it in the fridge.

Now that your squash plants are growing, check for squash bugs and eggs regularly on the underside of leaves and along leaf stems. Remove eggs as much as possible, and squash the adult bugs.


As you harvest potatoes, you can begin sowing seeds for fall harvests. In our garden plan, we planted poppies alongside our row of potato plants. You can choose to leave your poppies in the ground, though chances are you’ll disturb their roots as you harvest your potatoes. (See last month’s column on how to harvest and cure potatoes at

Leave some potatoes in the ground, or harvest them all at once. Sow your next succession of lettuce, carrots and other greens and root vegetables for fall.

Spinach prefers cool weather and likely tastes bitter by now. Harvest the rest of your spinach and sow seeds of tender herbs like cilantro or green onions.

Thin your carrots and beets to make room for the others to grow larger. If you sowed a thick bed of arugula, you can thin that and enjoy a tasty microgreen salad.

If you planted garlic in the fall, it’s time for harvest! Make sure the tips of the leaves have turned yellow and the lower leaves are brown. Use a garden fork or shovel to dig up garlic from beneath, rather than pulling on the stems. Brush dirt off the bulbs, but don’t get them wet. Keep the stems on and hang your garlic to dry for three to four weeks, in a well-ventilated room or in a dry, shady spot outside.


Toads can eat up to a thousand insects in one day! They also eat grubs, slugs and snails, making them helpful garden companions. Attract toads to your garden by providing a safe, clean, pesticide- and chemical-free environment. Get them to stay by building them a toad house! This can be as simple as a terracotta pot nestled into the dirt (a great use of the broken pots you have lying around).


By this time in the season, you’ve probably got a lot to say about bindweed, crabgrass and goatheads. But don’t let that fool you: Even the gnarliest weeds can benefit us.

Weeds give us insight into our gardens. Identifying weeds by soil type can help you determine what your soil might be lacking. Clover popping up across your lawn indicates a low level of nitrogen; compacted soils invite grasses, whose strong central taproots and wiry stems are really attempting to aerate heavy soil and build structure within it.

Nature is a problem solver. Her goal is to create life. Weeds are no exception in nature’s connectedness, or her resilience.

So before cursing the weeds in your garden, identify them and see what you can learn about the little ecosystem in your back yard. While many weeds need to be pulled and mitigated for the sake of other crops, some are gifts.

Purslane is an edible succulent that arrives mid-summer. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and beta carotene. Stir-fry it, add it to salads or make pesto with it. When I see it pop up in the garden, I encourage it to grow. It’s attractive, covers the ground as living mulch, and is not very competitive or difficult to pull up as needed.

Other “volunteers” worth keeping include plantain, yellow wood sorrel, lamb’s quarters, clover, dandelions and yarrow. Each of these has various practical and aesthetic benefits and is fairly easy to manage.

As with any kind of foraging, be sure to do your research and feel confident in your plant identification before you eat something that grows wild. Purslane, for example, has a look-alike called spurge, which is poisonous. Learning plants and foraging wild food is a rewarding learning process! Don’t skip the learning part.