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.