Are those weed seedlings or flowers?
That’s a significant question early in the season. While mature weeds are obviously not zinnias or parsley, it’s much harder to distinguish garden plants from unwanted pests when they’re still seedlings. Yet, weed control is much, much easier when done at the seedling stage.
The first year we lived in Colorado, I made what turned out to be one of my worst gardening blunders ever. We moved into our house in November. I surveyed the empty beds around the patio and assumed nothing was planted there. Silly me. Like so many transplants here, I’d come from (northern) California, where the growing season lasted all year. I hadn’t yet learned that many plants spend the winter hiding underground.
Spring finally arrived (it seemed like it took forever!), and things began to green up. Sprouts appeared in the planting beds—tulips, annual sweet alyssum, baby columbines—and what looked like a bunch of marigold seedlings. Apparently the previous owners had emptied some seed packets into the garden; I was thrilled.
For the next four months I carefully weeded around the marigolds, watering them, feeding them, covering them during the torrential downpours that summer brings. They got taller and taller, but there was still no sign of flowers. That’s odd, I thought, but maybe it’s just the short growing season combined with the intense sunlight we have at 7,000 feet.
It wasn’t until late August, when my plants finally bloomed, that I realized I hadn’t been coddling marigolds all summer. Actually, it was my nose that finally gave it away, as my ever-present hay fever suddenly escalated into continual fits of sneezing. That’s right. I’d been growing ragweed.
With that lesson firmly in mind, I set out to learn what weed seedlings looked like. One book I found to be invaluable was Weeds of the West, published as a joint effort by the Western Society of Weed Science, the Western United States Land Grant Universities Cooperative Extension Services, and the University of Wyoming. With those credentials, I knew the information in the book would be accurate.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Arranged by plant families, every single entry has a color photograph of both the mature plant and its seedling stage. Additional close-ups help with identification. There’s a short blurb about each weed, listing common and scientific names, synonyms, and describing the plant’s growth habits and habitat. I particularly appreciated the fact that you don’t need to be a botanist to understand the descriptions. A few scientific terms are used, but all are easy to understand (unlike most botanical keys) and there’s a glossary.
I typically use the book by flipping through the pages until I see something that resembles what I’m trying to identify. With about 600 pages to turn, that may take some time. If I can figure out the family, that helps narrow it down quite a bit. Most common plant families are easy to recognize.
Typically, I borrow books from the library. I read them once, and am done. Reference books are another matter entirely. This is a book all gardeners should own. Weeds of the West was one of the most-thumbed books at the master gardener help desk, and it’s one I’m constantly referring to at home, as well.