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I’ve gotten into the bad habit of starting to write posts and not getting them finished. Here’s one I started in the winter and am adapting to the spring.
I’m talking about chickweed ;-)
Some people think chickweed’s a nuisance, but really this is such a superb food and medicine that not only do I encourage it in my garden, I am also this year growing some in a pot. Chickweed is one of those plants that responds to being eaten by growing back lushly as quickly as possible. So if you cut it with a pair of scissors, then you will get another crop, and another etc until it manages to go to seed before you get to it. But once it seeds you can start again. Very lucky people have abundant chickweed in their garden, and can harvest most of the year. If you grow miner’s lettuce as well you can replace regular lettuce entirely for many months of the year, and be getting much better nutrition (chickweed is much more densely nutritious than lettuce).
Chickweed is a low growing annual, most notable in moist, damp places. There aren’t too many plants it can be mistaken for, mostly the mouse ear chickweed which is furry. Here’s an excellent photo of the edible chickweed, with ID labels from Wildman Steve Brill:
There’s no seed in that picture, but the seed capsules look similar to the ovoid flower buds.
You need some seed. The easiest way to get this is off a late growth plant. Chickweed seeds quite quickly after flowering and usually has flowers and seeds at the same time. Here’s some chickweed that is flowering and seeding. It’s a bit straggly especially on the ends, and the stalks are more visible at this stage. If you open up one of the small capsules you’ll find an orange seed in side.
If you want to save some seed, put the whole above ground plant in a plastic bag and store it in the fridge. If there’s lots of seed it will drop out into the bottom of the bag. The last time I tried this, it didn’t work (there wasn’t much seeding, and maybe it was too early), but impressively the plant itself lasted a good month in the fridge and then when I put it out at the back door it started growing again.
But if you have seeding plants, you don’t need to remove the seeds individually, you can just use the whole top of the plant to grow some more.
I often get chickweed growing in pot plants (because I use garden soil in my potting mix) but if you don’t have any in your garden already you can usually find it in the wild.
I’ve not grown it intentionally in a pot before, so here’s my trial system. I got an old fridge box from the recycle centre. Because it was mid winter I kept this on the porch, and so I didn’t drill any holes in it. I’ve been keeping an eye on the watering so it doesn’t get waterlogged but chickweed does like a moist situation (and shady in the summer, it doesn’t like to get too hot). I filled the box with some soil and compost, and divided it into three sections:
The bottom one is a layer of chopped, seeding chickweed. The middle is the same, but with a layer of soil on top. The top one is empty (despite a few leaves). Originally I was going to sow this with seed from the fridge, but it’s ended up being the ‘control’. If I’m really lucky I’ll get some interesting other salad weeds appearing in a timely fashion. I planted this out at the start of June.
8 weeks later and it looks like this:
And at another 2 weeks later, ready to eat:
As you can see, the middle section, which was chopped seeding chickweed covered in soil, has done the best. The bottom section, where the chopped weed was uncovered is only just starting to grow, and the top section (nothing sown in it) has nothing growing in it (damn, but I might get lucky with the longer days and spring arriving).
That was quite slow for chickweed, being over the coldest months. Inside I’m sure it would grow faster. In less cold places, I’ve grown and eaten chickweed during the winter, spring and autumn. If you want to in the summer you need somewhere shady and moist.
The chickweed is now growing fast and is covering 2/3rds of the box. I can harvest about twice a week. I’ve been watering and feeding occasionally with worm whisky.
Chickweed as food and medicine
Chickweed is at its best raw. Use abundantly in salads, or chop onto grain dishes as a garnish. Chickweed pesto is famous on weedy circles. Johanna Knox has some other great ideas about eating chickweed.
The taste of chickweed varies a bit, maybe because it has so much water in it that it’s more affected by growing conditions. Generally it is bland, slightly salty and fresh with a slight bitter taste at the end – basically a standard green. When it’s older it gets stronger.
It has pretty decent amounts of minerals and vitamins, making it a good food for increasing nutrients in the diet. It also has a range of medicinal offerings and is especially good at cooling overheated conditions. Chickweed extracts well into alcohol (for medicine), vinegar (for nutrition), oil (for external use) and spit (also for external use but ingesting is good too).