How to tell if weeds have gone to seed

Sprout Identification Guide: How To Tell Seedlings From Weeds

How can you identify seedlings and not mistake them for weeds? This is tricky, even for the most seasoned gardeners. If you don’t know the difference between a weed and a radish sprout, you could destroy your vegetable bed before you have a chance at a harvest. You can learn to identify veggie seedlings, but there are some other tricks that can help as well.

Importance of Sprout Identification

When planning a vegetable bed, you may decide to start from seeds directly in the garden. There are benefits to this, and it eliminates the step of moving transplants from indoors. One issue comes up though – how can you identify seedlings from little veggie sprouts?

Make the wrong identification and you’ll pluck what you think is a weed only to find you pulled out your vegetable seedlings. When plants are at the seedling stage, they look quite different from their mature stage. To avoid ruining your beds before you have barely started, you need to get good at identifying seedlings.

Is it a Seedling or a Weed?

Knowing how to tell seedlings from weeds is a great skill to have as a gardener. You’ll find plenty of resources online to help you make this identification. These include pictures of vegetable seedlings as well as those of common weeds, allowing you to simply check what you have and only pull weed seedlings. Until you get to know your seedlings better, here are some tricks and tips that will help make the task easier:

Sow your seeds in a very straight row and use markers at the beginning and end of the row so you know where seedlings should be when they start to grow.

How to Cut Weeds After Seed Heads Appear

Weeds reproduce rapidly when they grow seed heads, and they can become an eyesore quickly as well as rob your garden and lawn of vital nutrients. Seed heads contain mature seeds that typically are spread by wind and insects. Ideally, weeds are removed before the appearance of their flowers that eventually release seeds. If some of them escape removal before they produce seed heads, they can be cut down. When you remove weeds with seed heads, you eliminate one of the biggest sources of weeds on your property.

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Cut off weed flowers and seed heads using pruning shears, and dispose of them immediately. Cutting the flowers and seed heads rather than removing entire weed plants is ideal if you find weeds in your vegetable garden and don’t want to disturb your crops by yanking out whole weed plants. If the weeds contain large leaves that cover your plants, clip off all the weeds’ foliage so your crops receive more sunlight.

Cut weed plants to ground level with pruning shears or a lawnmower that has a mower bag. If you use a lawnmower, empty its mower bag into the trash immediately so that you do not inadvertently spread the weed seeds the next time you use the lawnmower.

Collect all of the cut weeds and seed heads with a rake, and dispose of them. Repeat the cutting process when the weeds grow and especially before they produce seed heads again.

Tips for Composting Weeds

Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.

David Freund / Getty Images

Compost is a great way to recycle organic material in your garden. All those spent flower blossoms, fall leaves, dead plants, grass clippings—even non-meat kitchen scraps—can be transformed into a great soil amendment and nutritious mulch, simply by throwing them into a heap and allowing the refuse to decompose naturally.

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Composting Issues

Done correctly, composting creates a sterile organic material that does nothing but good things for your garden and the plants in it. However, nearly every gardener who practices composting has occasionally experienced “volunteer” plants sprouting up in the garden where the compost has been spread.

This can actually be rather charming when the volunteers are tiny impatiens seedlings, tomato plants, or even pumpkins that volunteer because last Halloween/s jack o’ lanterns were added to the compost heap. It’s far less charming when the volunteer plants are hundreds of dandelions or tiny sprigs of bindweed or crabgrass that get into the garden via the compost you spread.

A gardener who experiences such an explosion of volunteer weeds may well swear off composting altogether, or at least stop adding weed material to the compost pile. To be clear, there is no reason to stop composting weeds. With a slight adjustment to the composting process, you can ensure that weeds and their seeds will be killed completely and won’t be resurrected where you least want them.

How Weeds Survive

In an ideal compost heap, the temperatures generated by the breakdown of plant material can get quite warm, and if temperatures exceed 145 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty much all seeds and roots will be killed. However, if the temperatures do not get warm enough—or if a portion of the compost heap does not experience sufficiently high temperatures—seeds or perennial roots can survive the composting process. When these seeds or bits of root later reach your garden inside the compost, they can—and usually do—quickly germinate or take root again.

How do you know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill all weeds? A variety of compost thermometers are available that can gauge the temperature of your pile. Experienced gardeners may simply thrust a hand into the pile. If it feels uncomfortably warm to the touch, it likely is warm enough to kill all seeds and roots in the pile.

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Hot Composting

The classic method of composting—the method purists would call the “right” way—is known as hot composting. This simply means that you turn the pile regularly and allowing it to really heat up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A properly maintained hot compost pile will kill weed seeds, as well as many other pathogens, so you can compost weeds without having to worry about them popping up in your garden beds.

For hot composting to fully kill all weed seeds and roots, follow these tips:

  • Turn the pile frequently. All compost heaps have localized cool spots that are slow to break down. By mixing the pile frequently, you ensure that all material is achieving the necessary heat to kill the seeds and roots.
  • Give it time. Practiced correctly, hot composting involves processing a volume of material fully until it is fully decomposed. Don’t continue to add small amounts of additional material to the heap; start another heap while the first one breaks down completely. The compost is ready to spread when turning and mixing the pile no longer causes the compost to heat up.
  • Weed the garden before adding compost. Fresh compost is laden with nutrients, and if there are weeds growing in your garden, adding compost will simply nourish the weeds along with your garden plants. Make sure your garden is well weeded before adding fresh compost to the soil.

Cool Composting

So-called “cool composting” is a more informal style of composting. It is a passive method that doesn’t involve constant temperature monitoring and mixing. In cool composting, fresh material is constantly added to the top of the heap as the lower levels are breaking down into compost. In cool compost bins, gardeners periodically remove the prepared compost from the bottom of the pile as fresh material is constantly added to the top. Cool composting is an easier style, though it can take somewhat longer.