Monday, May 28, 2012

Garlic Mustard Invasion

Kind of pretty, you think! There are hundreds of square
feet of this stuff here. Where it grows, nothing else does.
       Both the leaves and root of this plant are edible, yet I spend hours, even days, every year trying to get rid of it. Why? Because garlic mustard is so vigorously invasive that it will crowd out every other growing thing if it isn't controlled. One plant sprouting in new territory will produce hundreds of seeds. Within a few years, the garlic mustard will have multiplied to carpet the earth, springing from the ground in March, before the native plants appear.
       This is a biennial. Actually, it's a attractive plant during its first year; the new leaves look something like violet leaves, but lighter green. The second year, though, the leaves darken and it bolts up to two feet high and looses the prettiness when its small white flowers go to seed. The seed pods look like needles ready to spike the existing flora. They are certain killers of biodiversity.
On the lower plant you can see how the root changes
       Pulling this stuff is an art. The root is long and stubborn, and if you don't pull just right, the stem will snap at the base. New growth will form there and produce flowers and seeds, but these may be so low to the ground (often six inches or less) that you'll miss them on future inspections. To get the entire root, I often loosen the soil with a shovel. Then I grasp the plant with one hand and follow the stem to its base with the other. At the base of the plant, the stem usually takes a right angle turn before going underground. This is where the "snap" occurs. I grip the root where it enters the ground and pull firmly straight upward. If it breaks, I go dirt diving with fingers or shovel. Because this menace is so out of control here, I do this for hours at a time. Then there;s next year's crop to deal with, that carpet from last year's plants that I didn't find the time to deal with last year.
Nearly all the green here is garlic
mustard. If I don't get rid of it, next
year it will look like the first photo above.
       Mowing does not eliminate the problem, because the plant may still flower. I've used (shudder) Roundup in a desperate effort to control the weed, but seeds are viable in the soil for five years, I've read, and the plant keeps reappearing. I don't want to use this poison on an annual basis! I tried vinegar as an herbicide for the first time this year with mixed success. I believe my main problem there was that I didn't saturate the leaves as well as required. Also I've read since that experiment that vinegar works better if you add one ounce of dishwashing soap per gallon of vinegar. I'll try a second spray. I would not recommend vinegar on second-year growth, unless it's applied soon after the plant pops up in March. From my limited experience, I'd say it would take so much spray that you'd be further ahead just pulling each plant. Also, to be effective,  vinegar needs to be applied on a warm, sunny day. In March? In Michigan? This could present a problem. Much of the new growth is in wooded areas, so there may not be enough sunlight. When I can find the time, I'll go after more of the first year plants with my trusty action hoe.
         Pulling, spraying and burning are the only ways to get rid of this stuff. Burning isn't recommended for the average homeowner, and spraying must be done repeatedly to be effective. Even that much vinegar isn't good for the environment! Besides, if the plant has already started to go to seed, you have to remove the seed heads or you've wasted your time, money and energy. Once pulled, what do you do with it? Bag it, label it "invasive weed" and put it in a landfill? This is conventional wisdom. I have a problem with putting biodegradables in landfills. Burying, I'm told, doesn't work. Nor does composting. Seems like composting should work if it's a hot compost. Burn after it dries? With its garlic taste, would you want to feed it to livestock, assuming they would eat it? Can you think of other options? Has garlic mustard invaded your neck of the woods? Are there any groups sponsoring cleanup parties? Are you participating in the fight against this invasion?

Note: A friend suggested this site:


  1. Wow--licorice fern roots are STRONG. I love licorice, so I thought I'd try a root while out foraging last week.
    I think cooking with the root and not chewing it like the natives did might be the better idea... Thanks for all of the good info here!

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  2. I have a similar weed in my yard here in Texas- it's a thorny wild green you can use as a lettuce when it's small and tender, but holy cow, it gets HUGE. What I do is I anaerobically compost it- toss it in a black trash can half full of water in full sun all day, for the whole summer. y It turns into a stinky black sludge, so I can shove another 50 gallons or so of it in there each time I pull it. The black sludge that comes out next spring, however, has no viable seeds and is great fertilizer. You might also want to try feeding it through a black soldier fly bin.

  3. Doesn't sound like garlic mustard. I believe it's against Michigan law to compost it. Legal options are mulch, burn, or
    pull and bag for landfill.