Got weeds? Remove them before they set seed.

Ways to conquer those unwanted or unknown plants from invading your gardens or yards

Common mullein
Common mullein in its second year of growth. This seed head will disperse around 200,000 seeds. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

Many gardeners are calling the Michigan State University Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline and uploading photos to our Ask an Expert resource wanting to know if what they’re trying to identify is a weed. A weed is a subjective human classification usually indicating a plant out of place, but identifying a plant you see as a problem is a great first step in finding the right solution for your yard or garden.

For help in identifying weeds, check out the MSU Weed Diagnostic resource for proper weed identification and management tactics, contact the Lawn and Garden Hotline at 888-678-3464 or upload your photos at Ask an Expert. Once you have properly identified what plant it is, then you can more efficiently decide on the best plan of attack. Read on to discover ways to outsmart these unwanted plants.

When do weeds flower?

It is always encouraging to hear a gardener’s “ah ha” moment when realizing weeds have specific life cycles, i.e., they mature or set seed at different times throughout the year. Some are summer annuals, winter annuals, biennials or perennials—review the “Spring blooming lawn and garden weeds” article from MSU Extension to understand this better. Determining a weed’s life cycle will help you manage them better and possibly prevent future occurrences. For example, if you can eliminate the weed prior to seed production or before seed dispersal, then you have made a great effort toward elimination.

Throughout the growing season, take notice of unwanted plants in your garden or yard and remove them immediately. After all, an amazing adaptation of weeds is that they produce many seeds. For example, one common mullein plant can produce at least 200,000 seeds, and one purslane plant can produce two million seeds! No wonder it may seem like you can never get rid of them. Many seeds can live for years within the soil in what is called the seed bank, so it is not only the current year but also past year’s practice that plays a role in how many weed seeds are present. For more reading, MSU research explains “Weed Seedbank Dynamics.”

Weeds have multiple survival tactics

Once you have properly identified the weed, search out its different survival tactics. For example, not only will weeds produce many seeds, but they will also have different ways in which the seed may be carried or transported away from the original mother plant, resulting in less competition among seedlings, thus better survival rates.

Reproduction may also occur vegetatively for some, which means if you leave a portion of a root or rhizome or stolon (i.e., below and aboveground creeping stems, respectively) in contact with the ground, this part will continue to live and regrow. Dandelion, Canada thistle and creeping bentgrass, respectively, are examples with these survival tactics.

Do not dispose these vegetative parts in your compost pile, as they can resprout and be reintroduced back into your garden. Also, try to avoid placing any weed seeds back into your compost. Unless you are actively managing your pile at temperatures of greater than 140 degrees, they may survive and be reintroduced back into your garden.

Weeds have useful properties, too

Weeds can be frustrating, but by better understanding their specific life cycles and adaptations, you are better armed to defend your garden and landscape against them. Be mindful that many of what we term “weeds” were actually brought here because they had useful properties that served human civilization over time, such as food sources, nutrients and medicinal properties.


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