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By: Daniel Murphy, IBG Collections Curator | 08/08/2022

Weeds, like other plants in our gardens, begin their lives as seeds. Contained within the protective outer layer of a seed is a plant in miniature, awaiting the right conditions to break free. Upon germination, these tiny plants begin their journey towards reproduction and will ultimately flower and make seeds of their own.

The old adage, “one year’s weeds, seven years seeds,” is a warning. If you let weeds go to seed, you can expect to see those weeds for many years to come. Don’t let your weeds set seed. That’s the lesson.

But it’s more than that. This saying is also a reminder of where weeds come from. Seeds lead to weeds, and those seeds get to our gardens in a variety of different ways. In order to manage weeds more effectively, it’s important to understand where your weeds are coming from. If you can stop them at the source, you can save yourself a lot of work down the road.

(arctium minus, commonly known as lesser burdock)

The first area of concern is the soil itself. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years. Depending on the species, seeds can remain viable anywhere from a year to a century or more. As seeds fall from the plant, they collect in the soil, sometimes being moved deep into the soil profile by earthworms and other forces. When we cultivate or dig in our soil, we bring weed seeds to the surface, giving them the opportunity to germinate. Minimizing tillage and other forms of soil disturbance can help reduce weeds.

Similarly, weed seeds can hide in the soil, compost, and mulch that we bring into our gardens, as well as in the pots of plants purchased from nurseries and garden centers. Buying these products from reputable suppliers that have excellent weed management practices can help reduce this threat, but it won’t eliminate it. When you bring these things into your garden, keep a look out for new weeds emerging where these materials are placed and pull them before they become established.

(Tragopogon dubius, commonly known as salsify) 

Some weed seeds hitchhike into our gardens. Equipped with barbs and hooks, they grab onto our clothing and the fur of passing pets. This includes plants like cheatgrass, burdock, and cleavers. The seeds of other weeds, like plantain, have sticky seed coats and can hold to the bottoms of our shoes. Hitchhiking seeds enter our gardens undetected and take up residence there. They can also be moved around our yards on tools and other equipment. Keeping tools clean and regularly checking clothing and pets for interloping seeds can help reduce the introduction of new weeds to our gardens.

Some introductions are more difficult to manage. Dandelions, for example, parachute in on the wind thanks to a fluffy appendage attached to their seed. The fruits of other weeds are eaten by birds, and their seeds are then deposited in our yards in the form of bird poop. Some weed seeds float in on irrigation water, which is of particular concern for those who irrigate with canal water. Whether it’s by wind, wing, water, or some other means, seeds can take many routes into our gardens that are outside of our control.

(sonchus speciosus, commonly known as sowthistle)

In spite of the numerous ways that weed seeds get to our gardens, there is no reason to give up hope. Spotting and removing weeds early is the key. As weeds become established, they become more difficult to get rid of. Pulling weeds when they are young ensures they won’t be around to set seed. Regular mowing or string trimming can also help keep weeds from reproducing. Once you have cleared an area of weeds, apply a thick layer of mulch to keep additional weed seeds from germinating.

Remember the warning, “one year’s weeds, seven years seeds.” Pull weeds early and save yourself the headache of dealing with them for generations to come.


First Published in the Idaho Press on August 7th, 2022.