Chickweed, Stellaria media, is an annual that is mostly considered as a weed because it quickly forms dense mats of stems clothed with small green leaves, rapidly colonising bare soil. Being an annual, it completes its life cycle in a short time – a period of months – but produces several generations each year and plants that germinate in autumn can survive the winter to seed early the following spring.
However, chickweed does have benefits too: the foliage is edible with a slightly spicy taste and the young shoot tips can be harvested as microgreens in spring or autumn to make a good addition to salads and sandwiches. The seeds are popular with seed-eating birds such as finches: once this plant was used to feed birds, hence the name. So, while chickweed should be kept in check and not allowed to overwhelm ornamental plants, it isn’t one of the real weed “baddies” of the garden.
How to identify chickweed
Chickweed forms a dense clump of slender, sprawling or prostrate stems clothed with oval bright green leaves arranged in opposite pairs along the stems. Tiny star-shaped white flowers are borne in clusters, followed by seeds that mature to yellow or yellowish-green. The seeds tend to be more prominent than the flowers. Chickweed is most likely to be found on fertile soil where it grows profusely and vigorously.
How to control chickweed
Preventing seeding is key to control of annual weeds, which produce large quantities of seed. Hand-weeding by pulling or hoeing is a straightforward and effective way to control chickweed. Plants that have matured to bear seed should not be added to the compost heap as the seed will remain viable – instead, put these weeds in your garden waste collection bags or bins.
Hoe on a dry, breezy day, severing the top growth from the roots so the chickweed quickly wilts and dies. Go over the ground a second time a few hours later, when the hoed weeds will have wilted, and you’ll be able to clearly see any plants that have been missed. Weed at regular intervals through the growing season as chickweed can produce viable seed within as little as six weeks.
Carry out a final weeding of borders in mid to late autumn, to remove any young weeds that would overwinter and then mature to produce seeds early the following spring.
Mulching with a 5-8 cm thick layer of composted chipped bark on the bare soil around plants prevents and suppresses weed growth.