“When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.” (Author unknown)

One of the best parts about growing things is that anyone who gardens can learn something. Often our failures teach us far more than do our successes. And when it comes to those ever-present weeds, there is a lot they can tell us. Just by observing where certain weeds thrive, we can determine soil conditions or even pH. Weeds can direct us in making corrections in our soils or act as a guide for plant placement.

Here are a few of our common seeds and what they are telling us:

• Bindweed: crusty or compacted soil

• Chickweed and chicory: rich soil — high in nitrogen — also grow in sweet, compacted soil

• Common groundsel: rich soil.

• Dandelions: poor soil, low in calcium, but high in potassium

• Dock and goldenrod: wet, poorly-drained soil

• Henbit: high nitrogen.

• Mullein: acidic soil, low fertility.

• Oxalis/wood sorrel: low calcium, high magnesium.

• Pearly everlasting: acid soil, low in nutrients.

• Plantain: compacted, sour soil, low fertility, indicates heavy clay

• Queen Anne’s lace: poor soil on the sweet side

• Sweet fern: sandy, acidic soil

• Yarrow: low potassium and fertility, sandy and dry

If you want to make sure those gabby weeds don’t grow beyond control, the time to pull is always before they go to seed. One weed can produce hundreds, even thousands, of seeds and before long that one lone weed becomes an explosion of work. Those seeds can be spread many ways, some by animals or people when they cling or adhere to coats or clothes with stickers or hooks, others by self-explosive devices like jewel weed, and some by wind like dandelions.

Weed removal from a large area can often be accomplished with solarization — covering the ground, weeds and all, with clear plastic and allowing the sun to heat up and “cook” the weeds underneath. Hand-pulling is often the best approach in crowded flower and vegetable beds, and often the resulting weeds can be added to the compost. This is something organic farmers do to avoid removing nutrients from their land. Those weeds grow in the soils we have amended and with our additional irrigation, and whether we realize it or not, are one of the “crops” our gardens produce. Why throw those valuable organic nutrients away?

Various weeding tools are often useful. I especially enjoy using one that is operated from a standing position, avoiding stooping. It is called a Weed Hound and weeding becomes almost fun when you “shoot” the pulled weeds into a bucket with this clever tool. There are flame-throwers designed for weed removal, an approach I’ve never tried. Try a stream of boiling water on that stubborn weed that keeps coming up between the cracks of the walkway, which should solve that problem. A homemade “weed killer” of one cup of salt mixed in a gallon of white vinegar sprayed on weeds is another solution that avoids commercial herbicides. (Some commercial herbicides have been linked to cancers and other health issues.) Though be warned that this vinegar mix can kill practically any plant it lands on.

A little knowledge of root systems of targeted weeds can go a long way to help with weeding chores. Weeds come in many varieties, and some have root systems that make them extremely difficult to control. Our invasive goutweed loves rich, cultivated garden soils, and was originally introduced as an easy and quick-growing ground cover. It has since been called the cockroach of the botanical world — for good reason. It spreads via root systems that snap when pulled. Leave a tiny scrap of that root in the ground, and you have the basis for an invasion of this aggressive plant. Obviously this is not one of those plants to add to compost.

Some weeds (like dandelions) develop bulbous or long taproot systems that tend to break off and stay in the ground when they are pulled, setting the stage for another to spring up. The common buttercup (an acid soil indicator) spreads by leaps and bounds, with runners that send down roots, and has the infuriating habit of leaving its roots in situ when it is pulled. (Hint: Be sure to grab every single leaf before yanking.) In this case, know thy enemy in order to conquer it.

You could call me lazy, but preventing weeds in the first place is my favored approach to this garden dilemma. A thick (at least three inches deep) organic mulch will impede weed growth. Plain old corn meal (the corn gluten is the active ingredient here) sprinkled around plants won’t kill weeds, but works to prevent germination of weed seeds. Be forewarned that it will prevent germination of all seeds, so do not use this in beds or gardens where you are attempting to start seeds.

We live, we listen, we watch and we learn. Turns out those common garden weeds have a lot to tell us if we just pay attention.