Some of the worst weeds break ground in spring; all ticking time bombs just waiting to explode and take over in a shower of seeds. Offenders like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola), purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), creeping speedwell (Veronica filiformis), common violet (Viola sororia) and hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) are major threats on the spring weed scene. To disarm them before they detonate, quick identification and effective means of pulling are necessary. Here are the tools for making quick work of these seven explosive garden weeds.

Creeping speedwell

Don’t be fooled by the pretty flowers of Veronica filiformis. This is an obnoxious yard and garden weed.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith


Dandelions have a talent for inserting themselves in the most inconvenient spaces.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith


Violets are pretty, sweet and tough weeds to tackle.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Harry bittercress

Bittercress is one of the most powerful of seed-spreading weeds.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Pulled common groundsel

Common groundsel is pretty easy to identify and pull.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

When thinking of dandelions, a poem by Massachusetts poet Hilda Conkling comes to mind:

“Little soldier with the golden helmet,
O What are you guarding on my lawn?
You with your green gun
And your yellow beard,
Why do you stand so stiff?
There is only the grass to fight!”

But most gardeners know they fight more than just grass. Dandelions, with their deep taproots and prolific, airborne seeds, colonize garden spaces in no time, inserting themselves into the tightest paved crevices and among the roots of prized garden flowers. Their radial rosettes of sharply incised green leaves, which emit white latex sap when broken, are easily identified, as are the bright yellow, lion’s mane blooms and puffy, white seed heads. But those seed heads are the last thing gardeners should see, because once they hit the skies, it’s all over.

The best tactic for eradicating dandelions is to remove their taproots early and completely. A long-bladed weeding tool is essential for this, as root fragments will actually resprout to become whole new plants! Garden knives or long-bladed trowels are ideal for grubbing out the thick, deep, difficult-to-pull roots.

Lawn specimens are another matter. Tactical mowing can be helpful in controlling dandelions – if timed right. Dandelion flowers often lie below mower blades, but as they set seed, the stems lengthen within chopping range. Occasionally mowing off the stems before they open can really reduce seed output. Broadleaf weed killers and pre-emergents for lawns are also helpful. Corn gluten and EcoSense® Lawn Weed Killer are organic options.

Common groundsel and prickly lettuce are very similar in that they’re easy to weed but aggressive seeders. Groundsel is easily identified by its bright green, sticky, almost ferny leaves and yellow flowers that look as if they never quite open. The seed heads look like mini dandelion puffs that similarly float away to colonize new ground. The plant’s fine, shallow roots are its only redeeming quality. Simple pulling or hoeing will put them in check.

Prickly lettuce is closely related to true lettuce and produces rosettes of thin, green, lettuce-like leaves with prickly hairs on the edges and lower leaf veins. By mid- to late spring, tall stems rise from the center of each rosette, which become covered with many small, yellow, dandelion-like flowers. Loads of white, puffy seed heads follow. The slender taproot can be challenging to pull, but it’s no match for aggressive hoeing or light digging with a sharp trowel.

Purple deadnettle is one of the prettier weeds in spring. Its tufts of fragrant, dark purplish green leaves send up tiered, leafy stems lined with bracts (petal-like leaves) that obscure lavender-purple, two-lipped flowers loved by bees. This weed is in the mint family, so its stems are distinctly square. Each plant produces tons of seeds, so pull them while still in flower. Their fine roots are easily grubbed out by hand or with basic weeding tools.

Those who’ve tackled hairy bittercress know it’s an awesome foe with seedpods that truly explode with a bomb-like flourish. Plants overwinter as tiny seedlings, and in springtime develop into small rosettes of slightly hairy, compound leaves lined with four to eight small, round leaflets. Branched stems topped with many small, white, four-petaled flowers are quickly produced, followed by long, slender, upright silique seedpods that are initially green. As they dry and mature, the seedpods explode if brushed or disturbed, sending the thousands of seeds within flying to the skies. One itsy bitsy plant can produce 600 seeds or more (a gardener’s worst nightmare)!

Thankfully, hairy bittercress has shallow, fine roots that are easily pulled, grubbed or hoed from the ground. The trick is getting them all before they set seed. A missed few on the verge of exploding can still be dealt with, with care: Gently surround the plant with a plastic bag (without touching the pods) and then pull. This will help contain the seed barrage.

The tiny, blue flowers of creeping speedwell are some of the first to appear in spring. Each creeping mat of small, scalloped, green leaves becomes covered with dainty, four-petaled blooms that open in sun. But don’t be wooed by looks. This annoying lawn and garden weed grows well in sun or shade and produces loads of seeds that infiltrate beds in no time. Each plant has lots of roots that cling to the ground like Velcro™, so a sharp hand weeder or hoe is helpful when pulling them.

Most gardeners have a love-hate relationship with violets. They’re beautiful, fragrant and fun for children to pick, but their dense, persistent rhizomes are a colossal pain in the keister to weed. What’s more, each plant produces loads of seeds that all germinate, creating a green skirt of seedlings around each undisturbed plant come fall. In fact, the common violet has two seed-production waves: one in spring after blooming and another in summer after plants produce cleistogamous flowers (self-pollinating flowers that never open).

Gardeners eager to use spray herbicides should also dispel any hopes of tackling common violets with them. Even Roundup® doesn’t do the trick. The only way to really make work of violets is to dig them out, being sure to remove every bit of rhizome, and scratch away seedlings as they pop up.

With regular yearly diligence, gardeners can almost rid themselves of spring weed problems. Follow up with a generous 2-3 inch layer of mulch, and all should be good…until the summer weeds appear.