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Cutting the mustard: Fighting back against garlic mustard

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 10, 2008

If you haven’t heard of garlic mustard by now, here’s what you need to know: It’s evil.


Garlic mustard is an invasive species that’s become the Kryptonite of Wisconsin’s forests.


It starts growing as soon as snow is off the ground and takes off, out-competing everything from oak seedlings to wildflowers.


And here’s why you should care:


“This plant has the potential to run rampant and unchecked,” said Mark Dwyer, horticultural manager at Rotary Gardens in Janesville. “It’s starting to work its way into some of our very fragile ecosystems.”


It can take over an area in just a few years, effectively eliminating the variety of plants that keep our woods beautiful and healthy. Insects, birds and forest animals all the way up the food chain need diverse woodland to survive.


Wildflower and bird lovers should care.


Hunters who care about preserving habitat should care.


Ordinary folks who enjoy a stroll in the woods should care.


The spread of garlic mustard has been well documented in our area. Volunteers are struggling to combat garlic mustard in county beauty spots such as Big Hill Park, Androne Woods, Riverside Park, along Turtle Creek and in Beckman Mill County Park.


Getting rid of the stuff is a five- to seven-year project.


“It’s a Frankenstein plant if ever there was one,” said Rob Baller, Rock County Parks community coordinator.


Baller has become the de facto county expert on garlic mustard. He’s leading a team to drive the evil weed out of Big Hill Park and works with friends groups and parks departments.


Baller compared caring for an area with garlic mustard to treating a guy who’s been in a bad car accident. He’ll need an ambulance ride to the hospital, immediate attention in the emergency room, surgery, recovery time and rehab.


“Choose only one of those and you won’t succeed,” Baller said.


Here’s why: Garlic mustard is a biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. The first year, the plant has a low growing habit with rounded and scalloped leaves. First-year plants can be killed easily with herbicide.


Second-year plants take off and require hand pulling or cutting at just the right time or they will produce hundreds of new seeds.


Seeds can stay in the soil for up to seven years.


If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of garlic mustard in your yard or favorite park, Baller offers this advice: “The basic strategy is to spend your time and effort where there’s the least amount of it. You get a lot more bang for you buck; keep clean areas clean.”


It also feels good to succeed in at least one spot.


The second strategy?


“Focus on preventing new seeds,” Baller said.


That means pulling out plants by the roots and disposing of them properly. Even garlic mustard pulled out by the root can continue to develop seeds.


Some experts have suggest cutting the plants down after the stems have elongated but before flowers have opened.


But the timing has to be just right or the plants will come back, sprouting multiple new stems. Or the seeds will continue to develop after they’ve been cut down.


If you’re still disheartened by the inordinate amount of garlic mustard in your backyard or favorite park, Baller’s offers this tip:


“The secret to good cheer is to know that with every plant you pull out, you’re destroying hundreds of seeds.”


And that’s a start.


GARLIC MUSTARD BASICS
Life cycle: Biennial, meaning it has a two-year life cycle.
Year one:The plants are low growing, forming clusters of leaves with rounded and scalloped edges.
Year two:Plants take off, growing from 1 foot to 4 feet high. The leaves, especially those near the tiny white flowers, are triangular with saw-toothed edges. Some leaves might retain more of a heart shape.
Making certain it’s garlic mustard: Take some leaves and crush them. They should smell like garlic.
Other characteristics: The flowers have four petals. The plant’s root is a long taproot with an S curve at the top. Seeds form along the petiole of the leaf—that’s the small stalk that extends from the main stem to the leaf itself. Each plant produces hundreds of seeds.
How to deal with Garlic Mustard

Garlic mustard control techniques from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Tall Grass Restorations, Rob Baller, UW Extension and Rotary Gardens.


Experts agree using a mix of approaches works best to combat the evil weed.


-- Early spring herbicide use. Garlic mustard grows as soon as the temperature is above freezing and the snow cover is gone. It’s often the first plant out of the ground in the spring.


Plants can be killed with a product containing glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup.


Rotary Gardens’ Mark Dwyer waits until it’s about 50 degrees to use Roundup.


Rob Baller said he puts Roundup on when its about 35 degrees.


“I have had personal success using Roundup when it’s just above freezing, and some environmental firms that I’ve worked with used it when it’s above freezing,” Baller said.


Apply the chemical carefully. Remember that more is not better and that Roundup kills plants indiscriminately.


A herbicide with a wick applicator can give you the control you need.


-- Hand pulling. Pull the plants, getting as much of root system as you can. A dandelion digger can help with that. If you work on a damp day, roots will come of the ground easier.


If you pull plants before they have flowered, scatter them on the ground and let them dry out. Garlic mustard left in a pile can continue to develop.


If the plants already have flowered, they must be bagged securely. Garlic mustard seeds can ripen and spread even after plants are pulled.


DO NOT put garlic mustard in home compost. Most compost heaps don’t get hot enough to destroy seeds.


DO NOT take the garlic mustard to Janesville compost and demolition landfill.


In Janesville, garlic mustard should be bagged, marked as garlic mustard and put out with the regular trash.


-- Weed torch: In wet conditions, a weed torch can be used to kill young plants. However, some towns require burning permits for such activities.


-- Cutting the plants a few inches above the ground. That is tricky, and there’s some debate about how and when to cut the plants and how close to the soil to cut them.


Cutting should take place after the flower stalks have elongated, but before the flowers have opened. Cutting too early can cause the plant to regenerate and bloom. Cutting too late can allow the plant to finish creating and dispersing seeds.


Many experts say that hand pulling is the best option.


-- Hiring professionals: Companies such as Tall Grass Restoration, Milton, or Applied Ecological Services, Brodhead, can help with controlled burns or help create a garlic mustard eradication program.


EATING GARLIC MUSTARD

“Wildman” Steve Brill calls himself “America’s best-known forager.” That’s probably accurate because he’s the only forager who has been on David Letterman.


Brill, who lives in a suburb of New York City, makes his living giving tours and talking to groups about wild food including mushrooms, assorted weeds, unusual berries and fruit, flowers and nuts.


Brill’s book “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places” has become the forager’s bible. His book “The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook” contains recipes for a variety of wild foods including garlic mustard cream sauce, garlic mustard sauté and remolade.


On his Web site, www.wildmanstevebrill.com, Brill notes that garlic mustard leaves are “great raw on salad, mixed with more mild greens. It’s also good steamed, simmered or sautéed. In Europe, they use it in sauces. Cook no longer than five minutes, or the leaves will become mushy.”


Second-year garlic mustard plants have large taproots that taste like horseradish.


“They’re good from late fall to early spring, before the flower stalks appear. Use them like horseradish, grated into vinegar, as a condiment,” Brill writes.


We found this recipe from Brill’s Web site.


Garlic Mustard Pesto

4 cloves of garlic


3 tablespoons of garlic mustard taproots


3/4 cups parsley


1 cup garlic mustard leaves


1 cup basil


1 1/2 cup low-sodium olives


2 cups walnuts or pine nuts


1/2 cup mellow miso


1 1/4 cups olive oil or as needed


Directions: Chop the garlic and garlic mustard roots in a food processor. Add the parsley, garlic, garlic mustard and basil and chop. Add the nuts and chop coarsely. Add the olive oil and miso and process until you've created a coarse paste.


Yield: Makes 4 cups.



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