Dock Weed Control & Many Uses for RumexMarch 06, 2015
Dock weed control usually isn’t done properly, which results in the plants rebounding rapidly. While you might want to get rid of your dock (aka Rumex), there are also a number of reasons you may want to cultivate it in your garden. That being said, if you’ve ever faced off with an unwanted patch of dock, odds are you’ve done something wrong in trying to destroy it. I know I have. I’ve pulled at it (without the right tools or during the dry season) only to have the top growth detach from the tap roots, which live to split and sprout another day. And, more than once a wily plant has managed to set seed while I was looking the other way.
Had my goal been to create a perpetual crop of dock (or Rumex, as it is known botanically or sorrel, as its known in culinary circles), my efforts would have been okay. But, when the intent is to eradicate a patch of dock weed, control steps need to be timed right and done with care. In the following paragraphs and images, I’ll look at several species of Rumex — both in terms of weeding it out of your garden and in terms of using it as a cultivated harvest and design element.
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The Rumex genus includes a number of species including R. acetosa (garden sorrel), R. scutatus (French sorrel), R. crispus (yellow or curly dock), R. obtusifolius (broadleaf dock), R. sanguineus (bloody dock), and more. I’ll focus on these, with which I have lived in a number of gardens.
Let’s begin with how to eradicate an unwanted dock patch, followed by what to do with your harvest!
Rumex has two characteristics that make it hard to eradicate through hand pulling. To begin, it has a tenacious taproot. In fact, most plants have a number of powerful, intertwined and very deep-rooted taproots. Couple that with leaves that readily tear off when pulled, and you’ve got a plant that’s not going to give up the ghost if you yank on it without the help of the right tools. Even a young dock plant is best removed after the soil around the roots have been loosened first. If you yank on the leaves, you’ll end up holding a bunch of ripped leaves while a slimy nub, attached to powerful roots still lives in the soil.
Ideally, work on digging up Rumex in spring when the soil is loose and moist. Digging in summer, when soil is dry is just asking for more trouble ’cause those tap roots go deep. If you must dig it out in summer or at other dry times, water the plant well the night before. It sounds weird to water a weed, but it’ll make digging a lot easier and more productive. Remember: even a little bit of this root left in the soil will regenerate your dock patch.
Choose your tools carefully. A spade is likely to slice through the roots, so select a garden fork instead. The flat tines will break up the soil around the roots to loosen it up. Work a full circle around the plant with your fork. Then, use a taproot weeding tool like a hori-hori knife to finish working the entire set of roots from the soil. When you lift the dock from the ground, you’ll probably have a plant with a good foot or more of taproot attached. If any taproot is left behind, watch the area closely for new sprouts.
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Don’t toss your uprooted Rumex into the compost just yet!
Not everyone considers Rumex a must-destroy-it weed. In fact, it is used by chefs in the kitchen, herbalists in their apothecary, designers in their gardens and even some offer it to their livestock (or not). Following are several ways to put your weedy harvest to work for you.
In the kitchen: Sorrel is a delicious, perennial leafy green for any kitchen garden. Because the plant is so tenacious, it survives even heavy-handed harvests. While you could try eating young leaves of many varieties of Rumex, two of the tastiest are R. acetosa and R. scutatus. Both have tangy, sour, lemon flavor, which comes from the plant’s oxalic acid*. Leaves are delicious whipped into dressings, torn while young into mixed green salads, or cooked — especially with mild fish or chicken. If you plan to cook sorrel, know that the leaves will turn an off-shade of green under heat. But they still taste great!
In the apothecary:
Our friend and trained herbalist Jill Barnattan of Vital Equilibrium shares her thoughts and uses for R. crispus (yellow dock):
“Spring is approaching, representing a time of renewal, growth and cleaning out what is no longer needed. Nature is quite brilliant in producing “weeds” that support the healthy function of our bodies, especially the liver, at this time of year. While you may think of yellow dock (Rumex crispus) as a pesky weed, consider making a healthy use of this fantastic herb as you remove it from your garden. In a nutshell, yellow dock has been used traditionally to aid in cleansing the liver, relieving constipation, cleansing chronic skin conditions and is a non constipating organic source of iron.
As you eradicate this plant from your yard, express gratitude to Mother Earth for providing free traditional herbal medicine. What a great opportunity to build your own home-grown herbal apothecary for first aid or everyday healing! The simple act of cutting up fresh Yellow Dock root, mixed with its equally irritating friend, Dandelion root and making an herbal decoction tea can provide support of the most important organ system of your body at this time of year. Consider adding the bitter leaves to springtime salads, making an herbal tincture, a blood boosting syrup with molasses or creating a springtime salve for cuts & sores. Yellow Dock is one of the herbs I use in Kaleidoscope Naturals Organic Hemp & Herbal Healing Salve, which has aided the healing of stubborn skin ailments for almost 20 years.”
In containers and garden beds: In my own garden, I’ve maintained a fairly tame bunch of R. sanguineus for years. It shows its beautiful wine-veined leaves as soon as freezing weather has passed. As nearby peonies arise from the soil with reddish stems, the color play with adjacent bloody dock is stunning! And how about that gorgeous combo in the image above from our friend and award-winning foliage design author Christina Salwitz of Fine Foliage? Stunning stuff – thanks for sharing Christina!
In hot sun or dappled shade, both R. acetosa and R. scutatus thrive and are ready to harvest by late winter/early spring. Just before leaf miners attack them in late spring, I mow the entire patch to the ground and make a batch of sorrel pesto with the harvest. This way, the leaf miners don’t make ugly work of my sorrel, and the plants will soon rise again from those tenacious taproots. Plus, by mowing it down this time of year, I also knock out any potential seed heads before they become viable and spread. Win-win!
In the livestock pen: While weeding a patch of dock in horticulture school, a fellow student grabbed all of the leaves we had harvested to take home to her pet rabbits. According to her, they gobbled the stuff up. In the years since that happened, I’ve heard mixed things about feeding dock to rabbits. Some claim it is toxic to bunnies; others say it is safe only in early spring. And, some describe it as a great plant for wild bunny-infested gardens because they won’t take a bite. Curious stuff!
My friend Annie Haven, cattle-woman and proprietor of Haven Brand Moo Poo Tea Soil Conditioner (a garden-enriching by-product of her grass-fed cattle and horses available for purchase here) says, “In general cattle with full bellies can consume it with little to no side affect, cattle that are hungry and consume it rapidly can suffer the toxic side affect from it. Fortunately I do not have it in my pastures. If I did I would eliminate it.”
So best bet: ask your veterinarian before Thumper, your moo-cows or any other animal you care for takes a bite.*
*Oxalic acid can prove problematic for those prone to kidney stones and other health issues. Always check with your health care provider before trying any new foods, herbs, plants, etc.