Turns out, those pesky weeds are just greens with a bad PR team. Let local chefs and herbalists help you turn your lawn into a sustainable salad bar.
On an early April morning, one of the first of spring where the sun shines and you can actually feel its warmth, I took my first bike ride of the season. I whizzed past house after house, the lawns just beginning to come back to life. Workers planted new shrubs and spread out fresh layers of mulch, filling the air with an earthy, musty smell.
Morning after morning, as I cycled this same route, I watched the progress of each yard go from frizzled and sad to bright and happy, a sea of perfect grass. On one ride, I witnessed a homeowner with a plastic tub of bright blue liquid, down on her knees assessing the state of the weeds growing through the cracks of her brick edging. In each tiny space where any leaf dared to peek its head, she doused it in that liquid. By the next day, it was clear that whatever was in that tub, it had done its job.
This is the price paid to have a manicured lawn. Whether through sweat or sprays or both, we put a ton of effort into killing these plants called weeds. But if you were to let it grow, your yard would turn from the classic green suburban dream into something natural, something native and possibly something edible.
“If foraging was like farming, your lawn would be like the salad bar,” Will Horowitz told me over outdoor coffee at North Fork Roasting Company in Southold. “Because those are where all the most tender greens are coming from.” The New York City chef grew up foraging on the North Fork — his mother’s family is from Orient. After closing his celebrated East Village restaurant Ducks Eatery due to pandemic pressures, Horowitz now splits time between his homes in Jamesport and Manhattan writing a follow-up to his 2019 cookbook, “Salt Smoke Time.”
“We’re getting more and more into this place where we realize that lawns are a giant waste of space and completely unsustainable,” he said. “When you think about it, it’s the grass that’s actually the invasive species. Everything else is native and meant to be here.” In the slight chill that still held the April wind, he pointed to a plant behind me. “There’s a whole thing of primrose which I keep looking at.” I turned around to see a small bunch of leaves that lay flat on the ground.
“You can eat that?” I asked. You can, he explained — he used the leaves for tea or in soup. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as harvesting that primrose fist to mouth. Because I don’t know if the area has been sprayed or fertilized, eating weeds off strange property can be dangerous.
This fact “kind of ruins the romanticism of eating your weeds,” admitted Adam Kopels, who, along with his wife, Elizabeth Ronzetti, is co-chef and owner of 18 Bay Restaurant on Shelter Island. Together, they forage for plants on local farms to include on the menu. But safety “has to be where we start, because the whole reason you want to eat wild plants is because they’re healthy and it’s fun and it’s different,” he added. “If it’s not healthy, and it becomes dangerous, then it’s counterintuitive to the whole point of wanting to connect back with nature in the first place.”
His advice is to stick to areas you can control, like your yard. Step one is to stop spraying and fertilizing. After a time, get your soil tested. (For advice, call Cornell Cooperative Extension’s horticulture hotline at 631-727-4126.) Once you know it’s safe, then the fun part starts.
The pioneer plants
When you allow Mother Nature to reclaim your yard, something amazing happens, said Dawn Petter, a clinical herbalist in New York City who has taught herbal and foraging workshops on the North Fork. “The weeds are thought of as pioneer plants,” she said. “They’re the warriors that come along and rejuvenate depleted soils. They are constantly trying to take back, so when we let the land do its thing, it’s happy.”
One of the first things you might see are dandelions. The familiar puffy, yellow flower has felt the wrath of homeowners for decades. But the young tender greens have a slight bitterness to them, like an endive or a radish. The flower can be used to make dandelion syrup, mead and wine. You can even juice the roots.
Other common edible weeds you might see on the North Fork are chickweed and nettle, which Petter uses to make a pesto. Kopels is a champion of purslane. “It’s a very underutilized and underloved vegetable,” he said. “We serve as much as we possibly can. We serve it sautéed, raw, pickled. It has such a fantastic texture, and it’s really one of the best products we get all year long.”
Among the rows of plants at the quiet Jamesport farm Herricks Herbs and Heirlooms, owner Nicole Orens-Williams and local herbalist Heather Cusack took me from bed to bed, showing me how weeds thrive on the herb farm. These feisty plants show up on their own, no planting, sowing or watering needed.
“This one is chickweed, also called mouse ear because it looks like little mouse ears, and this is yummy,” Cusack said, popping a leaf into her mouth. “It grows everywhere.”
“Did you talk about lamb’s-quarter?” Orens-Williams asked. “Everybody needs to know about it because it is abundant and in everyone’s garden.” During the warmer months, the busy farmer said she lives off lamb’s-quarter and purslane because she just doesn’t have time to stop and eat a meal during the day. As she tends to the herb beds, she’ll snack on the wild variety as she sees them. To feed her family, Orens-Williams will make salad from purslane and substitute spinach for lamb’s-quarter in any recipe, as in a classic quiche.
“Why weed something and then throw it out when it’s actually providing the nutrition?” she said. “Feel thankful that this weed is presenting itself with zero work. It’s like I outsource part of my dinner. I didn’t have to cultivate it. It completely takes care of itself.”
To turn your own yard into a salad bar, stop pulling the weeds, start looking at what grows naturally, do your research and be safe. “My suggestion to everybody with a lawn is don’t have one,” said Kopels. We consider weeds pests because they affect the growth of another plant, he said, but if we see the value in them they become simply another part of our yard. “The wild plants that grow naturally are delicious, nutritious and, really, an absolute fun part of watching the cycles of the season come around.”
How to eat your weeds
The plants that might pop up and what to do with them.
garlic mustard Steam it, make a pesto
ramps Swap for garlic or onion
nettles Make a pesto, steep for tea
watercress Steam it, add to soup
wild onions Swap for regular onions
field garlic Swap for regular garlic or onion
primrose Steep for tea, add to soup
broadleaf plantain Swap for spinach
purslane Yard salad
dandelion leaves Yard salad
chickweed Make a pesto, treat as an herb
lamb’s–quarter Swap for spinach