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Backyard Pesto

Backyard Pesto

By: Charlie Baron

One of the earliest signs of spring is weeds popping up around yards, sidewalks, edges of parking lots, anywhere there is disturbed soil. While weeds can be an issue (like when Japanese knotweed crowds out native plants), they also bring a nice pop of color early in the season, and many of them are actually edible! 

Today we’re going to talk about pesto, which is an amazing way to use any edible weeds you find. Eating the weeds is a great idea for many reasons:

  • It’s eco-friendly– no shipping, no plastic packaging, and no need to drive, just pick what’s near you.
  • Edible weeds are usually highly nutritious.
  • If you eat the weeds instead of throwing them into a compost heap, you will reduce their spread. Picking young and tender greens will give you good flavor and prevent them from going to seed.
  • It’s one of the easiest and freshest ways to get your greens– it’ll save you money, and if you make pesto right after picking them, they’re fresher than any veggies from the grocery store.

Of course, there are things to be cautious of. Don’t eat weeds from yards that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. In Pittsburgh, lead in the soil is definitely a common issue, so if you want to forage from your yard, it’s a good idea to get your soil tested first. Click here for information about soil lead testing from the city of Pittsburgh, and here for resources for soil testing.

Here are some weeds that grow in the Pittsburgh area that you can use in pesto:

  • Bittercress: 
    • These greens in the mustard family pop up in very early spring, and have tons of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene, and antioxidants. They first grow as a basal rosette, meaning the leaves grow close to the ground in a round pattern, and then they send up flower stalks with little white flowers. The small green leaves have tiny hairs on the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves. When these go to seed, their seed pods will pop and spread, so you can pull the plant up from the root to prevent it spreading. The leaves have a mild peppery flavor. There are a few different species of bittercress, but they are all pretty similar and edible.

  • Ground ivy:
    • Also known as “creeping charlie” or “gill over the ground,” ground ivy is a rich source of vitamin C, potassium, and iron. It usually grows as a mass of ground cover, and has scalloped fan- or kidney-shaped leaves which sometimes turn purple towards their edges. When they flower, they have purple flowers that look much like other mint family flowers. Like other mint family plants, it has square stems and opposite leaves. It has a mild but aromatic flavor.
  • Purple deadnettle:
    • Purple deadnettles are identifiable by their purple flowers and purple leaves towards the top of the plant. Like ground ivy, they are in the mint family, so they have square stems and opposite leaves. Don’t worry about “nettle” in the name– unlike stinging nettle, they do not have stinging spines. If you’d like to keep them in your foraging area, you can just trim the tops of the plants, and they will keep growing back. The plants will be tastier if they have not flowered yet. There is also a similar-looking plant called henbit which is edible and nutritious as well, and fine to use in your pesto.

  • Dandelion:
    • Dandelion is completely edible, flower, leaves, roots, and all! Early in the spring, just leaves will appear, and they will have a milder flavor and more tender texture before their flower stalks appear. To help you correctly identify dandelions before they flower, remember that their leaves are smooth (as opposed to hairy, like cat’s ear leaves are) and they have pointed lobes that point back towards the center of the plant. Dandelion leaves are bitter, but many people find them quite tasty. Plus their bitterness helps stimulate your digestive system and support your liver. They are also high in vitamin K and potassium, as well as other vitamins and minerals.

  • Garlic mustard:
    • Garlic mustard is another plant in the mustard family, and as its name suggests, it has a funky, garlicky flavor. They become bitter once they flower, so it’s best to pick them before the flowers appear. Because garlic mustard is invasive and spreads wildly, it is a great one to pick freely and use in pesto. First year garlic mustard plants are low-growing rosettes with rounded, kidney-shaped leaves, scalloped on the edges. The leaves are smooth (unlike some lookalike species with hairy leaves). Upper leaves on mature plants are more triangular and coarsely toothed. Plants often smell like garlic, especially when leaves are crushed. The leaves are rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E.
  • Wild garlic:
    • Wild alliums are common, and like garlic mustard, will help add garlicky flavor to your pesto. We recommend harvesting the common wild garlic which you can find in yard, fields, and by sidewalks. They grow in clumps, looking almost like a tall grass, but when you get closer, you will realize that the mature stems are hollow, and when crushed, it smells distinctly like garlic. When they get older, the stems start to curl. If you have some of these in your yard, you can use the tops, bulbs, or both, and swap out some or all of the garlic bulbs in your recipe.
    • One of the most famous wild alliums are ramps, which are overharvested, and at risk of becoming endangered if people continue to harvest at high rates. Even when people do choose to harvest from abundant populations, they should only pick a leaf or two per plant, being sure to always leave at least 2-3 leaves on the plant, and not pulling up the root. 
  • Chickweed:
    • Chickweed is a small plant, but it often grows in big patches. Its leaves are opposite, smooth, and entire (meaning they have a smooth leaf edge, not toothed edges). Their flowers are small, white, and star-shaped with 5 petals. Chickweed is a favorite amongst herbalists because it can be eaten or used externally (at Una Biologicals, we use it in our Wound Wonder, Baby Balm, and Tattoo Salve). If you eat them, you’ll benefit from its many nutrients: vitamins A, D, C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, iron and silica!

When foraging, always pay attention to detail and confirm your identification! Use a reputable website or book, and confirm your ID with a couple sources.

If you don’t have an abundant supply of any one plant, no problem! Grab a mixture of whatever you can find, and mix with any other herbs or greens you have on hand. For our base recipe, you need 3 cups of any sort of greens.


  • 2-3 garlic cloves
    • If you forage some wild alliums, you can reduce or replace the garlic cloves
  • ½ cup nuts or seeds
    • Hemp seeds, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, almonds, or a blend
    • If desired, lightly toast before adding.
  • 3 packed cups of fresh herbs and/or greens
    • Use any combination of these or others: Basil, parsley, dill, fennel, marjoram, mint, thyme, oregano, edible weeds, vegetable greens (arugula, spinach, radish tops, carrot tops, kale)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
    • Start with the juice of half a lemon and add to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
    • You can start with ¼ teaspoon of each and add more to taste
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan, romano, or nutritional yeast
    • If using nutritional yeast, start with ⅛ cup (2 tablespoons), and increase to taste
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

  1. Place garlic in the food processor; pulse until finely chopped.
  2. Add the nuts, greens, salt, and pepper; pulse until nuts and greens are finely chopped. 
  3. Now, turn your food processor on to continuously blend, and slowly pour the olive oil in, until the mixture is well-combined. Stop once it is combined if you like a thicker textured pesto, or blend longer if you want it smooth.
  4. Finally, add parmesan and pulse 2 or 3 times.
  5. Now use your pesto on pasta, sandwiches, stirred into soups, or to coat your fish or chicken!

Tips for preserving pesto:



Written by: Charlie Baron

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