Weeding our gardens


Weeds are the little vices that beset plant life, and are to be got rid of the best way we know how.” – Farmer’s Almanac, 1881

I am back to serious gardening this summer after many years of a distracted and lackadaisical approach to a once flourishing vegetable plot.

This means serious weeding as well. It is warfare. I am in the midst of a mighty battle against the persistent, tenacious opportunism of weeds (if only vegetables had such strength of will!).

A 1906 dictionary I have defines a weed: “the general name of any useless or troublesome plant; anything useless or troublesome, specially when mingled with things that are useful or of value.”

This kind of definition was a bit troublesome itself, and led to the attitude that “weeds” ought to be destroyed under all circumstances. The environmental movement, while addressing the devastating effects of herbicides and pesticides, introduced a change of thinking. A weed, most dictionaries now agree, is merely a plant growing in the wrong place.

That still leaves us gardeners dealing with a plant that is growing in the wrong place and determined to stay there.

The humorist Dave Barry claims that “Crabgrass can grow on bowling balls in airless rooms, and there is no known way to kill it that does not involve nuclear weapons.”

More benignly, garden writer Doug Larsen views a weed as “a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”

In recovering my old garden plot, I tilled it five times, and then went back and dug out all the weeds and roots by hand, and now I am going through and weeding again. The weeds have such strategies for survival you almost think they are plotting against you. An old gardening aphorism says, “One to sow, seven to grow.” Should I let my vegetables go to seed, I won’t find myself weeding their children out seven years later, but weeds can manage it.

Witchgrass and milkweed can tangle with anything underground, and vetch and bindweed can tangle with it over ground. Chickweed is easy to pull – but you’ll never get the root. The plant gives up right away, and leaves the root to spawn a new generation.

I hadn’t seen galinsoga in years but clearly only because I hadn’t been paying attention. It was biding its time under all the taller weeds that had been flourishing. This is a plant that is officially designated a “noxious weed” by the U.S. government. Thirty years ago, gardeners in our area had never heard of galinsoga parviflora (or quickweed, potato weed, yellow weed, gallant soldier – it has many other names.) This plant is native to South America, traveled all this way using its wits. One plant can produce several thousand seeds, and can complete a life cycle (germination to shedding of seeds) in only 50 days. The little beasts can produce viable seeds when the plant is only an inch or so high, and those seeds create a new generation when they fall to the ground. No wonder it thrives!

But attitude is a part of it: in its native territory, galinsoga is considered a potherb, good to eat. A carpenter who was here while I was weeding out the young shoots of milkweed happily took a mess home with him and pronounced it delicious (the secret, he says, is to drop it into boiling water to draw out the bitterness.) Many weeds are richer in nutrients than the vegetables they compete with – but since the bugs in my garden ate the beets while ignoring the iron-rich pigweed growing next to them, I don’t feel so bad about wanting the familiar, delicious flavors of traditional vegetables myself, and I will go on weeding.

Though perhaps I need a new image to replace the warfare I am waging. Weeding also has a meaning as a careful tending, a metaphor for the conscious life. The great Catholic activist Dorothy Day wrote, “We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all.”

That seems like a much better thing to think about while I am in my garden, listening to the common yellowthroat as it flits through the bushes, and the hairy woodpecker tapping in the dead butternut tree.

Garden writer Vivian Glyck has written, “Many things love to come and live off your plants, including bacteria, bugs, birds and bunnies. If you don’t control them, entire crops can be ruined. The result of your careful cultivation, in your garden and in your life, can be lost to predators in a short time. … Take a look at your life, what toxic relationships, substances and emotions are feeding on your energy and taking away from what you have to give to others. Eliminate them.”

Thanks to Michael Garofalo, who compiled many of the quotes used above at gardeningdigest.com.