The complexity of weeds

Begonia grandis among Coreopsis. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Recently, The New Yorker, had a long article on weeds that caused me to think about their continuing presence in our gardens. Unwanted as they are, weeds, it turns out, are very interesting in their own right.

It’s surprisingly hard to define a weed. The screenwriter J.L.W. Brooks stated, “Weeds are nature’s graffiti.” A famous proverb assures us that “A good garden may have some weeds.” Paul Dickson in his The New Official Rules wrote that “When weeding, the best way to make sure what you are pulling is a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.” Bear in mind that pokeweed is very easy to pull – one of its positive qualities – and few would give it anything other than weed status.

All of these definitions contain a modicum of truth but fail to adequately describe what actually makes a weed a weed. The best one botanists have come out with is this sparing definition: A weed is a plant simply out of place.

It’s important to recognize the weeds your garden supports. Weeds are a fact of life and your weeds may be different from mine. For instance, I am surrounded by my neighbor’s tulip poplars that insist on spilling their unwanted seeds throughout my garden. Now most people, looking at huge tulip poplars soaring in the background would not consider them to be weeds, failing to note the tree’s ability to produce an overabundance of seeds that germinate with little difficulty. Their only virtue as far as I can determine is that they are easy to pull out, thereby disclaiming Paul Dickson’s definition.

Over the years that I have spent in the garden, our thinking on soil has radically changed. We used to till the toil, churning it over, until we realized that we were exposing a great number of seeds to sunlight—and growth. Then we would take glyphosate and drown the subsequent weeds that arose. This cycle continued throughout the growing year.

What gardeners slowly realized with the help of the invaluable Extension services was that gardeners are different from farmers who must earn a living from their soil. Farmers must consider the large picture whereas we gardeners are dealing with plants on a much smaller scale. Slowly, we learned that weeds rejoice in soil disturbance.

Today, we concentrate not on turning over our soil, but on building it up. One of the main ways we do this is by applying mulch, typically on a yearly basis, that will gradually breakdown. An added benefit is that mulch suppresses weed production.

However, even in my neighborhood, our attitudes towards the handling of mulch are changing. While we slowly learned to leave the grass clippings on the lawn to nourish the grass (remember how we would painstakingly rake it up?), we are also learning to use the leaves nature gives us every fall.

Signs now proliferate, pleading with us to leave the leaves instead of hauling them to the curbside to be picked up to become part of the town’s compost program. No longer do I buy innumerable bags of pine bark; rather I let the leaves discarded by my pin oak to do the job. This actually is a perfect mulching tree as (1) the leaves are small so they do not have to be broken down further; and (2) the tree loses its leaves over a series of three months so I’m never flooded with leaves at one time.

These leaves, strewn by the tree throughout the winter, cut down on the production of weeds. Now I buy bags of mulch for specific plants, not to cover wide areas of the garden.

Weeds are something we all have. Even if we never touched our soils, we would have weeds. Just as my neighbors’ tulip poplars have a death wish to populate my garden, all of us will find that we harbor a particular variety of weeds due to seed production outside our control.

There are some weeds we never want to grow and nourish, such as the poisonous Pokeweed (please don’t tell me to boil it), nutsedge, and thistles. Pokeweed, easy to pull out, I can deal with; nutsedge and thistles, like crabgrass, are much harder to get rid of.

Some weeds we actually purchase with great enthusiasm. One such plant for me is Helleborus x hybridus. In my mind, it’s reluctance to be pulled out places it in the weed category. It’s excessively weedy, also placing it as a weed in my mind – what use are those February flowers when they are intent inevitably on populating the world? If they were easy to control like Begonia grandis, the hardy begonia, I’d term the hellebores as being simply nuisance plants.

Many weeds began by being introduced into our gardening landscape. As they started to demonstrate some undesirable characteristics (think kudzu), they became classified as weeds. As more weeds became resistant to our methods for controlling them, a merry-go-round developed with us becoming more dependent upon chemicals. Suddenly, we had to closely read labels to see if a particular herbicide killed grasses or broad-leafed plants. We had to learn the various classifications of poisons, each one sounding more dubious than the last one.

We are lucky in that we can do something about weeds that farmers cannot: We, on our smaller plots of land, can pull them out or dig them out with a shovel or pitchfork. The Amish, who refrain from using pesticides and herbicides, manually remove them.

So, the next time you see a weed, pull it out, realizing you are just following the Amish practices perfected over the centuries.

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