This early in the gardening season, even the oft-dreaded chore of weeding can be appealing to those of us anxious to get our hands in the dirt. But, in these early days, weeding can be tougher than you might think. Some tiny green shoots are easy to recognize as weeds: dandelions and creeping Charlie come to mind.
Others have me stumped, for the moment. There’s one plant in particular that is scattered throughout my garden beds. The first time I scrutinized this plant, I was fairly sure I hadn’t planted it on purpose. It was coming up in a lot of places, yet I didn’t recognize the small leaves. How could I not identify a plant I had used so widely? Still, memory fails me with increasing frequency these days. I decided to let it grow a while and see what developed.
A week later, I revisited the mystery plants. They seemed to be more widespread. Some were even growing in the stone mulch along the garage … a big hint as to their weediness. “Okay,” I decided. “I’ll take the plunge and start pulling them out.” After I’d ousted a big patch, I had second thoughts. “What if this was really something I planted? When I finally realize what I’ve done, I’ll be so mad at myself.” Once again, I stepped away from the plants.
At times like these, I take comfort in a presentation by Ken Williams I attended a few years ago. Ken, a professional horticulturist who maintains big gardens all over the Chicago metro area, including acres of plantings at The Shedd Aquarium, talked about weeding. Sometimes even he and his crews don’t recognize a plant. They, too, wait a few weeks to watch how the plant grows. Eventually, it becomes ornamental, and they leave it, or it doesn’t, and they yank it. Hey, who am I to argue with the pros?
If you are wondering whether a plant is a weed or an ornamental, ask these questions to gather clues:
Is the plant appearing prolifically throughout the garden or even in a particular area of the garden?
Is the plant growing into or up through plants you know you planted on purpose?
Is the plant appearing outside the garden—in the lawn or mulch?
Is the plant growing more robustly than the surrounding plants?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, there’s reason to suspect you’re looking at a weed. If you answer yes to all of these questions, as I did, you can be 99 percent sure it’s a weed. Careful gardeners with high aesthetic standards are likely to evict any plant that’s out of place. That’s why their gardens are tidy oases in a chaotic world. I, however, routinely answer “yes” to all four questions, and yet I waiver. Because … “What if?” This unfounded optimism that a rampantly growing plant will turn out not to be a weed but a highly desirable plant is, my friends, part of what makes gardening blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.