Last month I wrote about my difficulties determining which young sprouts were plants I wanted and which were weeds. Not only is it difficult to recognize a weed, but have you ever tried to define exactly what a weed is?
Dandelions are, without question, weeds. Right? Occasionally, though, I encounter someone who argues for their value as an early food source for pollinators, an excellent indicator of compacted soil or simply an abundant source of cheery yellow flowers.
Similarly, I take a dim view of the stinging nettles that grow around our farm. My inadvertent brushes with them leave my appendages unpleasantly buzzing before turning numb for hours … if not days. Erin Crooks Lynch of Enos Farms, however, makes the most amazing soup with nettles. She prizes nettles for their nutrients as well as their flavor. Go figure.
My garden mentor Roy Diblik says that 40 years ago when he began selling native plants in a Chicago suburb, he couldn’t even give them away. Twenty years later, he was introduced to Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, who informed him that American native plants were all the rage in Europe. Piet asked Roy to help him select and grow plants — many of them natives — for Oudolf’s design of what has become the internationally acclaimed Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Today gardeners and ecologists widely embrace the beauty, utility and desirability of native plants.
As a new gardener I discovered the pink, white and purple blossoms of what I thought were spring phlox growing at the edge of my yard. I encouraged them to spread and prosper. A few years later, when customers at the perennial nursery where I was working purchased these plants, I congratulated them, telling them how much they’d enjoy this plant I’d come to know as Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis). Since then, the plant has been identified as highly invasive, earning a spot on the no-sell list in many states.
In fact, many plants we now regard as invasive were originally purchased at nurseries and planted with enthusiasm for their highly desirable ornamental or culinary attributes. Garlic mustard, buckthorn, honeysuckle and Japanese barberry are just a few of the plants we loved to plant … until they escaped into natural landscapes and threatened to overtake them. It is illegal in many states now for nurseries to sell these. Certainly, there are plants in garden centers today that in the future will be identified as invasive species.
During Master Gardener Volunteer training, we were given this definition of a weed: “A weed is any plant that is not in the right place.” At the time, I thought that definition was a bit indulgent. Since then, I’ve grown to see their point. One gardener’s treasure is another gardener’s weed. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.
The other thing I like about this definition is it puts us gardeners in charge. If you want a pristine garden where everything is just so, you probably will do lots of weeding. But, if you have a more live-and-let-live attitude, or if you’re a lazy gardener like me, you can consider more “weeds” to be desirable plants. That could cut down your workload considerably. Now that’s what I call 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.