I’ve decided that reading the Wall Street Journal every day is emotionally exhausting. My feelings run the gamut from fury and frustration to despair and disgust. Rarely do I read anything that’s remotely cheerful, and it’s only once in a blue moon that I find an article related to my own subject, gardening.
For someone who has to dream up a new garden column every two weeks, that is a delight, so I was happy to find a two-page article last week entitled “Why We Must Learn to Love Weeds” by Richard Mabey, excerpts from his book “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.”
I enjoy weeding, but do I have to love the weeds? The first page and half of the second gave no reasons why we should love them. Instead it gave the many reasons why we dislike them, how they sabotage our plans and ruin our visions of garden designs. It described many horrible weeds, from
New England’s poison ivy to the South’s ravenous kudzu that’s even worse than our bindweed, pictured above. . Both are obviously related to the Boston Strangler.
On top of that, was the discouraging news that it’s our fault that weeds thrive in the company of humans. We are their natural ecological partners, clearing the soil so that they are most often found where we’ve been weeding! What an irony.
At last Mr. Mabey offered a few good things about weeds. “Weeds green over the dereliction we have created. Their willingness to grow in the most hostile environments means that they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.” He also mentioned that they gave us our first vegetables, our first medicines and our first dyes. But then he went on to describe more dreadful weeds, one that I and many of my friends have fought to eliminate, horsetails, and pointed out that their abrasive fronds were once used to polish pewter.
Turning weeds into compost was one of the only useful things mentioned. Yes, indeed. What would we do with all those pulled weeds if we didn’t compost them. And they do make great compost, full of nutrients. I’ve always felt that the process of composting is one of Mother Nature’s miracles, turning a pile of greenery into something as tasty looking as chocolate cake.
Are you familiar with Japanese knotweed, Polygonum custpidatum? My dead-end road is edged with this aggressive weed which can grow to six or seven feet in a summer. Its blossoms are white drooping panicles, followed by brown berries. I think everyone living on Locust Hill Road has tried to eliminate it from their property, but with no success. It spreads by rhizomes and seeds. Digging up the rhizomes just encourages the bits left behind to start a bigger, better colony of knotweeds. Cutting the plants down, even 3 times a summer, does little good. Spraying with poison can stop them temporarily, but they soon come back. How could anyone love the noxious knotweed?
Some weeds are actually attractive and do well in difficult places. I have a handsome patch of variegated goutweed just below my sugar maple. This plant is definitely considered a weed. It spreads like measles and once established is very difficult to get rid of. Fortunately my patch is bordered by lawn and a flagstone terrace so it is unable to spread, provided I nip off all the blossoms it produces before they go to seed. It thrives in deep shade among the roots of the maple tree where nothing else could survive.
My apologies. I didn't mean to write such a critical column, but I think the title of Mr. Mabey's article was rather deceiving and set me up to be disappointed. I don't really hate weeds, but loving them is asking a bit much.