Merriam-Webster says a weed is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth, especially one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants; an obnoxious growth, thing, or person.”
Basically, all plants are weeds in their natural locations, and any plant that is tended and fostered with love is not a weed. It’s that simple. Your role as Queen Gardener is to determine what you desire and what you don’t, to sort the weeds from the non-weeds. Such is life. And just like life in general, that’s where the difficulty arises. I mean, really, one man’s weed is another man’s prize. This rings as true in gardening as it does in any facet of life. Take dating: his definition of an obnoxious date most likely differs from your definition. You weed out smooth twinks in cropped tee shirts with dance tunes bubbling through their heads; he eschews shirtless hairy bears who toss ‘woofs’ in his direction….examples only, but I’m sure you catch my drift. In the same way, how we chose to label a particular plant is sure to differ.
I lovingly tend plants that are true weeds on the farm I was raised on, specimens that my father demanded the destruction of in his detailed morning instructions – notes scribbled on his way out the door toward work every summer morning and prominently displayed with the implicit understanding that the task would be completed by the time he returned at day’s end . . . or else.
Not that there is a classic homo-pathological father/son relationship breakdown here (just ask my mother, who always agrees with me). There is no hint of post-adolescent rebellion against a cold and distant father symbol. I simply grow milkweed for its luscious pink snowball blooms – how very fabulous – and the dried seed pods which add a tantalizing bit of texture to fall floral arrangements.
Likewise, I lovingly tuck a few hardy cockleburs in a back corner of my garden, truly weed-like in the category of vigorous growth and absolutely uninspiring as far as foliage and bloom, but ingenious in seed design (their robin’s egg-sized pods with hooked spines were the inspiration for Velcro). They warm me as they inspire memories of the battles my younger brother and I staged, their painful pellets, when hurled at full force, far more meaningful than any make-believe bullet.
Ain’t brotherly love a beautiful thing?
I also adore Russian Olives, a garden escapee that threatens to take over the northern Wyoming landscape that spawned me. I have grown them pruned into a low hedge as well as molded into espaliers against a rock wall, beautiful with their grey-green slivers of quivering leaf suspended from glistening reddish-brown twigs. Their tiny yellow flowers arrive in June and the heady, drifting lily-like fragrance never fails to induce homesickness.
This is not my father’s garden, and I can picture him spinning in his grave over the loving attention I lavish on my beauties. But maybe it’s just my sun bonnet – he never did share my sense of fashion.
Even the all-American lawn is not immune to the weed/non-weed debate. Mind you, I am not a fan of the stereotypical middle-class-American turf. I consider the expanse of a lawn too labor intensive and space consuming to be of value, not to mention the overt, hetero-specific, suburban symbolism of the white picket fence-encased greenery. Still, those who meticulously, obsessively, compulsively fertilize and aerate and water and mow and edge and clip and plug and seed and feed and weed…and on and on…argue vehemently about what constitutes a weed and what doesn’t. Clover, buttercups, and oxeye daisy are all noxious pests to those who prefer a swath of virgin bluegrass, and furthermore are held up as the true culprit behind grass stains, not the grass, itself!
I say: forget the lawn, I’ll take the virgin!
Meanwhile, more nostalgic souls wax poetically and remember green grass picnics of childhood among the flowers and buzzing bees. Why, even dandelions, traditionally topping everyone’s list of weeds, can be harvested for soups and salads, therefore moving them from the undesirable to the desirable column, not to mention that their tender spring leaves provide nectar for the green lacewing, whose larvae devour many typical garden pests. And those packets of wildflower seeds sold in nurseries and garden centers? As beautiful as they may be, they are weeds in their natural environment.
This distinction between weeds and wildlings is far from clear, and to further muddy these waters, many undesirables are actually escapees – originally planted with purpose, they have moved beyond their allotted space and lumber towards obnoxiousness. It is my theory that every garden contains its own particular weed, and more times than not it is the result of stupidity on the part of some previous gardener (I can just imagine someone voicing this very opinion as they attempt to eradicate my beloved Russian Olive espaliers).
I once had a tiny plot in Colorado that became overrun by someone else’s Creeping Bluebell, a common escapee that is very pretty at first blush but in short order will overtake every single inch of soil, crowding out the other plantings and driving any gardener crazy. To make matters worse, it is foil-proof. Attempt to pluck it out and the slippery stem separates from the turnip-like taproot, which immediately shoots out three spears to replace the one destroyed. Digging the taproot out with a trowel is nearly impossible: it is buried as far as 8 inches below the surface, and any tiny bit of root left remaining, even the smallest dependency, springs forth new growth that rises with stubborn, renewed vigor. Even the chemical combatants, the herbicides, which I avoid in all but the most severe circumstances, do little more than cause a brief pause in the steady march of the creeping bluebell.
Overall, though, I advise the exercise of restraint when weeding. Destroy the volunteer sprouts in your garden and you risk destroying something truly unique. My original Mexican Sunflower seeds, which I have nurtured through five states and twice as many gardens, were harvested from a single plant that appeared without invitation in an arid parking strip. On my hands and knees in my garden, clearing away that which I assume to be undesirable, I have discovered tiny ferns, self-sown foxglove and poppies, coleus, impatiens, hollies, and a myriad of other valuable plants. One infant blue spruce I discovered in a corner in Utah, when last visited, rose ten feet over a lovely pond and shade garden.
Some weeds are like that solid, reasonable (i.e., perfect) man you have been overlooking, the one who slips in under your radar while you are distracted by the flashy little whore dancing on the speaker box. Next thing you know, you are driving cross-country to start your new, married life with someone who at first glance you might have yanked out and tossed to the compost heap. Plants and reasonable men know where they want to grow and, furthermore, they stubbornly refuse to be pigeon-holed as weeds. For this reason I find it suitable for my purposes to identify before plucking; I may actually end up desiring what appears without my initial consent.
In cases where weeding is a necessity, as in the vegetable garden and among the specimen plantings of beds and nursery boxes, plucking that which offends thee at an early stage will usually suffice. Just make sure you get the entire embryonic weed, root system and all; otherwise the remains will rise Phoenix-like to haunt you until the end of days. I am reminded of my ex-boyfriend Fernando, who I tried unsuccessfully to eradicate no less than three times before I finally succeeded in removing him part-and-parcel. Lesson learned: the only being more tenacious than an established weed root is an established psychotic boyfriend.
More proactively, applying a four- or five-inch layer of mulch hay, straw, pine needles, seaweed, any organic material that is native and handy to your area – will deprive the weeds of light and air and kill off the intruders. If not killed outright, those that manage to force their way through are weakened and spindly, and can usually be uprooted with ease
The true moral of this story is that a weed is a weed only if you label it such. And the gay folk, more so than most, understand the implication of negative labeling. Who among us hasn’t recoiled at being called queer, fag, dyke, or sissy? Labels damage. But like the negatively-labeled plants, although we may not initially be valued where we sprout, we manage to flourish vigorously. Even when some proclaim our obnoxiousness, we know differently. Like my Russian Olives, we are sentimental, artistic, and strong. We take our lessons from the Creeping Bluebells: we march onward.