Gardenwise: The Wisdom of Weeds

By Susan Tito

I battle weeds all growing season but I get a jump on the following year by amping up removal efforts before the cold weather sets in. As garden chores go, weeding never gets old for me. I rejoice when I dig up dandelions and take great pleasure in plucking their ripened seed heads, secure in the knowledge that I am wiping out future generations of weeds.

This year, however, I scrutinized all the weeds in my yard and did some soul searching. Yes, there are the aforementioned dandelions to keep me on my toes, but some plants that I remove routinely because of their propensity to spread, such as hardy ageratum, aren’t really weeds — they’re perennials that I don’t like for various reasons.

That got me thinking: What is a weed, anyway? Some people offer the simple explanation that it’s a plant in the wrong place. But as I ruminated about my garden, I realized that my definition transcends plant taxonomy. For me, it’s about perception and the ensuing visceral reaction we experience from plants that really determine their classification.

This strawberry jar used to house annuals, but columbine (left) and Montauk daisy moved in and are growing side by side in the most attractive way.
This strawberry jar used to house annuals, but columbine (left) and Montauk daisy moved in and are growing side by side in the most attractive way.

That led me to regard every plant on my property as belonging to one of two categories: “weed” or “non-weed.” It dawned on me that any plant — even a desired one — can be a weed in the wrong situation. Employing that logic, a rosebush can be as much of a weed as can crabgrass.

For example, a few years ago, one of my treasured rosebushes — a plant solidly in the non-weed class — put up a sucker several feet away that grew into a separate, thornier version of the original shrub. The secondary rosebush never produced blooms and before long, the original rosebush stopped making flowers. With the realization that the sucker was sapping energy from the original rosebush, I dug up the secondary shrub — now reclassified as a weed —and discarded it.

That experience revealed that our perception of weeds can impart a certain wisdom and a modicum of wonder. Following are lessons I learned from my weeds and non-weeds:

Never underestimate a plant’s ingenuity.

Last winter I moved a strawberry jar that housed annuals to overwinter in my backyard. To my surprise, some nearby columbine and Montauk daisy seeded themselves in the strawberry jar! It’s not a planting I would have done on my own, but I am reluctant to weed out the invaders and restore the planter to its original use. This past spring, I enjoyed the purple blooms of the columbine and now the Montauk daisy is getting its day in the sun.

Missed garden opportunities may still have positive outcomes.

I had been lax about weeding my birdbath garden in my backyard and the result was an untidy jumble. Then something miraculous happened — fall! One of my mystery weeds turned out to be white snakeroot, an herbaceous native perennial. The snakeroot burst into fluffy flowers that flowed onto my deck in a bright sea of white. Although the scene was unexpectedly beautiful, I will probably remove the snakeroot next growing season.

Spotted spurge, a common annual weed that flourishes in cracks and crevices, has few positive attributes; however, its existence is good news for small bees, flies and wasps, which are attracted to the nectar of its flowers.
Spotted spurge, a common annual weed that flourishes in cracks and crevices, has few positive attributes; however, its existence is good news for small bees, flies and wasps, which are attracted to the nectar of its flowers.

In a similar situation, many years ago my mother gave me evening primrose, one of her favorite plants. She always thought the yellow flowers were cheery but I find them to be garish. Over time I weeded most out, but inevitably I overlook a few every year. Just recently, the foliage on the surviving patch of evening primrose turned the most gorgeous shade of scarlet. I never enjoyed this plant more!

One weed can bring out many feelings.

One of the worst weeds I’ve encountered is chameleon plant. This past spring, and at great expense, I brought in a crew to excavate and remove it. The problem with chameleon plant is that even the tiniest bit of root left behind regenerates! Although the landscape crew did a great job and the situation is improved, I spent most of my summer removing new plants that cropped up, to the detriment of other gardens. Now, every time I see a new set of chameleon plant leaves emerge from the soil, I experience a range of feelings:

• Regret: Why did I ever plant this monster?

• Self forgiveness: I didn’t know better when I planted it.

• Hate, respect, awe: This plant has astounding resiliency!

• Realization, acceptance: There will always be weeds, some worse than others.

As I grapple to find the positive in weeds, I am reassured by a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that shows I am not alone in my thinking:

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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