One of the very first things you learn in agricultural school is the definition of a weed. According to knowledgeable professors wearing ties and mud boots, a weed is “a plant out of place.” This tidbit of wisdom shows up in books, slide shows, bulletin boards, and multiple choice tests.
What this means is that a prize-winning dahlia growing in your cornfield is a weed, as is an eight-foot stalk of corn towering from your flower bed. What makes a weed depends on your goals and desires. In other words, the thing that makes a weed a weed is not a job description written in genetic code, rather it is a title bestowed at birth.
A different take on weeds
My husband, who is as perplexed by agronomic principles as I am by engineering ones, has a totally different take on weeds. He says if mowing a plant makes it stronger, if hacking its roots with an ax gives it motivation, or if fire, poison, salt, and dehydration make it giggle, it is a weed. If the leaves hug the ground so tightly you have to peel them off in layers, it is a weed. Furthermore, if you whack it down and stick it in a blender, each individual microscopic piece will mushroom into tree-like majesty inside of a week.
We used to argue about this. He thought there had to be more to weedhood than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, he believes the word “weed”—along with instructions on how to defeat a hoe—is hardwired right into their DNA.
Letting the volunteers grow
Ironically, this same husband (there’s only been the one, so I’m pretty sure) insists on letting volunteers grow wherever they see fit. For you non-agronomic types, a volunteer is a crop plant that manages to grow in a place you didn’t put it. In other words, it’s a weed.
For example, you may find a volunteer parsnip growing out of your compost heap, or a volunteer carrot springing from your row of beans. While these things scream Weed! to me, he sees them as desirable plants that somehow found the perfect place to sprout. He believes volunteers do better than deliberately sown plants because luck landed them in the ideal spot. These plants are happy, content and grow like, well, weeds.
So as not to offend his sensibilities, I cannot just yank them out. All summer long I have to work around them, baby them, and lullaby them. They take time. This year I have a potato growing from my supply of potting soil, lettuce growing between the peppers, and a tree of cilantro blossoming among the forget-me-nots. How can I possibly forget?
Truth in engineer-think
Whether I like it or not, I have to admit seeing some truth in my husband’s strange ideas. The so-called weeds really are indestructible and the volunteer plants do incredibly well. Just yesterday I was weeding around the volunteer potato plant when potatoes spontaneously began rolling out of the ground. Whenever I pulled another weed, a firm and glossy potato popped out with it. What fun!
On the other hand, the potatoes I planted this year were a fail. I got about two potatoes for each one I placed in the ground (and watered, weeded, and fertilized) and the volunteer cilantro was absolutely voluptuous compared to its carefully sown counterparts that just flopped over.
And speaking of weeds, last year at the end of the season, I pickaxed all the lemon balm that surrounded the mulberry. This was a proactive measure to assure I could tend the tree. But this year, by the time the berries appeared, I couldn’t get near enough to pick them. In spite of removing the root balls, the lemon balm returned lush, aromatic, and about four feet tall. Although I couldn’t get near the tree, the birds had no problem, and now I have seedy purple droppings all over my leaf lettuce.
The entire subject of weeds and volunteers came to mind because of a comment left on a post by a reader. Sherry wrote:
Whenever I see something new in my garden, instead of weeding it, I wait to see what it becomes. I did this with a little weed three years ago. It grew so tall I could barely touch the top, then bloomed with huge spikes of golden flowers in late summer/early fall. Giant Goldenrod! I loved it, even though it was about 50x as tall as the rest of my hummingbird/bee/butterfly garden.
The next year, there were three of them. The next year, 6. Now there is a patch of about a dozen and I need a stepladder to see the tops, which, probably due to my fertilizer, are branched out with many stalks that will become flowers. Last year, they were swarmed with bees and some kind of tiny butterfly. I’m pretty excited to see how many come this year. It’s amazing to see how much wildlife is thriving around my decision not to pull a little “weed.”
Sherry, being both curious and flexible, was rewarded for her wait-and-see attitude. I, on the other hand, have planted goldenrod in my pollinator garden for years and have never had so much as a seedling come out of it.
Weeds and volunteers
So now that I’ve shared my weed stories with you, tell me: What is your take on weeds and volunteers? How do you decide what to keep? Do you ever let volunteers (aka weeds) do their own thing? Have you ever known a more inept gardener than I?
Honey Bee Suite