Weeds

There is a moment in the life cycle of a hobby garden—at least in the life cycle of my hobby garden—when it seems like the work is done. The soil has been prepared and the seeds and seedlings for the initial planting are in the ground. Spring rains keep the soil most for the most part, and I can indulge in the fantasy that the next task will be to start harvesting mature, healthy, and healthful produce. True, some vegetables planted as seeds will need to be thinned at some point, but aside from that it can seem that only rewards await.

Soon enough, and sometimes even before the new sprouts need to be thinned, weeds appear. Crabgrass, dandelion, plantain, sorrel, and one other nasty specimen that I can’t identify are the most common weeds in our vegetable garden. lamb’s quarter, an edible weed whose identity I learned only recently, likes our flower garden better.

If one thinks of a weed as any species of plant that grows where it is not wanted, even clover becomes a weed in our garden despite the fact that I plant clover along with the grass seed in the bare spots in the lawn. Dandelions, almost universally regarded as weeds in any setting, actually provide a benefit because their long, long tap roots bring nutrients from deep in the soil to the surface. What’s more, the lettuce-seed mix that we have been planting in recent years includes a species of dandelion. Then there’s milkweed. One would think it’s easy to categorize because it has the word “weed” in its name. But monarch butterflies will lay their eggs only on milkweed plants because the larvae that hatch will eat only milkweed. So, no milkweed, no monarch butterflies.

Leaving aside questions of what makes a plant a weed, let’s proceed under the supposition that the presence of any uninvited guest plant in a vegetable or flower patch is undesirable.

As hobbyist gardeners and homeowners, we have dealt with weeds for many years. This year, however, we’ve spent more time and energy than ever before dealing with weeds during the volunteer sessions at City Green. This past Wednesday we spent about two and one-half hours weeding redbor and toscano kale. We hacked at the surrounding ground with hoes and then pulled weeds by hand when swinging the hoe put the kale plants themselves in danger. We haven’t dreamed about weeds, but we have spent time thinking about them.

Toscano kale with crabgrass.
Toscano kale with crabgrass.

This photo shows a kale plant and a healthy crabgrass specimen in close proximity. When weeding the kale, we had to be careful not to disturb the roots of the good plants. That’s why this healthy crabgrass specimen remains while the surrounding ground has been cleared of most other weeds. Pulling the crabgrass would no doubt harm the kale. It would be better if the weed had been removed when it was still small enough to be pulled without collateral damage, but alas, the resources were not available to do that at the time.

Not surprisingly, weeds serve as a useful metaphor. The twentieth-century expression “in the weeds” is used to describe someone who is overwhelmed by or lost in the details of his or her life and responsibilities. It’s thought that the origin is the restaurant business. A server who is confused by the details of many customers’ orders is said to be in the weeds. An older use of weeds as metaphor occurs in the Christian scriptures, in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. A farmer’s wheat crop is deliberately sabotaged by an enemy who sows weeds that closely resemble the wheat. Pulling up the weeds while the wheat is growing will damage the wheat, so the farmer instructs his workers to let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest, at which time they can be safely separated. Elsewhere in that chapter Jesus delivers the more familiar parable of the sower and the seeds, wherein some good seeds are sown among thorns. This inverts the notion of undesirable plants sprouting up amid the intended crops, but we can still think of the thorns as undesirable plants that interfere with the growth of the good crops.

Just as weeds can rob the planted crops of the sunlight, nutrients, and water that they need to grow, the cares of the world and the minutiae of daily living can rob us of the resources that we need to grow as individuals and to contribute to the community around us and the larger world. Even activities and possessions that can be considered good can become as weeds when they invade the spaces in our lives where that should be occupied by the truly essential things, just as clover, dandelions, milkweed, and lamb’s quarter become weeds in our vegetable and flower patches.

As with the large crabgrass specimen next to the kale, it’s better if we deal with the harmful influences, the misplaced priorities, before they become too large to remove easily. What are the things in my life that threaten to crowd out what’s truly essential? How am I dealing with them? Is there a legitimate place for them and, if so, am I being successful in confining them to that place? How do you deal with the weeds in your life?

Thanks again for visiting and reading. Best wishes for success in dealing with the weeds, literal and metaphorical, that encroach on your gardens.

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