Weeding Part 1: Know What You Are About to Kill

If you garden, you weed. That’s the inevitable fact. Opening the soil gives weed seeds the opportunity to sprout, and since weeds are tough characters that easily out-compete most domestic plants, they must be “managed,” which means removed, destroyed or killed. Weeding season is upon us now, but before seizing their preferred tools and doing battle, gardeners would do well to sharpen their attention and open their eyes.

This may not apply to gardens that are neat and tidy, where the distinction between ‘garden plants,’ and ‘weeds’ is clear and distinct. My garden is a motley situation, a chaotic pluralism whose occupants range from undisputed non-weeds (blue poppies, delphiniums, hybrid lilies) to herbs (which can be surprisingly weedy) to tough plants with tendencies to colonize (peach-leaf bellflower, periwinkle) or seed mightily (campion, mullein, toadflax).

Since the early days of this garden, certain plants have transitioned from welcome and wanted to suspect to weeds. If a plant is to be removed, it’s easier to do it when it’s a mere seedling than weeks later when it has become firmly rooted and requires more effort to extract, or, even worse, when it has bloomed and gone to seed, thus ensuring its presence forever. On the other hand, if you want certain plants in your patch and depend upon seedlings for this, you need to recognize those tiny plants so you will not inadvertently yank them out or mow them down along with the weeds.

For example,  borage is a pleasant herb (however useless in the kitchen), with its clusters of blue flowers over prickly leaves. It seeds enthusiastically, however, which means that you will have way too much of it unless you pull up most of the seedlings. So if you see its solid little leaves emerging in the lettuce patch, you will want to yank them out, but if a couple turn up among other herbs, or next to the scarlet runner beans, you would do well to spare them and let them grow.

I can recognize dozens of plants when they are still infants — maples, laburnums, hollies, foxgloves, mulleins, toadflax, campion, lavender, lemon balm, arugula, lady’s mantle, violets, various euphorbias, hellebores and many others, including definite weeds such as shepherd’s purse, which appeared in the area a few years ago and is probably here to stay. I pull up or hoe out most of them, but not without recognizing them first. “Hello Toadflax, goodbye, Toadflax; hi there, Mullein, OK you can stay.”

Twice, this policy of seedling recognition has paid off handsomely. Years ago I bought a plant of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea,’ a yellow ornamental grass with more substance than Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum.’ I made the mistake of assuming it was as tough and drought-tolerant as Luzula nivea, the snowy woodrush, which borders on being a pest at my place. One April I admired my plant in full bloom, then paid it little attention until July, when I found it brown and dead. Efforts to find a replacement locally failed. One nursery owner informed me that there was no demand for this grass, so they didn’t stock it. I was about to order a plant by mail, but I found what appeared to be a seedling — bright yellow, among a bunch of equally yellow sprouts of Bowles golden, except that this one seemed more robust and perky. Hoping it was Luzula, I moved it to a pot and kept a close eye on it until I was sure. I planted it back into the border and have taken more notice of it since.

A similar story with Salvia regeliana: from one plant, I got several more by self-seeding, and took it for granted. Then all those plants disappeared. I suspect it’s naturally short-lived, like many salvias. But the following spring I found a couple of seedlings that might have been mulleins, but their leaves were darker green and wrinkly, rather than fuzzy. They looked a bit like foxgloves, but not entirely. Could they be offspring of the lost salvias? They were and still are.

All this leads to observations that apply to many things in life, but especially to gardening. Pay attention. Take your time. Don’t take things — or plants — for granted. Gardening is not a sport in which you get points for speed.

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