Thursday, June 24, 2010

6.13 A Wildflower by Any Other Name



I am not the sort of gardener who comes upon an unknown or uninvited plant and pulls it at once from the earth. I am the sort of gardener who decides (in a startling burst of optimism) that what others call weeds are truly wildflowers.
There is much to be said in favor of weeds – excuse me, “wild plants.” They cover the earth. They colonize ground where your domestic hybrid pretty thing fears to tread. The hold down the earth, especially the valuable top layers, in times of fierce rain and spring floods. They provide habitat for many other life forms – bees, bugs, ants, birds. Who would like to look at a bare forest? What is a forest but a metropolis of wild plants permitted to follow their nature, high and low? What else covers the sins of human devastation so quickly?
There is much to be said against wild plants too, I suppose, on the grounds of spoiling the beauty and the order of the flower garden, which of course they do if a philosophy of embracing the wild and the natural is taken to its logical conclusion. But much of the settled and unexamined animus against them comes from householders trying to grow or preserve a perfect grass lawn. The war on weeds, especially when prosecuted by chemical herbicides, is a war on nature. Weeds are a natural visitor; they are naturally there in my yard, your yard, everybody’s yard. A lawn of non-native grass hybrids is an unnatural impersonator. The classic definition of a weed is a plant for which we have failed to discover a use. A grass lawn doesn’t have a use for anything but lawn grass, so all of nature’s free gifts are by definition weeds.
These gifts, admittedly, often come with baggage of their own. Poison ivy, for instance, is not a desired guest anywhere people live. I suppose it has its role in the balance of nature, but I’m not interested in discovering it.
Other weeds – I mean “gifts of wild nature” – may have thorns or other unpleasant characteristics – stinging nettle, wild rose. I remove them, like everyone else.
But I still tend to look at volunteer plants other than a familiar set of problematic intruders (crabgrass, hardwood saplings, the nightshade vine) as opportunities for discovery. For one thing, they may be new arrivals of the plants you are trying to grow; you have to let them go a little to learn to recognize them. Your volunteers may turn out to have desirable characteristics, attractive flowers or foliage, if you allow them time to develop. They may be lady slippers or asters or wild geraniums.
After a few years – here’s the “turn” in the story – you get to know they’re not.
You get to know them. You recognize them by their first three-eighths of an inch out of the grounds. You think, ah, fresh parsley, a new season’s supply, how fortunate! Or, oh, I see my neighbor’s waste tree has bombarded the back garden with spoor once more. I will now begin pulling up these thousands of little nameless saplings, even though it might be interesting to see what they produced, because otherwise I will have no garden at all.
Sometimes the volunteer plants are wild geranium. And in the case of the particular member of that large tribe which comes our way, that means I must hunt through every square inch of the property and remove them, because they grow anywhere and everywhere, and even though they will eventually produce some sort of flower, one knows from experience that the game is not worth the candle.
One also knows that when you pull one of them, being careful to grab several stems at once in order to have a chance of pulling up the roots as well, you must pause and look carefully at the same spot where you have just pulled because there will inevitably be a second one, a smaller cousin, understudying the first. You cannot get lettuce, herbs, tomatoes (or lawn grass) to seed this thickly.
Nothing seeds as thickly as weeds. It’s a trick of survival.
Then there are the violets, which I don’t know whether to call wild, or weeds, or garden flowers, because wherever we live they are always with us. In Quincy I began by
pulling out the crabgrass in the small, degraded front yard and leaving the violets, which flower so remarkably and consistently in April. Then I took to spreading them around, making them an all-purpose reliable groundcover. But after a few years of this, as the perennial flower garden began to look like something and the plants we (rather than nature) chose for it filled available space, all those violets are simply in the way. After April’s stirring show, they hold up their green heart-shaped leaves to the sun or let them flop to the ground during a drought, but filling the space is all they do.
And so I have come to realize, as all must, that gardening is balance. If I am to have flowers, color, plants that bloom in their season the rest of the summer, after violet time, I must extract from the earth all those thousands of – wild? Is that the word? – native? – violet plants I first encouraged to grow here and there along the edges of our plantations in order to border the beds. Their success is my failure. If we want to see what else we have grown, we must make room to allow our plants to show themselves.
I must treat my beloved violets as if they were – how else can I say it? – weeds.
It is a learning experience for me, and he who doesn’t learn from experience may as well crawl upon the earth and grunt. “Nature,” as the lady said in the film, “is what we were put on earth to rise above.”
I don’t go that far. To rise above nature is to disappear. You have to get along with nature; each side gives a little, wins a few, loses a few. I like to leave my plantings thick enough so that birds and bees can make use of them. They rise almost to the status of habitat; but it’s our habitat as well. As interesting as I find them, sometimes the weeds have to go.

Summer here at last
The clipper cuts through green wealth
Violets, adieu!