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Beneficial Weeds


The Purpose of Weeds
by Diane Linsley

"I am not a lover of lawns. Rather would I see daisies in their thousands, ground ivy, hawkweed, and even the hated plantain with tall stems, and dandelions with splendid flowers and fairy down, than the too-well-tended lawn." ~W.H. Hudson

When I was four years old, I discovered a pretty, purple flower growing on the side of the road. I excitedly picked the tiny bloom and presented it to my mother. She said, “That’s a nasty weed.” She explained that God gave us weeds to torture and punish us. I was crushed. The sweet, innocent-looking thing was an enemy to be feared and despised!

I started gardening in my early twenties. My husband and I lived in a mobile home with a very small plot of land surrounding it. When we moved in, I discovered a vine growing in the spot that was to become our vegetable garden. It had lovely, pinkish-white flowers that opened to the sun every morning. I pointed out the beautiful plant to my husband, who informed me that it was the dreaded morning glory weed. He spent the next four years trying to eradicate it. I was secretly glad that he never succeeded.

When we moved to our first house in Utah, I finally had enough space to grow a flower garden. We rototilled a small area, scattered a dozen packets of seeds over it, and raked them in. After a couple of weeks, I could see little sprouts coming up. I was impressed with my beginner’s luck. It wasn’t until the fast-growing plants bloomed at 2 inches high that I realized they weren’t what I had planted. It was an invasive weed with bronze leaves and yellow flowers. It was kind of pretty, and I was tempted to let it be. But then I realized that this weed didn’t need my help to survive. It wasn’t in any danger of extinction. Thus began the war against the weeds. In the end, the weeds won. We tried to control them for ten years, but after we moved to our new house, selling our old house to a non-gardener, the weeds finally had free reign of the property.

Shortly after we moved here, we found ourselves spending a lot of time pulling weeds in our new vegetable garden. One day, my daughter pointed out all the ladybugs living in the patch of weeds we were pulling. I admitted that it was sad that we were destroying their habitat. I said to my daughter, “You know how important weeds are? They feed the beneficial insects. They help to prevent erosion. If it weren’t for weeds, all the topsoil on the earth would wash away into the ocean. Then farmers wouldn’t be able to grow crops, and we would all starve to death.” The fact is, because of modern farming techniques, the world is losing topsoil at a shocking rate.

I read an article in the March 7, 2009 issue of The Economist about the problem plaguing America’s bee population -- Colony Collapse Disorder. It is caused by the bees’ diet being restricted to a single type of pollen, the result of being forced to pollinated monoculture crops. This is an example of how man’s desire to control nature by eliminating weeds has resulted in alarming destruction. Compare this to the organic gardening technique of combining different crops and allowing for wild areas at the edges of fields where weeds grow freely.

Our three-acre plot of land is divided into two sections: One acre of flower and vegetable gardens, and two acres of weeds. The weed patch is there by default because I can’t take care of more than one acre of gardens. Of course, the weeds would like to take over the whole thing. That’s their job. But I try to keep them out of the garden as much as possible. This means spending an hour per day weeding.

People think I’m nuts. “What a waste of time!” they say. Actually, it’s not that bad. I would prefer not to weed, but I don’t hate it. There are benefits to weeding. Weeding is therapeutic and meditative. It gives me an opportunity to contemplate nature and the meaning of life. My daughters spend their weeding time making up funny stories. But the benefits don’t end there. Being out in the sun gives us our daily dose of vitamin D, which is essential for good health.

Weeds have given me a new perspective on life. Weeds are like problems. They never end. But problems are not the enemy. Problems help us grow. Weeds have taught me to accept my problems and not take them personally. The universe is neutral. It’s not out to get you. Stuff happens. Acceptance is the first step to peace. And weeds are not "bad". 

As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” [Hamlet II, ii, 249] You can make yourself miserable by labeling weeds as bad, or you can accept that your thoughts and judgments about them come from you. Nature doesn’t discriminate against weeds. Bees pollinate weeds, vegetables and flowers all together.

Of course, I prefer to grow flowers rather than weeds, but I know it’s just my personal preference. In fact, most garden flowers were originally weeds. They just happen to have larger, prettier flowers than other weeds, so humans chose to cultivate them. Unfortunately, most garden flowers can’t hold their own against the more vigorous weeds. So we have to pull the weeds if we want to keep the flowers.

You've probably heard the saying, “A weed is a plant in the wrong place.” Looking at this from another angle, there is no such thing as a weed. Every plant has a purpose. But in the wrong place, any plant can be problematic. I have an old rose, Indigo, that is suckering all over the area where it is planted. So I’ve decided to remove it. I know it will be a long battle because it will keep trying to come back from the underground suckers that have stretched out six feet from the mother plant. But this is a battle that I have chosen to fight.

The worst weed, in my opinion, is lawn grass. What does it do for nature? Well, it prevents erosion. But it doesn’t feed beneficial insects. And the chemicals that people dump on their lawns in an effort to maintain it as a monoculture are killing wildlife, poisoning our ground water, and causing thousands of deaths by cancer. Personally, I think that poisoning innocent people is a worse crime than having weeds in your lawn. But not everyone agrees with me (like the man down the street who claims that my weeds are interfering with his ability to be happy). You see, it's just a matter of perspective.

Until they get brainwashed by their elders, children see the beauty in all things. As adults, we need to relearn this attitude. We must appreciate and respect all forms of life and how everything is interconnected, while at the same time making the difficult choices that adults have to make in order to survive. This is a fine line to walk.

We cannot go back to the romanticized state of blissful, childhood ignorance. We can only go forward to a higher state of integration. Otherwise, humanity will continue on its present course of destroying the earth. But having the right attitude is not enough. Going forward requires both education and awareness. Will we make it? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, we each make seemingly insignificant, individual choices every day. My daughters love the fluffy dandelions and the sweet-smelling violets that grow in the lawn. I let my husband spot-treat the dandelions, but I forbid him to touch the violets. Someday, I'll get my way, and the lawn will be gone completely.

"Man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved." ~Jack R. Harlan, in Crops and Man, 1992.


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Flowers for Butterflies -- Attracting butterflies with nectar and host plants.
Flowers for Hummingbirds -- The best flowers for attracting hummingbirds.
Flowers for Beneficial Insects -- Support your local ladybugs and lacewings.


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