To weed? Or not to weed?

 At this time of the year weeds can become a bit of an obsession for me. In the warm, wet weather of spring they will sprout seemingly overnight in my beds and borders, and their triffid-like growth threatens to rapidly engulf whatever space they can. 

One of the ultimate skills of a gardener must be our finely-honed weed identification skills. After a few years of sifting through them, I feel I now have the innate ability to spot the difference between a seedling of a plant I want, and one that I don’t. This uncanny knack rests on a knife-edge definition of what a weed is. Most of us would agree that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. 

Some doubt begins to creep into my mind when I begin to consider that every plant has an ecological value, and if it has chosen this as the ideal spot to grow, can it really be in the wrong place? Who am I to rule this herbaceous border like an iron-fisted dictator, eradicating any of the diverse species that choose to make it their home. What many gardeners may consider a weed could be seen by a bee as a source of nectar, by a bird as nesting material or by a butterfly as the ideal food source for their caterpillars. Would I look at dandelions and daisies with the same disdain perhaps if they were hard to grow or exotic; is it just their familiarity and ease of cultivation which breeds contempt? Some people spend their lives trying to rid their gardens of crocosmia, yet others would love to have the same problem. 

Many of these plants which have been branded by the gardening fraternity as weeds are also included into the group of horticultural hooligans known as ‘invasive species’. I sometimes find this title to be a bit of a misnomer. When I see a plant that I want successfully establishing, spreading and colonising an area, I like to think that it has found its ecological ‘niche’. A plant that is able to do this more rapidly than anything else is then perhaps just telling us of the instability of an ecosystem where a large niche is currently being under-utilised. 

There seems to be a commonly held fantasy of a ‘climax community’, that all plants aspire to be part of, where population size and species mix never fluctuates, and everything lives in perfect harmony for eternity. Unfortunately this utopian dream has never been true, and the opportunistic nature of most organisms instills in everything the desire to proliferate. 

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just learn to appreciate the bold, pioneering nature of these ‘weeds’ a bit more and maybe encourage some of the more attractive candidates to reach maturity so that they can fulfil their ultimate purpose, and not leave a gaping hole waiting to be filled in the ecosystem of my border.


I Garden

There is a famous essay in the world of economics, called ‘I Pencil.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the pencil. He describes how he came into being, and the many processes involved in his creation. It surmises that despite being a fairly simple item, there is a huge complexity in its creation, and no single person has the many skills that would be required to make a pencil from start to finish. Despite this, they are made in their thousands, and remain relatively cheap. This essay and its message have long been seen as an explanation and justification of how capitalism works.

Personally, I am not all that into ‘isms’. I think ideologies are near impossible to apply to the chaotic and random nature of ‘real life’, and the only ‘ism’ I really subscribe to is that of pragmatism. After recently re-reading this essay, I was struck by the many parallels it has with the creation of a garden. 

In the creation of a garden there are a huge number of people involved. For example, in the garden that I take care of the owners discussed with the designers how they would like the garden to look. They worked with a team to create plans for the garden. These plans needed a large team of contractors with a wide set of skills to execute. The materials needed be delivered to site by skilled HGV drivers, from materials merchants who had in turn sourced the raw materials from quarrymen, stone masons and saw mills. Even once all of the ‘hard’ elements were constructed, the garden still needed to be filled with plants. The chain involved in getting plants to market can be long one. From the plant collectors, who hunt down new and interesting plants to bring into cultivation. Plant breeders will select the best cultivars. Propagators then increase the stocks of a plant and pass the young plants on to growers who will carefully nurture them until they reach a saleable size and then finally they arrive at the retail nursery where they must be cared for until they are sold, and eventually are planted into the garden. When we look at a much simpler model, like my own back garden, where I act in multiple roles as client, designer and contractor, there is still a huge chain of people involved in the creation, distribution and sale of the many different materials nessecary to make the garden. 

So we come to my role, right at the end of the process. As the gardener, I am only involved in the final composition of the piece. I like to think of my role as the conductor of the Orchestra, ensuring the correct balance of all of the parts is achieved, and maintaining the dynamic equilibrium so that the correct elements occur at the right time, appearing and receding just as they are meant to. I have a great privilege and when I look around me at the garden I feel happy in the realisation that I am actually the person who gets to enjoy it probably more than anyone else. My role dictates that much of my time is spent actively at work within the garden, weeding, trimming and taking care of the plants; but this is only a small part of the whole, so when I look up from weeding the small patch I have focused on for the day, I am still able to see the whole garden with a fresh pair of eyes, as if seeing it for the first time. 

Considering the sheer complexity of the many processes involved in the making of a garden helps me to realise how any garden can never be the product of just one person, and to look out on it and lay claim what is happening would be both incredibly selfish and egotistical of myself. 

I did not do this, I am doing it, and thankfully, it will never be done.