Rethinking Weeds

Lactuca serriola. Close relative of the domesticated lettuce, Lactuca sativa.

What is a weed? Most people define a weed as a plant that is out of place. This is what everyone I have asked has responded. And this is generally what one finds online. When thinking about weeds and gardens it is helpful to think of the garden as being surrounded by a wall. At least figuratively. Inside the garden we have one kind of plant. Outside the garden a different kind of plant. Inside, we have domesticated plants. Outside, we have wild plants.

Another way of thinking about what is in a garden and what is not, is that gardens are filled with plants useful to the grower. Row crops if a farmer, an assortment of kitchen vegetables if growing food at home, medicinal plants if one is into traditional healing, and lovely flowers if one is creating what used to be called the “pleasure garden.”

Thoreau, in the Bean chapter of Walden, defines weeds in terms of utility. Rather than saying that plants turn weedy when they are in the “wrong” place, he suggests that plants are weeds depending on place — of course — but more profoundly based on who or what is the plant’s utility addressed?

Bees love borage. And they love rabe. As do other pollinators. Borage and rabe, both reasonably self-contained plants, can end up choking out other plants in ones garden. One large borage plant can easily smother a crop of radishes. Once rabe bolts it can also end up smothering ones kitchen plants. Allowing all plants that want to take up residence in ones garden to do so, or at least to so and to live out their full life is not necessarily practical. But that doesn’t mean that ever single wild plant needs to be killed on sight.

Wild plants have their own constituency. Nature. Natural systems. Thoreau mentioned woodchucks as a constituency for wild plants — weeds — around Walden pond. Bees, hover flies, wasps, and a myriad underground organisms and much much more thrive on wild plants while finding a vegetable garden that looks to us as being magnificently productive as a wasteland. To the bee, a cornfield is a foodless waste, as is for us a field of blooming borage. Yes, one can eat the flowers, but there is a limit! How many borage flowers have you eaten in your life? But, how happy the bees in the blue borage field!

I have been thinking about weeds and demarcations lines between organized human spaces and nature because I am working on an Edenic vegetable garden – one in which the border is less distinct and wild plants are allowed into the garden to be managed so that at least a few constituencies, like bees, can be accommodated within the garden, along with our own food needs.

Plants like Lactuca serriola, close relatives of domesticated plants – in this case domesticated lettuce — taste good, add variety to our foods, and allow us to allow a bit of the larger world into our garden.

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