The Gardener's Apprentice

Weed or Not?

One of the sad realities of my suburban life is that lawn grass grows best in a single segment of my property—the garden beds.  The green blades struggle in the backyard, perpetual losers in the never-ending competition with ajuga, clover, wild violets and broadleaf weeds.  The grass issue in back is exacerbated by the fact that except for the broadleaf weeds, I prefer the interlopers.  In the front yard, the lawn does better and even appears lush and green at certain times.  Its verdure is amazing, given the fact that unless I am walking on the grass or running the mower over it, I ignore it completely.

Sadly, I cannot run the mower over the most vigorous grass, because it is growing up through my perennials and shrubs.  The beds were wrested from the lawn years ago, but the survivor grass is tenacious.  Under current climatic conditions–every morning for the past three months has dawned at a temperature of 61 degrees, accompanied by varying amounts of rain–the blades in the beds have taken off.  When you combine that kind of growth-inducing weather with the neglect the garden suffered after my husband’s death last year, you can understand the size of my grass problem.  Blades that have grown tall enough to bear seed heads are easy to pull out.  Shorter ones, embedded among mature plants—or even worse, thorny roses—take considerably more effort.  The other day I took on a clump of grass growing up through the base of Rosa chinensis var. ‘Mutablilis’ and came out looking as if I had been soundly defeated in a hand-to-paw combat session with our cat, Sarah.

Reclaiming the beds from stray grass is daunting, but getting the established weeds out is equally onerous.  The only compensation is that the beds look so much better when they are finally weed and grass free.

Novice gardeners sometimes ask me, “How do you tell the good plants from the weeds?”  This is an excellent question and one that lawn service people rarely get right.  The following are some guidelines.

Acceleration: Unless your idea of a desirable plant is kudzu, weeds always grow faster than your prized perennials or even annuals.  Oriental bittersweet, or Celastrus orbiculatus, is distinguished by its climbing habit, ovoid leaves, bright orange fall fruits and the fact that it practically leaps while you watch.  Virginia creeper, known to plant people as Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is a native vine.  Often grown as an ornamental, it has a nasty habit of exceeding its boundaries.  Virginia creeper is excessively fond of inaccessible places, like the innards of privet or box hedges, and grows rapidly.  The best time to eradicate it is fall, when its leaves turn bright red.  However, if you wait that long, it may have taken over your entire garden.

Proliferation: If a single, unrecognizable type of plant pops up all over the garden, it is most likely a weed.  Common dandelions, with their windblown seed puffs, are a perfect example of this trait, but almost everyone can identify dandelionsGarlic mustard, which reproduces like crazy, is a different storyIn the northeast, we never used to have garlic mustard—Alliaria petiolata– but climate change has altered the situation.  Growing between 18 and 24 inches tall, garlic mustard is a biennial, developing a rosette of rather coarse-looking, heart-shaped leaves the first year.  The second year, its stalks produce clusters of white flowers, followed by seed heads.  One garlic mustard plant can produce hundreds of seeds, which is why it now infests every yard in the area.

Intrusion: Weeds are, by definition, unwanted plants that tend to show up in places where gardeners would rather have other things.  Crabgrass, for example, is a summer scourge that not only creeps through lawns, but spreads its tentacles through flower beds and even erupts from sidewalk cracks.  Common purslane–Portulaca oleracea—is a low-growing plant with small fleshy leaves that often infests spaces between pavers or within driveway fissures.  It also occurs in summer.  Fortunately, if you choose to do so, you can eradicate purslane by eating it, as the succulent leaves are quite nutritious.  Common chickweed—Stellaria media—another low-grower with weaker stems and non-fleshy leaves, frequents the same kinds of spaces as purslane, but does so in the early spring.

Survival: Weeds are often the best adapted plants around and can survive the kinds of trials and tribulations that kill more genteel species—especially those for which you pay lots of money.  Wild onion or wild chive is a perfect example.  The name refers to several feral members of the allium or onion family that bedevil gardeners in spring.  The tall onion-scented stalks burst from the soil as soon as it is less than rock-hard, quickly soaring above the grass and early-flowering plants.  You can pull up the stalks and bulbs, but it is next to impossible to eradicate the plants.  Year after year, I have dug up entire clumps of onion grass, only to find that those clumps return with a vengeance the following year.  If I could sell wild onion from a stand in front of my house, I would be rich.

Like cockroaches, weeds are older, tougher and smarter than humans.  They were here before we arrived and they will be here long after we are gone.  The best we can do is mulch where we can, weed when necessary and try to reach a state of détente with these tenacious plants.  If you can’t tell whether something is a weed or a desirable plant, have patience.  Nine times out of ten, it is a weed, but every once in awhile, a suspected weed turns out to be a serendipitous, self-sown horticultural gem.

Such miracles compensate for