by Sarah West

mustard greens and weeds

I am in the process of starting new garden beds, tilling and amending an overgrown half-acre patch. We dug the first beds by hand, spearing and hauling out the weeds as if from the thickest ocean imaginable. After five rows like that, we rented a tiller, which whipped the soil into a smooth fluff that is delightful to spread with the palm of my hand. Nothing resists and yields the way soil does, a coin whose two sides are stone and silk.

But tilling has other consequences. Thirteen-horse-powered tines made relatively quick work of loosening our soil, in the process tearing apart any plants growing in it, distributing their parts like confetti in a parade. Overall, this is good. Plant material terminated this way breaks down fairly quickly into organic matter, feeding the living creatures of the soil and improving its nutrient- and water-holding capacity. A few plants, however, are well adapted to this method of attack, and instead of perishing, they propagate.

Weeds are fascinating plants, so breathtakingly adapted to their niches. Annual weeds, those that live out an entire life cycle—from germination to seed-set to death—in one season, gain their upper hand by distributing numerous, quick-to-germinate seeds. Perennial weeds easily seize whole swaths of garden in their tight grip not only by setting seeds, but by growing deep roots, rhizomes, corms, bulbs or stems that easily snap apart and have the ability to regenerate into new plants. All weeds are tough, able to withstand much harsher growing conditions than the average garden cultivar.

Rhizome-spreading weeds are a Hydra with infinite heads, a witch whose spell is exhaustion and futility. So well distributed is their regenerative DNA that even a half-inch length of rhizome will sprout, establishing itself in irrigated or un-irrigated ground. Sprouted rhizomes are much more vigorous than a new seedling, setting shoots for photosynthesizing and roots for nutrient and water uptake within a week of being severed from their parent.

I’ve spent hours raking the rows that we tilled, trying to skim off as much of their mischief as I can, knowing all the while that they’ve won and are winning and will always win. Quackgrass, the antagonist of my garden beds, has been cursing cultivated land in colonized North America for hundreds of years. Its seeds likely brought unintentionally from its Mediterranean home in 17th Century alfalfa shipments, quackgrass has followed in our footsteps and now thrives in all but the most southern regions of our country.

I am tolerant of weeds. A garden delineated as crops and dirt seems somehow barren to me—where’s the commotion, the life? In nature, sterile soil in an open field is an anomaly, signaling a severe lack of nutrients, a recent fire, toxicity, a desert climate. Though clean soil has intrinsic appeal to our controlling nature, my alarm bells don’t usually go off when it starts to sprout with plants I didn’t put there, unless the ones I did are still seedlings themselves that could be quickly outcompeted by the stealthy weeds. Transplants with a few inches head start can tolerate quite a bit of pressure before needing my assistance.

Maybe I am a lazy gardener, but I prefer to operate with the notion that weeds are not all nuisance. Just like the vegetables and flowers I cultivate, they are miners of the soil, reaching deep and pulling up nutrients and minerals. Clearing them from the garden means removing those scavenged subsidies. Less aggressive annual weeds are the most innocuous of the bunch; in certain situations I see them as a cover crop—shading the soil of my row to conserve moisture, clinging to nourishment that would otherwise leach into the subsoil. As long as I sever them before they distribute excessive amounts of seed, they are more ally than enemy.

Because most weeds are specialists, their presence can enlighten the observant gardener to certain nuances of her soil’s character. The weed profile of your garden is the best indicator of its personality—certain weeds grow where soil stays moist longer or where it dries out quickly, where the clay is heavier or lighter, where the soil has been recently cultivated, where it is compacted.

Absolutism may be justifiable in certain plantings—the corporate entrance, the dazzling showcase garden, beds framing a suburban lawn—meant to highlight not only beauty, but prowess and control. Elsewhere, perhaps we shouldn’t bristle when the weeds creep in. We may do better to cultivate an understanding of their dispositions, find a place for their unruly wildness in our aesthetic, keep some of their ancient power in our favor.