Jill Severn’s Gardening Column

The Art of Weeding


Occasionally someone will say they can’t weed their garden because “I can’t tell which is a weed and which is a plant.” They are, of course, all plants.

The best definition of a weed is “a plant out of place,” or, to put it a wordier way, a species of plant you don’t like or don’t want in a certain location. Defining a plant as a weed is a value judgment – an expression of your personal taste.

That’s why approaching the chore of weeding as a search and destroy mission is a mistake. It is really an editing project whose goal is to make a better, more coherent garden composition.

Some “weeds” can be made welcome. For instance, the invasive but adorable pink Geranium Robertium appeared in my garden about ten years ago. (People who don’t it like it call it Stinky Bob for its strong smell when pulled.) This month I will probably pull up a hundred of them, but leave a dozen at the back of a shady bed where not much else is going on. In spite of its tendency to come up everywhere, I like having it around for its lacey foliage and delicate flowers. And it’s easy to pull and I don’t mind the earthy, vegetative smell.

If you don’t like these little pink flowers, by all means, eradicate them without mercy. And if you live close to woodlands, where they truly are invasive and harmful, it’s certainly a good idea to do that. But think twice: Do you really dislike it, or has someone just told you it’s “bad” and you believed them?

Also, make room for surprises. A vase of dried Lunaria (also known as “money plant” or “honesty”) in my living room was overturned by a misbehaving cat, and the remains swept off the floor. I  emptied the dustpan by my porch last fall, and now they’ve sprouted there. That same spot has also produced volunteer poppies in past years. I’m not sure where those came from. Had I somehow tracked poppy seeds into the house and swept them up? Whatever the case, I’m richer for both happy accidents.

Then there are plants you don’t want in some places but are OK in other places. I dig up buttercups in flowerbeds and the vegetable garden. They have big, deep, spreading roots that require a shovel to remove. But I left a big patch of them in the front lawn where I keep them mowed; they are auditioning as a replacement for grass in my front yard. Their deep, spreading roots help them stay green in the dry heat of summer.

Then there are plants you’ve nurtured and liked that come up in unexpected places. They can  teach you surprising lessons. Asters are reputed to require full sun, and I have a patch of them in a sunny spot. But somehow another patch appeared where it’s quite shady and, though they bloom later, they are doing better than any garden book or website would ever predict.

For all these reasons, I sometimes hesitate to pull small seedlings if I don’t know what they are. This can be a risky business; if you turn your back too long they may flower and drop more seeds, or their roots may snake around and pop up elsewhere. It’s a question of balancing risks.

I like a little risk-taking; it keeps life interesting. And approaching weeding with an open mind to all these possibilities certainly makes the job more engaging and enlightening.

Still, weeding may never be most gardeners’ favorite chore. It can be frustrating and tedious, especially when deep roots resist our best efforts to get them out of the ground.  

But it’s quite gratifying when it’s done and you stand up and admire your work: You’ve conquered chaos, and drawn order and beauty out of clutter and confusion. And you’ve almost certainly learned more about the plants in your care.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Annierae

    A buttercup lawn sounds lovely, but yes, a little bit scary too. Last week's weeding, thinning and dividing chores made me wonder if I ultimately snuff out more plants than I nurture.

    Friday, April 15 Report this

  • sunshine39

    Dandelions are another requiring a mind reset. They are one of a few early flowers to sustain our bees and polinators

    Monday, April 18 Report this

  • Drutty

    About 3 yrs ago I planted about 150 tiny minutum bellium daisies in the lawns front & back as they look so beautiful in the school lawns. Only about 4 came up in the back~! I have called the Parks Board and they don't know where they come from! Any ideas folks?

    Monday, April 18 Report this