The Art of Growing Weeds

Susie Hill
Frederick County Master Gardener

(5/31) I never set out with the intention of mastering the art of growing weeds. I just happen to be really good at it. Generally, I start weeding and prepping the yard in March. I always begin with the beds that I see most frequently. I rearrange and divide my babies, weed, and then mulch. While my eyes are looking forward and down, the weed tsunami behind my back prepares to overtake me. It usually happens sometime in May. At that point, I surrender to Mother Nature. Given that we go through this exercise every year together, I have learned that She is trying to teach me a lesson. If I pay attention, there is a bright side.

There are some weeds that I find obnoxious and unsightly (tree-of-heaven, for instance). Others are gentler and I have developed an appreciation for why they exist. A good example of that would be the violets that have aggressively spread in some of the more moist areas of my yard. The leaves and flowers are edible and they do look pretty in the spring. But as the hot weather arrives, they begin to wilt in the heat and caterpillars tear up the leaves. When I learned that violets are a host plant to fritillary butterfly caterpillars, I gave up the fight and embraced them as part of my landscape. The following year, cocoons hung like Christmas ornaments in the arborvitae. While I used to look at violets in late summer with mild disdain, I now look forward to the violetís ugly phase- when the leaves are chewed up and they look tired. Then I know that by my decision to leave a "weed" in place, I have had a hand in nourishing butterflies.

Mulberries are another example of a weed with a purpose. Mulberries are generally thought to be a weedy tree. When I was a child, they grew by a stream near my house. I would climb the trees and eat the mulberries out of them, feeling the thrill of what it is like to really live like a kid. Mom didnít know that I was playing barefoot in a glass ridden suburban stream- just that I came home for dinner intact with filth between my toes.

As an adult, however, I decided that I did not like the feeling of dirt embedded in my toenails and that mulberries did not fit with my plant fung shui. I tried to remove some of them by cutting the central leader. Removing that main branch signals the plant to release side shoots. So instead of removing a tree, I got shrubby, unkempt bushes instead. Thatís when I realized that the only time of the year that I see orioles is when they come to feed on the mulberries. With that realization, my opinion of mulberries was reversed. Luckily, there are still mulberries near the stream in my yard so I get a fleeting glance of the orioles every year when the mulberries ripen. I still squeal every time I see them.

I could list many more examples of the lessons that Mother Nature has offered, but 600 words wonít allow that today. Rather, I will just say thisÖ.if the weed tsunami overtakes you this growing season, keep your mind open to the possibility that some of those weeds may serve a purpose. Keep your eyes open for the lessons Mother Nature is trying to teach you. There just may be a bright side. 

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