A rainstorm this week has led me to reflect upon the utility of weeding.
The fashion in gardening these days is to have no weeds at all, in a perfectly planned bed defined by its unnatural natural curves. This style came to dominate American gardening through the economic boom times of the 1990s, when large numbers of young Americans with very little seasoning hit it big through a combination of audacious innovation and the gullibility of their elders. Money coursed through the economy back then, sparking a boom in the construction of new homes that is only now beginning to fade. Of course, new homes cannot easily be built in new neighborhoods, so new neighborhoods had to be created, out in the suburbs in huge new tracts.
Aware of their own lack of seasoning, the new homeowners sought to establish some feeling of authenticity. To fill this need, landscape designers cooked up a new gardening ideal which was supposed to simulate the natural curves of a genuinely old environment.
The HGTV cable television network created a slate of landscape design programs where the hosts designed these new suburban standard flower beds, with the unspoken idea that the same sorts of gardens would work for everyone, and could be assembled through a few simple rules. These shows sought to convince us that the best outline of a flower bed could always be defined by the curve of a garden hose laid out on a patch of lawn. Strangely, these hose curves always ended up looking pretty much the same, as if hoses only knew how to lay in certain sorts of curves when laid down on suburban-length grass.
In these new beds, a few perennial plants, including standard varieties of small, compact-growing trees and bushes, would be planted with a great deal of space between them. The ground in between the plants would be completely covered with wood chip mulch. Garden designers told us that this would look natural, as if blankets of wood chips were often found in natural settings, with a few plants sparsely growing up through them.
The best of the new garden designers gave space between the plants in order to give them room to grow into one another. However, seeing this new style of flower bed in the new, expensive housing developments, many Americans began to assume that the look of the new flower beds was the desired end design. Thus, across America, gardeners began to replace their more natural flower beds, with plants growing right up against each other, with beds of mulch featuring just a few lonely plants with no other plants touching them, like little piles of vegetables separated on a plate by a fussy toddler.
This look has all the tidiness of a pristine bathroom, which is not what most people think of when they think of a garden. In the midst of such flower beds, houses tend to look unreal, as if they are not lived in at all, but are manicured just for show. The problem with these gardens is that there is no space for weeds to grow. With the plants placed so far apart, weeds are easily spotted, pulled and sprayed. So, the plants grow in perfect roundness within the perfect curves of the flower beds' borders. The effect is something like the plastic landscaping of munchkinland.
Weeds fill a function in a garden. Like the lichens that grow on an old stone wall, weeds help a garden seem integrated into the landscape that surrounds it. Weeds remind a garden viewer that a flower bed is located in a particular place with a natural community of plants.
Unlike the artificially perfect curves of the trendy mulched flower beds, the curves created by weeds make sense within a landscape. Weeds follow the terrain, living in great sweeps with borders defined by the rise and fall of the land and the natural distribution of nutrients and soil texture. Weeds always make sense where they grow. Their appearance is never contrived.
Weeds also support the garden variety flowers that we plant. They compete, but they also buttress the bigger and bolder nursery varieties from the elements.
Weeds are also more resilient for themselves. The common purple and white wood phlox in the woods behind my home withstood weeks of rain this spring. In a single rainstorm, however, all the bright orange oriental poppies planted by my house's previous owner were torn to shreds, leaving nothing but stalks with fresh green seed heads.
A little destruction every now and then can do a garden good, but the dominance of a single plant within a flower bed hurts the chances of its recovery. The presence of weeds represents the ultimate kind of diversity in a garden, and forces us to share the credit of creation with nature itself.
Some gardeners seem loathe to share any credit for their flower beds, and so create sterile displays that are perfectly under their control. Though tidy, they offer no surprise, no drama, and no passion. They are easily replicated, and easily replaced, when the next gardening trend comes along.
As for me, I find comfort in gardens and plants that endure.
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