Weed or flower? It’s in the eye of the gardener


I’ve been baffled over what to rip out of my garden and what to let thrive all spring long.

It’s a question of beauty over reason, I think. Take the forget-me-not. A sea of periwinkle blue cascades down the hill in my backyard, but, isn’t a weed just a weed? I went and pulled out the whole lot.

You would hardly turn away a bouquet of messy wildflowers from a child, but, as you would readily accept them, you would just as easily deracinate handfuls from the edge of your yard, citing "weeds" as the reason.

I suppose that’s because a weed will spread willy-nilly throughout the yard, whereas a plant is placed and given space in which to grow. It is planned. Weeds aren’t and can be disruptive to your vision and a clean-lined aesthetic, even in a wild country garden.

It’s not that I don’t know a weed from a flower, but what is questionable is the aesthetic of the perceiver. From a monotonous desk in a cubicle, a field of yellow hawk weed would be a welcome diversion. But the same view from my front window looking out to my neighbour’s front yard? That same sight is irritating. Enough to make me want to mow it down under the cloak of night. A kind of guerilla mowing that could only be done with a push mower and some liquid courage.

We purchase yarrow with striking coral or red flowers, but do our best to rip out the more invasive, decidedly more modest yellow cousin: the common roadside yarrow. And the white?! Forget about it.

I’ve heard members of the sunflower family be referred to as "shithouse daisies" because of their proclivity for growing behind the outhouses that dot the north. These are slender stunners that team up in sunny bunches and make a fabulous display. Certainly more so than the crescent moon of the creaky outhouse door.

And lately, I’ve heard more about the dastardly gout weed than ever. Yet here and there, I see examples of it as an interesting and useful ground cover. If kept decently contained, it will fill up the base of a tree like nobody’s business.

From the perspective of a naturalist, these so-called weeds are native plants that offer food for our bees and birds. There are whole online databases devoted to chronicling every possible species of Ontario flower or plant, weed or not. I was visiting a host of them and discovered there are more types in the deer fern family than you could shake a stick at (and I don’t recommend stick-shaking at any fern, just to be clear.)

But looking at weeds/wildflowers from a classicist’s sensibility? They might be offended by the sense of entitlement these plants have; like saucy relatives, they come, uninvited and mess the place up.

Tonight, I visited a home to help identify some plants, lest the owner dig up any worthwhile perennials. I was undecided about a number of them. The best advice? If you think it looks nice, keep it. But keep your eye on it, for it may get out of hand, at which point, like Uncle Ticker after last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll have to send them packing.


If contained, the dreaded gout-weed can act as a lovely ground cover under the base of a tree. Photo Credit: Anne Boulton

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