How to Know a Weed When You See One

and Other Profundities from the Dirt


It’s easy to see why gardening metaphors pervade wisdom sayings. Yes, of course it’s because many systems and structures functioning at the cosmic level are also functioning at the level of our little garden. But also because, well, you have a lot of time to think when you’re pulling weeds. Robert, our host, said that he learned everything he needed to know about life from his garden. This was the idea that was germinating in my mind as I plucked out weed after weed. While I don’t expect to unearth anything completely new in my gardening thoughts (see what I did there? ;), I did appreciate a little bit of time to muse on the idea of weeding. I was snatching and tugging and yanking and tossing the weeds into a pile when I was suddenly surprised to find tiny potatoes dangling on the end of the roots of the plant in my hand. Is this a weed? Well… ummm… I don’t know, I thought. I guess this isn’t the patch for potato plants…so…yes.


I remember always having trouble with idea of a “weed” as a child because a weed is, by definition, whatever you say it is. Weeds are conditionally and intentionally defined. If it’s not what you intend to grow and it’s growing in the place meant for what you want to grow and therefore in competition with it…it’s a weed. This “Agriculture 101” epiphany is only slightly more profound than dirt and  common sense, and yet it’s something I think we forget very easily. Robert does grow potatoes on his farm. We ate them. They’re delicious. Potatoes are wonderful, but just because it’s a potato doesn’t mean it can’t be a weed, and just because it’s a weed doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. The real question is: What would you like to grow? You can only identify a weed if you know the answer to this question, and there’s no point in weeding if you haven’t planted something. The metaphor is obvious. What are you trying to grow with your life? For your body? For your health? In your character? In your relationships? In your career? In a way, you could just fail to decide and just see what you can find in the thicket of wild plants. In fact, when you do scatter seed, there’s a necessary “wait-and-see” period. Maybe something nice will appear. Maybe not. But if you want a garden… if you want something beautiful and productive, then well, you must decide what you will grow. You must plant it. You must nourish it and you must uproot everything that will choke it out. Even the pretty weeds. Even if it’s a plant that you’d like to grown in another place. It’s like the expression that goes something like, “Sometimes the enemy of the best isn’t the worst, but the good.”

The first day we tended the garden we were timid because we were so afraid of uprooting the wrong plants. The gardens we were weeding were in their first year and so the seeds he planted had grown up in a dense heap of all sorts of other plants. The neophyte gardeners that we are, at first we left a lot of “good looking” weeds in the dirt. When Robert returned I think he was probably a little amused at our paranoid weeding habits. But he didn’t take us to each good looking weed we had mistakenly protected in order to explain to us why this particular plant or leaf structure indicated that it was a weed and so on and so on. No, he simply walked into the garden and pointed very clearly at the plants he had planted and said “This. This. And This. Everything else, you pick.” That’s it. At a later stage our weeding required a bit more of a fine-tuned excision of hair-thin weeds among a dense patch including young parsley plants. We could have used tweezers. We called it “surgery.” What became important in this task was not our knowledge of the weed plants, but of the parsley or coriander we sought to protect. The more familiar we were with the color, shape, size and basic character of the parsley, the easier it became to discern everything that was not THAT plant and did not support THAT plant, the weeds. Even if we have to spend a lot of energy uprooting the bad things that always seem to grow just fine without our help, or even pruning the good things that are out of place, the focus of our study, the object of our attention, the heart of our energies, should always be the good stuff.