“Freedom, it would seem, can lie in the smallest area.”
They arrive from far-flung ancestors, some of the few to settle upon suitable land and survive drought, famine, toxins and mowing. They are invaders of a well-groomed landscape, breaking through to reveal their true beauty in a desperate attempt to flower and reproduce before being chopped up once again.
Those who allow seedlings to develop and find the courage to mow around promising flora will be rewarded with surprising buds among the duds. In an age when conformity and planning are high art, there, in the dirt, resides what Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings called the “cosmic secrecy of the seed,” abiding not attention but neglect in order to fulfill its promise.
Seeds of Change
No matter what the gardening project, weeds will stake their claim. Like an overabundance of avocado or grapefruit or mango falling in the yard, the industrious plant that was once a guest became a nuisance. While all vegetation in a Floridian’s yard must answer to the blade at some point, the success of weeds usually mark them for doom.
Yet, weeds are vanguards of promising areas. Their high-stakes enterprise employs luck, resolve and patience to succeed. Not every plant is convenient or pretty, but each has a purpose.
Some weeds are universally reviled, while others are equally admired. I, too, disdain invasive exotics, which have no regard or benefit for the local environment. Thankfully, local homeowners and gardeners are now favoring native plants. Even when friendly natives employ their own propagation strategies, they can become viewed as a nuisance as much as any other unplanned addition to the landscape.
Like most plants, natives have little regard for edgings and property lines, yet their chosen homestead can express new designs for landscaping. The real trick to salvaging native plants is learning to identify the good, emerging gems from the bad ones, before pulling them up or mowing them over. The tiny shovel leaves of the tropical salvia or the waxy broad leaves of the dune sunflower contrast sharply against surrounding competition. Discerning the textured leaves of blue porter weed from the shinier wild coffee becomes an art where time is the final arbiter.
I continually marvel at the contrived jungle slowly filling the dead patches of lawn that used to kick up clouds of dirt whenever I deployed this blunt instrument. The noise, expense, pollution and time mowing consumes compelled me to rescue large sections of my yard with self-replicating populations of dune sunflower, gaillardia, blue porter weed, wood sage, fire bush and tropical salvia. Whether it was in a location that I could live with or a refuge for natives to roam free, the weeds took the lead.
When my wife and I purchased our house that was built in 1926, tone of its best assets were its six magnificent royal palms in careful rows; one is so large that I can’t even wrap my arms around it. Dutifully, I gathered volunteers that sprouted up each spring and nurtured them in pots, an agonizingly slow process since some palms take years before the brown trunk emerges. Six new royal palms now grace the side yard in my humble effort to replace the original specimens. It’s an exercise that will likely outlast me and didn’t cost a single stolen moment.
Accommodating weeds requires an intimate association with the land that can’t be rushed, while providing a healthy contrast to busy lives. It’s the ultimate Zen gardening, in which the time and space of nature dictate the parameters, and patience is a necessity. In the end, the yard becomes a Petri dish for wide varieties of plants as it seeks its own equilibrium.
In Praise of Weeds by Shawn Holiday was originally published in the April 2005 edition of Expressions magazine.