Weeding is the unglamorous part of gardening. It doesn’t produce anything, Rather, it un-produces. Weeding makes things disappear, dissolve. Weeds do not end up in vases on the table to add colour and fragrance to the household, and weeders do not get their own columns in the daily papers and magazines. But, believe me, weeding is good for your health, especially if you derive the same level of satisfaction as I do from pulling, tugging and digging them out on a regular basis. Both physical and mental health is well served here.
In French, weeds are feminine: mauvaises herbes, or ‘bad’ herbs or grasses. I do not think of them as gendered: they are simply bad and they need to go. This New Zealand summer of 2017/18 has been a record one for prolific plant growth: pohutukawa, roses and gladioli all blooming earlier and more profusely than usual. Of course, as a corollary, it has been a great summer for weeds and thus for my obsession.
Weeding is an art. It requires many skills, including physical flexibility, the ability to recognise a weed at some distance and of course, to anticipate the appearance of the most cunning varieties so as to get them before they grow up and parent lots of ill-mannered baby weeds. Weeds are shocking recidivists.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) have published an illustrated guide to identifying and eradicating “The Dirty Dozen”. These weeds pose a threat to native plants. They include buddleia, wild ginger, wandering willie, woolly nightshade, english ivy, Darwin’s barberry and Japanese honeysuckle. (Such delightful, fragrant-sounding names – I prefer my weeds nameless and smelly.) DOC are calling for warriors to wage ‘a war’ on these plants, which are the botanical equivalents of bush-destroying possums, rats and stoats.
While I commend DOC and volunteers for this work, mine is a more of a domestic hobby. It takes place within the parameters of our section (although I do yearn to jump over the fence and get stuck in next door at times). It’s a great job. Cups of tea can be had at any time. If you like physical exercise and have a need to exert total power and control, it could be the job for you. Mistakes do happen of course. Good plants and flowers are accidentally uprooted on occasion, but every job has its unpleasant side effects.
By now, the more astute and experienced gardeners among you will realise of course, that I am wrong in some of the above (or not entirely right anyway), and not all weeds are bad. Some so-called weeds are in fact useful (for drought protection and soil conditioning, for example), medicinal, and yes, beautiful in their own weedy way. Take the dandelion, for example. Dandelion tea will settle an upset stomach or improve appetite. Docks (despite their nasty, deep and gnarly roots) have been used to soothe bruises, burns, blisters and nettle stings. A tea prepared from the root was thought to cure boils. Marijuana, known by some as ‘weed’, possibly because it grows and looks like a weed, has medicinal benefits for some people in pain and is a current topic of national discussion and debate as to its future legal use.
I also must admit that a less ordered and controlling part of my self has once or twice turned a blind eye to a particularly attractive weed which has the tiniest red ‘bouffant’ flowers, a wee blanket of spreading, red puffed wheat across and over the stones and shingle. Every weeder has their weaknesses, and as long as it remains nameless, I know I will never get too attached.
To summarise, weeding is an art. It requires skill, perseverance, patience, determination, fitness, flexibility and excellent observation skills. Finally, weeding can diminish conflict and violence: the weeder can imagine the weed to be someone they do not particularly like, and lo, one flick of the gardening-gloved-wrist and they are gone; the air has been cleared and the flowers can rest easy. Weeding is so therapeutic.
Weeds by Edna St Vincent Millay
White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky!—
Life is a quest and love a quarrel—
Here is a place for me to lie.
Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.
But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.
And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things,
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.
Lorraine Ritchie is a registered nurse who is currently working as a professional nursing adviser in the Southern region for the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO). She has recently graduated with a PhD on meaning and medication for older people.