Monday, March 15, 2010

What’s in a Weed? Pesticides and Rethinking Methods of Gardening

It’s nearly spring, and quite soon I will have many little weeds flourishing in my garden.

Some of my weeds will have cheery, fuzzy yellow faces. They will grow vigorously on my lawn if I let them. Their flowers are sweet and good for wine and fritters, their leaves are edible in salads, and their roots have healing properties. I’m talking about the dandelion, the beloved and despised weed that grows in our gardens.

What is a weed, and why do we dislike them so much? In essence, a weed is an unwanted plant. A rose can be a weed if you are attempting to grow corn. We tend to be rather brutal towards weeds. They assault our sensibilities, challenge our dominion over our gardens, and call for intense scrutiny followed up with a chemical assault. They aren’t necessarily dangerous, and they are often useful. Weeds are simply not useful in the way that we want them to be. They’re not the right plant, meaning the one that we planted.

Some weeds are plants that we plant, but they love it so much that they will eagerly invite themselves to stay everywhere in the garden. Mint, borage, and comfrey are a few of these. They’re ultimately useful, but boy, do they spread. Luckily, they can also ingratiate me into their good graces with their usefulness in teas, in salads, and in healing. I do watch where I place plants like these, because sometimes they outgrow their welcome. However, I like the permaculture concept of how to deal with overly useful plants: eat them, use them, use more of them until they are under control.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as a weed. I am especially concerned about weeds when they move into areas that are not under intensive human control. Species like purple loosestrife bother me because they dominate wetlands. Many invasive species are notoriously hard to remove because they reproduce through vegetative reproduction. Often, the only option seems to be the use of pesticides. But the use of pesticides in our wetlands and on our crops scares me more than weeds do, because I know that pesticides wreak damage that is far beyond what I can see.

Plants are easy to see. They remind us easily about what we do and do not want in our gardens. On the other hand, pesticides are not so easy to see. At least their effects are not all that visible. They come in handy packages, are applied and then move into the soil, air, and water. They kill off soil life, embed themselves in the groundwater, and move into the food chains of animals, both wildlife and farm animals.

What’s in a weed? Our desire to control, particularly through chemical means.

Next week I’ll explore gardening and farming methods that see weeds a little differently.

What is a weed to you?

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