A design is put to paper, plants are installed, and the compost and mulch have been spread, the site cleaned up and the photos taken for the portfolio, and even as you walk away; a new design is coming into play. In that walk, one can look around at the surrounding area of your project and begin to see the future and it might even be from the pieces of root, rhizomes and seeds that are in the soil of your finished landscape. For as much as we might consider the project as neat, orderly and creative, it is also a matter of disturbance and a void from it previous state; when that space was filled and covered by the trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants that had found their niche over an extended period, but now it is an area of opportunities to be filled with new plants and usually they are the ones that have evolved to best move in before others can even spread their roots. From the first person who decided to grow something, first for food and then maybe for pleasure, it required that person to make room for it, by removing the vegetation that was already there and then had to ‘weed’ to keep the native plants from returning either by the seeds that were in the soil and that had gotten tilled up closer to the surface or by seed and root from the surrounding area wanting to take back its’ own.
So what is a weed? The basic description of a weed is “Something that is growing where it isn’t wanted” pretty basic that can cover a lot of things, including people. An example might be milkweed Asclepias syriaca which when it grows in it’s native environment in meadows, fields and even along roadsides it might be considered a keystone species which is “a species whose very presence contributes to a diversity of life and whose extinction would consequently lead to the extinction of other forms of life” for the Monarch butterfly depends on milkweed in it’s migration north from Mexico as it lays its’ eggs on it, which then become the butterfly that continues the journey north. The butterfly in its’ larvae stage eats only on the milkweed plant which contains glycosides a toxic substance to other animal species, which protects the butterfly from being eaten by birds. Now if that milkweed has gotten into a garden bed, it certainly might be considered a weed, its’ habits such as its’ root structure that runs deep horizontally that when you try to remove the plant most times it breaks where it is connected to the root and even when the root are gotten, each root piece left behind can grow new shoots. When it is left to flower and go to seed it can produce 200 seeds per pod and each seed has silky hairs that help carry it in the wind where it may land where it is allowed to grow or settles in another bed to be regarded as another weed. Grass growing in the lawn is what is wanted and expected; grass growing in the landscape beds is a weed.
In the book ‘My Weeds’ by Sara Stein the author of ‘Noah’s Garden’ who’s own definition of a weed is “ A weed is a plant that is not only in the wrong place, but intends to stay” In this book she covers wide range of subjects about weeds, including the botany of weeds. How does a section of root know how to grow new roots down and new shoots up? In another chapter she writes about the ‘succession of the landscape’ and observes that in the town where she lived; it had been 80% farm land and pastures until early part of the 1900’s and by the time she wrote the book 1988 most of land had become a mixed deciduous forest; for folks had stopped trying to maintain much of the land as farm or pasture and how that land when thru the succession of plant species reverted from open land to forest. First with annual and bi-annual weeds, crab grass and a mix of other pioneer weeds that spread their seeds far and wide. This was followed by tap rooting perennials such as burdock, curly dock, vetch and tough grasses. In a couple of years the shrubs moved in and pioneer tree species. Over the years, the maples, oak, beeches and hemlocks were filling the canopy over this once farmland.
The natural landscape is one that is constantly changing; even when it reaches the climatic stage, for there will be natural disturbances that will allow for more changes. So as far as our landscaping goes, it may take days or weeks to design and install a landscape, but it takes so much more time after the fact to keep a landscape as it was intended, and the timing involved in weeding, before different plants have time to establish, set seed and spread their roots, and what plants may be growing off some where that can throw their seed into the mix. I know even working on landscapes I had installed over the years that I now have a more familiar relationship with the weeds that keep popping up than the plants that I had put in. Or to work next to a landscape that haven’t been maintained to see how fast the changes occur and all that wasn’t intended take a firm foothold and outcompete the installed plants. Then to watch when someone finally tries to deal with it, but doesn’t know what should or shouldn’t be there as part of original plan; the area usually gotten back under control is small and never stays that way for long.
The thing about most plants we work with in landscaping and even those plants used in agriculture is that many of them are clones of plants who’s features and habits have been breed for what we might consider desirable, whether flower, form, fall color, fruit or has some pest or disease resistance and then they are produced asexually so that they have the same characteristics, the same genes. On the other hand weeds are uncultivated, an ever mixing of genes from one generation to the next; thou maybe there is some cultivation involved, for where a weed may stand proud, shallow rooting and takes a long time to go to seed, it may never make it to the next generation, it will be those that are not easy to get rid of that will survive and continue on to the next generation and then the next. So over the course of time, in the constant battle between farming, gardening and nature that we may have breed perennial vetches, red sorrels who’s roots were made to be snapped and then grow new stems again, or a dandelion that has a good size tap root, grows flat on the ground, and even when mowed or chewed it can produce a another flower in a day and go to seed by the next. So in the book ‘Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollen he writes about apples and the famous Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman who traveled around the mid- west planting apple seeds which according to Pollen, most folks had used the apples for hard cider rather an eating, from the original seeds, they produced new offspring, new varieties with each genetic mix, one apple with it’s 5 seeds each will become different variety of apple tree from that of the parent tree and each other, some may be better suited to that location, some may flower a little later than the last frost and produce fruit that was more desirable. Today, when we eat the fruit of a Delicious, a McIntosh or one of the other varieties they are each grown from grafted trees that came from that one original tree that had produced that particular fruit and any seedling from its’ fruit would be a totally different apple.
So for anyone who is trying to maintain the intended landscape; it is important to know the intended and the unintended, to understand the nature of a plants including ‘weeds’; their evolution for continued survival, such as how the move about, when they might set seed, what kind of roots they have and when best deal with them. One of the useful tools you might want to carry with you besides your trowel and cape cod weeder is the book ‘Weeds of the Northeast’ by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph Ditomaso, published by Comstock Publishing Assoc for the pictures are good, it shows what the plant looks like not just when it is flowering, good descriptions of plant habit, leaves, roots and seeds. It covers 299 weed species – moss to grass, herbaceous to woodies and trees that you are most likely to come across.
I’ll add one final thought that is when you compare the 299 species covered in this book with The Nature Conservancy/ National Park Services composite invasive, alien weed species list; 131 (43%) of those species are on both.