Is that a weed or a plant? A plant, or a weed? The crown jewel of all questions that confound gardeners. Winter is just long enough that many of us forget about half of what we’re growing. Along comes spring and a million plants rear their little heads from underground. We’re suddenly tasked with trying to sort friend from foe.
I struggle with recognizing weeds from plants more than I’d like to admit, because I have no memory (a casualty, I think, of the ’70s). I’m also a self-taught horticulturist. The upside of being self-taught is that I learned whatever I wanted to learn by sheer passion, usually going much deeper into favorite subjects than any class would teach. And, hallelujah, I never had to take boring plant ID or turf courses! Of course, the downside to this is that I sometimes get caught in the open by what should be easy ID or turf questions. When this happens, dammit, I’m exposed for the charlatan I am.
And it’s not like the plants are trying to help in any way. They’re all vaguely familiar and they’re all doing their best to act cool and look like they belong. Young, awful weeds plausibly mimic garden plants and, inexplicably, some expensive and beloved garden plants begin life impersonating weeds. The plant-ID phone apps are hard to use with dirty hands and the sun glaring off the screen, and they’re only right enough of the time that you can’t trust them ever. Trying to ID by phone in the garden just shovels a fresh layer of frustration upon my already festering pile of it.
So my usual modus operandi, when in doubt, is to grow it until I know it. A weed can only fake it for so long. Eventually, it will reveal itself. When that day finally comes, I’ll pull the damn thing. Of course, by then some weeds will have rooted themselves in like they expect to live forever. This totally confirms suspicions that the damn thing is, in fact, a weed. I do my best to pull it, but the top snaps off and the next day a gazillion new sprouts launch from runners that seem to extend across the entire continent.
But there is another downside to waiting that is even worse: Garden visitors who are smarter than me. They're never much impressed by full garden immersion in the forest of tall weeds I’m still growing because I remain unknowing.
I try to mitigate this problem. I only invite over people I think might be dumber than me, and, just to be sure, I serve every guest a strong drink right away. Still, the occasional visitor points out a weed in my garden. When this happens, I lean close and conspiratorially whisper, “Secret government work.“ Usually, this just confuses and troubles them and they point out no more weeds. Other times, they nod with a look that says, “Your secret is good with me.” That brings me great joy.
Illustration by Tom Beuerlein