All Plants Welcome

Every spring I watched with a mixture of admiration and envy as my neighbors’ yards transmuted from snow-covered mud flats into stunning gardens. By summer, our quiet little street looked like a horticultural block party, a festival of color. Until you reached my yard, that is. A yard filled with islands of brown dirt and stubby clumps of yellowing grass, landscaped by a thumb more gangrene than green.

After a new neighbor asked if the vacant lot behind my house was for sale, I realized my yard could no longer be the blight on our street. It was time to join the garden party.

I scoured nurseries for plants that carried warnings like, “may take over gardens” and “impossible to kill.” I planted the “proven winners” and the “no fails.” Soon, beautiful greens and pinks and purples blossomed in my new garden. But not for long. Within weeks my patch resembled the Addams family garden: the shriveled, the dying, the dead.

Except for the weeds.

Weeds. Only weeds remained in my garden. They thrived, healthy and hardy. It got me thinking. Why are dandelions “weeds” and black-eyed Susans “flowers”? Both grow wild without assistance.

Weeds get a bad rap. Daylilies and black-eyed Susans sell for five dollars a plant, while people buy poisons to rid themselves of dandelions. I’ve seen goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace selling at garden stores. Who does their PR? Why are some wild flowering plants “wildflowers” and others “weeds?”

People tend annual gardens, perennial gardens, vegetable, herb and rock gardens. Why not weed gardens? It is time to change the weed reputation. Weeds are hard-working hardy greens. Just because they can grow out of hot lava instead of requiring constant misting and temperature-controlled rooms, they are treated as garden pariahs, unwelcome guests, the party crashers. I let them take over. My garden has never looked so vibrant and lush.

The process of changing weeds’ reputation starts with the name. The first person who called a used car “pre-owned” understood this powerful selling point. Call them “prolifics”? “Indigenous”? “Abundants”?

Think of all the time you’d save tending an abundants garden. No need to weed. If a daylily or a cone flower manages to spring up in my garden of green spiky unknowns, all the power to them. I do not judge. All types of plants are welcomed and embraced. Dandelions, clover, snapdragons, violets, all hard to kill, all invasive, all hardy, all perfect. Watching the buttercups sway in the breeze makes my heart swell.

“Those plants are weeds,” my neighbor says, pointing his boot at the spiky plants that form my garden border. But I am ready. I had re-named my weeds with tantalizing monikers. Gardeners love to grow the rare and the obscure.

“Oh, no, Mr. Edwards. Those are actually Scandinavian smoke thistles and the ones near your boot are Tunisian derby tops.”

This knowledgeable gardener looks hard at my face, sensing that his booted leg is being pulled by his neighbor, the herbicidal maniac. But that small mote of a chance that he doesn’t know something in the world of horticulture keeps him quiet. Even he would agree that a garden filled with Scandinavian smoke thistle is more appealing than a yard the color of burnt sienna.

Who knows, my abundants garden might be a featured stop on the annual Friends of Dionysus Garden Tour. Wait till they spy my variegated hastrix. I’ll be happy to share the seedlings. NH

Heather Armitage works in Portsmouth and lives in Kennebunk, Maine. She spends her commute dreaming up chapter headings for her imaginary book, “Abundance Gardening in the 4-5 Zone.”