If you've ever pulled weeds from sidewalk cracks, yanked rampaging vines out of shrubs, climbed a ladder to remove sprouts from gutters, hand-picked undesirables from garden beds or spent countless dollars on chemicals to wipe out weeds, join the club.
Weed is the four-letter bane of gardening. These turbo-charged, lusty plants grow anywhere and multiply like crazy, even under the harshest of conditions. Cut them some slack, and they'll suck the life out of your prized plants.
You've got to give them some credit though. Weeds have fine-tuned their survival instinct so well that you'd swear they're immortal.
Webster's defines a weed as a plant that's not valued where it's growing. State officials and expert plant organizations classify weeds as plants that create a negative impact on the native environment. There are scores of offenders deemed invasive and noxious in Florida, which are unlawful to sell. Homeowners are urged to remove any growing on their properties (see list below).
There also are vigorous and legal plants that are considered weeds, such as clover and dandelion. Many Florida native plants have "weed" in their name, including blue porterweed, butterflyweed, milkweed and ironweed. They're perfectly lovely when they're growing in the right place and they are good for the environment, but do you keep them or pull them?
Can a weed ever be a benefit, rather than a bane?
Ask the homeowner with the perfectly manicured lawn of St. Augustine and precisely edged garden beds, and you'll hear the mantra, "Weed, baby, weed.'' But with the popularity of ecofriendly gardening practices (and the ban on new sod), this weed-be-gone mind-set is being challenged.
Many gardeners have cultivated more understanding and respect for weeds, which are found only where humans have disturbed the ground, notes author Sara B. Stein in My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany (University Press of Florida, 2000; 240 pages, $16.95 from Amazon.com). "If there were a Guinness Book of Record Plants, weeds would win most contests," she writes. "Weeds are a merry, rowdy, sun-loving, shallow lot, and brash as the salesman with his foot in the door.''
That doesn't mean, however, that they're all bad.
Good weeds do things like enrich the soil and provide cover for good garden insects such as ladybugs and good nematodes. Some are edible, and many produce pretty flowers that attract wildlife. Strategically planting something that might be called a weed in certain settings — such as nasturtium — in a vegetable garden will even provide protection from caterpillars and aphids, which feast on the nasturtium first.
Largo resident Jan Allyn's gardening philosophy makes sense. "Weeds are really about context," she explains. "We need to open our minds a bit to these so-called weeds that are attractive and have benefits. We need to find their proper purpose in the landscape."
A member of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, Allyn would never provide refuge for an invasive or exotic weed, but she sees value in plants that other people consider weeds. "There are some things that some people consider weeds, but they can be beautiful if you cultivate them and keep them trimmed, or plant them in the right place. A good example is Spanish nettle. It's a good plant for butterflies. As long as it's not trying to take over my yard, I leave it alone."
Perhaps it's time to rethink your philosophy. Pulling the plug on harmful exotic invasives is one thing, but purging your landscape of every sprout you didn't plant yourself is an exercise in futility. Let's give weeds a chance.
Yvonne Swanson is a Pinellas County master gardener and freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.