Give Weeds a Chance | Science | Smithsonian
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Give Weeds a Chance

How a cultivated dislike of gardening can lead to more time on the porch

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"Mom, the sun is not your friend," my daughter once said to me. And being out in the sun is only one of the things I don't like about gardening. I also don't like digging (too dirty), dragging hoses around (too twisty), seeing leaves close up (too veiny) and accidentally cutting worms in half with a trowel (too messy). If I ever get more money than I can bear, I'll hire a gardener. Until then, I'm fine with a tattered lawn and a border of shrubs that my father once euphemistically called "primitive."

Well, not exactly fine. Actually, I'm ashamed of dodging America's favorite pastime. It seems furtive and unpatriotic to lie on the porch sofa reading mysteries while all around me, gardeners are sweating away their weekends lugging mulch and swatting gnats. On the other hand, why should I feel guilty? I'm the one holding the moral high ground. No one hates nature more than a gardener.

Here's a friend of mine, a very nice man, telling me that a woodchuck has invaded his suburban lawn. "I'd bomb his tunnel if I could find the entrance," he says. Another friend has planted a Concord grape arbor in one corner of her yard. To her amazement, the arbor has attracted raccoons. Although my friend has enough grapes to keep her family in jelly for centuries, she can't spare any fruit for the coons. "I asked the Audubon Society if it was OK to shoot them, and they said no!" she moans. "Do you believe it?"

Meanwhile, the main topic at local dinner parties is how to keep deer away from the day lilies, which deer chomp like lollipops. (Bags of lion hair? A flamethrower? A comet crashing into the earth?) Meanwhile, an Arizona relative who says she doesn't like the look of indigenous plants confesses that her traditional English garden uses an awful lot of water. Meanwhile, the droning of leaf blowers destroys tranquil summer days all across the nation. God forbid that a leaf should touch anyone's grass.

I'm not saying beauty is bad. Nor am I suggesting that all gardeners should be as happy to see a woodchuck munching their perennials as I would be. But planting a garden full of proven animal treats and then hating the animals that move in...Hey, why not set a freshly baked cake on the grass and then declare war on the ants swarming over it? The minute you plant a garden, wilderness starts trying to take advantage of it. Getting mad at the process is like getting mad at gravity.

"But flowers are prettier than pests," gardeners will say, without acknowledging that prettiness is entirely a matter of opinion. There's the truism about a weed's being a flower where you don't want it, or whatever. And I'd rather watch any kind of animal, even a snail, than any kind of flower, even a forest full of rare orchids. To me, a cottontail in the backyard provides more entertainment than a bunch of flowers. Plants just stand there with their feet in the dirt. And I can't look at them without seeing the work required to keep them standing there. At least it's less stressful to appreciate the living things that don't need special care—or special poisons—to stay alive. It's also prettier to see deer eating my yews and holly in the winter than to shroud all the bushes in brown burlap. (If deer are hungry enough to eat holly, I say they're welcome to it.)

"But we own this plot of land," gardeners will argue. "We have a right to keep it looking nice!" Why? Did Mother Nature sign a contract with them? We buy land from other humans. Why should we expect nature to respect our borders? Why not abandon the incongruity of taming a little patch of land while savagely battling nature to stay on the other side of the fence?

Gardening feels redemptive, which may account for the odor of sanctity exhaled by so many gardeners. It seems like a selfless act; you're improving your little corner of the world and working out at the same time. But gardening is just another luxury hobby, like getting a manicure or learning to make the perfect cassoulet. There's nothing wrong with fancy pastimes; if we can indulge in them, we're lucky. But we shouldn't make them the excuse for declaring war on the natural world. Summers would be a lot more peaceful if we sat back and smelled the roses—even if all we have is clover.

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