Why people like me shouldn’t decide what lives and what dies in the garden

Posted: June 30, 2022 in Uncategorized

I’m not a horticulturalist. I can barely spell that word. It’s not that I can’t mow a lawn, water the flowers, or put down mulch when it’s time. I can. But I just don’t know much about plants. Like what they are, what soil they thrive in, and what degree of direct sun they need or can’t stand. I know people like that, but I’m not one. I have a friend in that category and he is amazed how much I don’t know about the plant kingdom. When I rant about weeds he gently reminds me that a weed is just a good plant out of place, depending on who is doing the defining. I suppose that gets to the root of it.

This year we decided to plant Missouri wildflowers in several gardens, especially one that ended up being the wildflower showcase. I think we got motivated after watching some documentary about which wildflowers attract what butterflies and bees and why that is so important. Off we traveled to a nursery that specializes in just that, wildflowers. After finding the area of the nursery dedicated to our geographic region and our kind of soil, we made our selections, imagining where they might be planted after we returned home. We filled up our cart, checked out, and after unloading them into our yard, began assigning this plant and that to different locations.

As it ends up, turning over the soil, planting and watering the fledgling wildflowers was not the greatest challenge. That would come later. In one particular bed out back, a bed we watered but neglected in every other way, the weeks passed without weeding that garden bed. Though we had planted wildflowers, even wilder plants than those joined the party. Even though I had left the little plastic identifier tabs in the ground so that we would know one flower from the next, that soon became superfluous. The wild had blended with the wilder into swath of green, growing things.

One of the problems with my kind of ignorance is that I can’t differentiate between the obvious and very subtle. For example, I might know the difference between a hosta and a dandelion, but not between one leafy thing and a thousand others nearly the same. Much of the time the non-garden of my yard is growing much prettier than the identified garden, nature popping up in some unexpected rivalry. It always wins.

When I leaned down with the intent of weeding the bed I was faced with a terrible truth; I could recognize some indigenous Missouri wildflowers, but not nearly enough. I could recognize the Shasta Daisy, but not the Gray Goldenrod, the Prairie Aster, but not the Butterfly Milkweed, most usually the Garden Phlox, but hardly ever the Bottlebrush Blazing Star. But that wasn’t the worst. I could barely tell the difference between any of those and all the uproarious volunteers. Which leaf had the jagged edge and which a straight line? How many buds graced the tippy top? How many strands crawled the ground like a wanton snake?

I was woefully inadequate to be making any decisions about who lives and who dies, who gets watered and who gets tossed on the compost pile, who gets a soothing touch and who gets pulled out by the roots. The reason I found myself making general confession to the garden bed in advance was that I was not qualified to be making any of these life and death decisions. I had neither the knowledge or perspective to be doing that. I am no master gardener. I am not a horticulturist. I don’t even remember much of what the horticulturist told me. I am a bull in a flora closet.

That reminds me of a story. One time Jesus and his friends were wandering through a wheat field and Jesus threw a parable their way, as he was want to do. He told how a farmer had sown his wheat, but during the night a adversary had sown the weed darnel into the field. That’s really mean because darnel is a wheat imposter, appearing very much like the wheat it imitates. The servants of the master were irate. Who would do such a thing! They asked the master if they should wade out into the field and root out all the imposter plants. To that the master replied that no, don’t do that, don’t try to yank the weeds out of the wheat. Because, he said, if you do, most surely the wheat will be damaged in the process. Instead, let them grow alongside together and it will all be sorted out at harvest time.

The parable was, of course, about more than horticulture. It was about living in the world, an imperfect world, a world where the good grows alongside the bad, the really bad, and the kind of bad. The servants were not qualified to make such decisions, to be the arbiters of virtue, to determine with certainty what needs to stay and what gets tossed out. The collateral damage is too great for such a sorting. The sorters are not qualified, don’t know how much or how far to go, and don’t know the difference between darnel and wheat.

Like my wildflowers and their uninvited guests, I don’t know enough, can’t see the fine distinctions, am not aware of where what came from and why, to assume the role of judge and jury. Too many weeds are good plants out of place. Too many good plants grow alongside other good plants. Some plants are deemed legitimate because somebody, somewhere, decided they were so.

But we do set ourselves up that way, set ourselves up as the ones who make judgements for what we find in the garden. We make judgements for people we scarcely know. We make judgements based on the tiniest of knowledge and greatest biases of giants tromping through the garden bed in ignorance. And then, as the gardeners in charge for a moment, we define the boundaries of the garden, what shall be included and what not, based on the tiniest grain of consciousness from the beaches of the universe. The arrogance.

I will help some plants grow. I will harm others. The outcome of all that effort will be based on the most subjective assumptions. And if I am a gardener who has caught a whiff of power, then I’m really dangerous. I may attempt to enforce my little gardenview as the only one, the only way to garden in the wide world of the many plants I do not know, do not understand, and do not care to understand.

Then I build a fence around my garden. To keep all competing information at bay. I create a world of the imagination where I actually believe that my kingdom of the ground is the best, the very best, the only, the universal one. The edicts begin: You will act this way. You will see the world this way. You will regulate your behavior this way. Or we will yank you out by the roots, toss you aside, and revel in what we have made, the triumph, the glory of the work of our hands.

Don’t do it, Jesus said.

  1. Mary Catherine Monroe says:

    So WONDERFUL!! As always. So grateful for your genius with words to illuminate profound truths.
    Love to you both. Mary Catherine

  2. Linda Smith says:

    Loved this analogy and it’s message.

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