“A weed is a plant in the wrong place.”
~ George Washington Carver
When I bought our house just over 40 years ago, the neighbors told me that the backyard had at one time been a show garden. People came from all around to see it, with the variety of plants and flowers carefully tended by the owners. Over time, the owners had changed and less attention was paid to the garden. Finally the occupant previous to me had raised multiple ‘coon dogs’, big hounds that he used to hunt racoons in the foothills. The yard was a muddy mess, with no evidence of its previous grandeur.
We sodded the yard and started a vegetable garden across the back. Soon, with our watering, various surprising plants began to intrude on the garden and lawn. Rose bushes, unidentifiable herbs and indeterminate bulbs began to emerge in unexpected places. I had already transplanted some of the lilacs and choke cherries, but that only seemed to encourage more growth in the places where we removed them. Some of the volunteer plants we just tried to eliminate, with only partial success.
After a while, I came to realize that the plants knew where they wanted to grow – where they would grow best. Bowing to Mother Nature, we began to leave some plants where they showed up, regardless of what our vision of the yard or garden might have been.
As a result, the garden resembled less and less those Martha Stewart magazine photos and more a jumble, or maybe jungle. Was the Old Man’s Beard vine interfering with the tomatoes? Move the tomatoes next year. Why is there lemon balm in with the carrots? Another lesson for next year. Over time, we came to a negotiated peace — plants were given plenty of room to be themselves in most of the yard, but some parts were exclusively ours to manage.
Author Brian Barth proposes an approach for people looking for the adventure of mystery plants, “Most gardeners accumulate a cornucopia of partially used seed packets … A “chaos garden” is the lazy person’s way to use up those old seeds that may or may not still be viable … Mix the seeds in a bowl, scatter in loose soil and then sit back and see what happens.” He proposes this three-step process:
Step 1: Prepare the planting area
The point here is to be lazy … If some seeds don’t like the growing conditions, that’s fine … Consider it a game of survival of the fittest.
Step 2: Sort and plant
… plant the larger seeds first. Scatter the smaller…. Don’t hesitate to add flower seeds to the mix.
Step 3: Play Mother Nature’s helper
… take your chances with the rain and see what happens. If Mother Nature cooperates, you’ll soon have a tiny jungle of seedlings. Thin out … spacing them out enough to allow the rest to mature to full head size. Taller crops … can be trellised up, leaving smaller crops to grow at their base.”
This approach sounds interesting, if you have plenty of space to garden and time to figure it all out. I’ve spent hours with plant books trying to decide if that green bunch among the chard is chard, a good plant, or something you don’t want. Maybe I don’t have the patience to wait for the plants to get big enough to tell what they are, and whether I want them. I’ve had to relocate a lot of ‘weeds’ that were in the wrong place, and just pull up ones I didn’t want.
I may be more aligned with writer Sami Grover, who notes, “It’s time that the lazy gardeners among us rise up and take an explicit stand. So, for all the folks who find weeding a chore, who would rather be reading TreeHugger than thinning their lettuce, and who never really understood the point in double digging anyway, I offer you a manifesto for lazy gardening.”
His manifesto consists of the following:
• Even a small harvest is a step forward
• Ditch the work ethic
• If you fail, give up and try something easier
• Be imprecise. (Nature can deal with it.)
• Plants like tough love
• Choose plants that fend for themselves
• Self sufficiency shouldn’t cause self hate
The manifesto closes with a quote from a permaculture expert, “(He) once told me that we should never, ever forget that every time a seed grows, it is a miracle. So who cares if it is just a radish? Stand back, enjoy your miracle, and then go take a nap.
Maybe once you wake up you’ll be ready to plant something else.”
Brian Barth, Three Simple Steps for Planting a Chaos Garden, May 09, 2019, Modern Farmer
Sami Grover, Lazivores Unite: A Manifesto for Lazy Gardening, May 20, 2019, TreeHugger