By Roger Erpelding
A weed is a weed is a weed—right? Well, not always. Sometimes when I don’t know, I’ll let everything coexist for a while. This is true with carrots. Their initial foliage is so fine and feathery that it is very hard to distinguish from other plants. I haven’t even looked at the carrots yet, but when I do, they should be up, as 2 months have elapsed since they were planted. I once asked my mother, who has gardened for a lot longer than I have, how to tell the weeds from the carrots when the carrots were young. “You tell me and we’ll both know.” She is sighted of course, so this tough task is not blindness related. At this stage, when in doubt, I’ll break off a tiny end of a leaf that I think might be a carrot. Its fragrance will give it away. Again, start with the obvious. Carrots are fine and ferny; anything with a large broad leaf is a weed. Some plant their carrots and radishes in the same row. The theory is that when you harvest the radishes, the carrots will have been weeded for the first time. I’ve never tried this, so I can’t judge as to its efficacy.
And what if you just plain don’t know? I have two examples of this–where either Beth and I have chosen to “live and let live.” Just west of the garden gate, along the inside of the north fence, is some kind of strange plant. It has nice soft leaves, quite delicate yellow flowers, and unique seed pods. It is probably a weed, but since this immediate area is small and vacant, it is welcome. If it begins to spread, I’ll pull out some of the plants that stray.
Near the mailbox, along the street curb, is something that I think is a weed, but we are letting it grow. It has spread quite a bit, and it has small white flowers. It somewhat resembles baby’s breath but it is not. I’d pull it all out, as it appears invasive. It is in the northwest corner of this bed, and again, it really isn’t hurting anything. In fact, it is even growing in one of the cracks in the street. One tough plant, whatever it may be. As it has approached some of my perennials, I have given it the boot. But in the meantime, I’ll let it grow for the most part.
Milkflowers, common milkweed, Asclepius syriaca, are one of my favorites. I brought seeds from my other house when I married Beth, and she placed them in her butterfly garden. She is a huge fan of monarchs and others, and of course, the milkflowers are an excellent food source for their larvae. Who cares if they eat the leaves? And like anything else that is a “weed,” they have spread beyond the butterfly garden. The ones in the lawn get mowed off. There was one growing on the north side of the bar bed last year. Much to my pleasure, it was full of flowers and those neat seed pods. This year, in the middle of the “blue bed”, among the amaryllis, is a magnificent milkflower. Can it stay? Well, it depends. If it blooms, yes; if not, it has to go. The stalk looks thick and healthy, and although I can’t tell yet, it looks like it’ll be a bloomer. The milkflowers in Beth’s butterfly garden have buds, but this sprouted late, so the jury is still out. So far, the milkflowers have not spread to the garden. If and when they do, whether or not I will keep them depends on their flowering ability, and where they grow. At the other house, I kept 10-20 of them each year.
Some of my favored plants even become invasive, and act like weeds. The sweet rockets, Hesparis matronalis, are a classic example. Their fragrant purple flowers are welcome, but they are beginning to invade some of the perennials. After they complete their bloom cycle, in about ten days or so, I’ll cut most of them down. I’ll let those go to seed in an area near the blue spruce where nothing else is growing; after all, that’s where I planted them in the first place. They are biennial, so I’ll look for new plants in the fall to keep or cull accordingly.