Weeds in the Garden


My father loved to garden. Our Philadelphia suburban home was typical of the times. Marigolds, geraniums, impatiens and lots and lots of pachysandra. My father was a traveling salesman, so would frequently come home late at night. He'd walk in, kiss my mother, grab a flashlight, and by its light start pulling weeds from the lawn. On a number of occasions I’d catch him talking to his plants before putting them into the soil. He’d quietly say, “I’ll take care of you…just grow”. Then he’d offer a little prayer to the garden gods, and gently pat the earth. Needless to say, as a teenager, I thought my father was crazy. A quiet and conservative Republican, he seemed completely out of character and totally out of his mind. 

Weeding was one of my household chores, and one I did with little relish. In fact, I hated it, and swore that I would never garden as an adult. Thus it is with some irony that gardening for the last fifteen years has become an obsessive passion. Come the first cold days of March I am itching to get into the dirt and by mid-spring I am in the garden every chance I get. I never call what I do "yard work” because for me it is pure and simple joy, and the garden is the place where some of my most creative energies literally bloom. I read constantly on the subject, will travel to far away gardens and spend money on plants and trees like I am broadcasting seed.

Even more ironically I have a few habits. First, after long travel days, I frequently come home at two in the morning. Between April and August, no matter how tired, I will rush into the house, grab a flashlight and “walk” the borders. I'm inspecting, seeing what changes have occurred since I was last around. Second, I love to weed, finding it serene and meditative. There is a feeling I get of deep satisfaction, taking hold of some clover, wiggling it firmly, and then popping the entire root from the ground. My enjoyment borders on obsessive, and frequently I will not stop until there isn’t a single weed left. Many gardeners say weeding is like eating peanuts. I wholeheartedly agree. 

The garden is one of the great teachers of my life. It requires patience, vision and the need to consistently adapt and change. Every day is filled with small victories, surprises and sudden failures. The garden is the place I learn about death, rebirth and transformation. One either learns to deal with change as a gardener or one doesn’t venture in. It’s been said humorously, that in a quiet way, gardening is war. I have experienced this on numerous occasions as I curse the chomping beetles, the nibbling shrews, the devouring deer and the creeping fungi. But for me, Historian Mac Griswold said it best, when she wrote, “Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts.” 

I have been thinking about weeding, and what it has taught me. It is this. If I am ambivalent on where to act, what I don’t want is what will frequently win out. Weeding the unnecessary, the unneeded or uninspiring from my life is one of the best ways for me to get what I do want. So much attention is spent these days in telling people to envision their goals. Without doubt that is critical. But the art of removal is also important.

Spend some time this season attending to what keeps you from the beauty you seek. Then with attention and focus, wiggle it firmly and pluck it from your life. If anything, weeds teach us that if we don’t act with clarity, the unimportant can quickly win out, growing larger than what we truly treasure, crowding out the life we wish to grow.