Not all weeds are created evil, author says

Special to the Herald-LeaderMarch 19, 2011 

  • Bad weeds

    Garlic mustard: A "wildly invasive" perennial. Spreads by seeds and roots. "Reproductively, it makes rabbits look like nuns," Gift writes. Control method: the hands of a whole class of second-graders.

    Crabgrass: This is the weed everyone loves to hate, and Gift couldn't come up with anything nice to say about it. Environmentally friendly corn gluten will control it, but Gift just spreads seeds to help clover and grass out-compete it.

    Not-so-bad weeds

    Morning glory: Some people love this flowering vine. Some hate it. Gift says vines can tangle farm equipment, but they are easy to control on a garden scale. It's not likely to spread to your neighbor. Let it be.

    Prostrate spurge: This is a ground-hugger that often spreads from cracks in a sidewalk. Hardly worth worrying about, but don't eat it, because it contains a poison.Good weeds

    Clover: Honeybees love it. It puts nitrogen into the soil. Gift says a grass-clover lawn is healthier than one with all grass.

    Violet: Eat the blooms. Put some in a tiny vase. "I cannot imagine any reason why violets need to be controlled in a lawn," Gift writes.

  • Learn more

    Find Nancy Gift at Goodweedbadweed.weebly.com or at her blog, Weedsandkids.blogspot.com.

Spring is upon us, which means the Weed Wars are resuming on suburban lawns across America.

Nancy Gift, a Lexington native who is a weed scientist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, has this advice for the humans considering hand-to-leaf combat or, worse, a chemical attack: Get to know your enemy. Some of them might turn out to be friends.

She is the kind of weed scientist who, instead of just coming up with ways to kill 'em all, thinks that although some weeds are bothersome, many can make nice contributions to an attractive, healthy yard.

To help people decide which is which, Gift has written an identification guide, Good Weed, Bad Weed: Who's Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance (St. Lynn's Press, $17.95).

The guide features 46 weeds, grouped into the categories "Bad," "Not-So-Bad" and "Good." With each plant are color photos by Sheila Rodgers; a description of the plant and its life cycle; and benefits, problems and control.

The entries are easy to understand and laced with bits of whimsy and philosophy: "One day I was lying in the lawn with our violets, and a neighbor came over to ask if I had fallen or was hurt. ... I do wish it were more usual and normal for grown people to immerse themselves in the color and variety of their lawns."

In the back of the guide are several recipes, including strawberry-Japanese knotweed pie and spring-green quiche.

Some weeds in the book are species that can get out of control easily and should be strongly discouraged. Others can be perfectly fine, even if they're not what you planted in a particular spot.

"Part of the job of plants in your yard is to just cover the ground and look pretty," Gift said in an interview. "Sometimes pretty is about different colors and textures. This book celebrates the beauty of lots of those different colors and textures that people have just been labeling as 'weed' and dismissing."

This is Gift's second book. A Weed by Any Other Name, a set of essays that came out two years ago, was about eschewing the monoculture of an all-grass landscape in favor of the ecological diversity of weeds.

That book was meant for sitting and reading. The guide is designed to be carried around outside to identify what's coming out of the ground.

The guide leans pro-weed. The suggested controls are pro- environment and depend heavily on hand-pulling and mulching. For the bad weed crabgrass, for example, Gift suggests that environmentally friendly corn gluten is effective. Her personal strategy, however, is to wait until the crabgrass dies back in the fall, then seed the bare patch with clover or grass. It hasn't eliminated her crabgrass, she says, but it's cheap and completely non-toxic.

Gift's feeling about chemicals is summed up in the guide's introduction: "Though lawn-care companies and lawn-care products will offer to kill your weeds and maintain a smooth, green carpet, none of them will admit a glaring truth: Not all those weeds are bad, and none of their products are capable of selectively sparing the good weeds after the bad ones are dead and gone."

Gift, 40, grew up on Tahoma Road. That's near The Arboretum on Alumni Drive, which she holds up as an example of a lawn with a lot of diversity. Many of the flowering weeds in her book can be found there.

As a student at Henry Clay High School, Gift interviewed Wendell Berry, the celebrated Henry County writer. She wanted to talk about writing, but she came away with advice about sustainability and the idea that a lawn should be healthy enough to grow food.

She has degrees from the University of Kentucky, Cornell University and Harvard, and she is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Chatham.

Gift's own suburban lawn is in O'Hara Township, a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. She shares it with her family, four chickens (thanks to a split-decision approval by the local zoning board) and all sorts of "beloved" plants that are labeled as weeds.

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