After a recent experience doing battle with the nefarious Triffid weed Richad Nye has some hilarious musings on why a mystical view of nature is no good for your garden
Ralph Waldo Emerson talked some tripe. “What is a weed?” mused the founding father of Transcendentalism – a sort of bastardized American Romanticism with a spot of mysticism thrown in. “It is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
Nice try, Ralph. There, however, speaks a man who never set foot in the tangled horticultural wilderness that was, until recently, the garden of Maison Nye.
The Oxford English Dictionary is more help. A weed, it explains, can be ‘a contemptibly feeble person’, ‘a leggy, loosely built horse’ (who knew?), cannabis (just say no) or – and this is the point – ‘a wild plant growing where it is not wanted (itals mine) and in competition with cultivated plants’.
Emerson’s sunny reverence for the supposed divinity of nature may be fine in a sophomore philosophy class, but when a small army of Triffids is advancing on the kitchen window, popping up out of nowhere like a gang of windscreen washers at traffic lights, one takes a slightly darker view. Thus it was with little compunction last month that I called in the horticultural cavalry, their mission to rid my ancestral property of weeds.
It started badly when one of their number turned out to be allergic to grass – a Grade-I-listed handicap, you might think, for an aspiring gardener. Nor was it just a mild aversion: one whiff of my incipient jungle and he went down like a Dervish at Omdurman. Fortunately, a hay fever tablet had him back on his feet, and four hours later he was driving off with 14 sacks of weeds, their potential virtue now destined to remain forever untapped.
It is just possible, of course, that we did a terrible thing that day. Somewhere in bag nine could have been the cure for dementia, a new superfood or the ultimate nemesis for the tsetse fly. But I doubt it. More than likely this was pure waste, fit for the fire, its condemnation deserved.
Free of weeds, Jardin Nye is beginning to breathe. It’s not quite Stourhead yet, but at least its resemblance to the rainforest has dimmed. This has had the happy effect of wrongfooting the local foxes, or – as my Chinese neighbour, with an oriental flair for the dramatic, has been known to call them – “our wolves”. Bereft of camouflage, they have been forced into retreat, reduced to defending a narrow vulpine heartland around the rockery.
And I can see my apple tree. All of it, not just the few branches that used to peep out between the unbidden buddleias and other arboreal invaders that once encroached upon the bottom of the lawn.
In the Parable of the Weeds, Christ compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sowed good seed in a field. As he sleeps, another sower plants weeds among the wheat, and in time the two things grow together. Where, ask the first man’s servants, did the weeds come from?
“An enemy did this,” he replies.
Gardening and the Gospel: a natural fit. Emerson’s folksy pantheism, like the weeds themselves, belongs firmly on the compost heap.