Jessie Raymond: Time to show the garden who’s boss

A good gardener isn’t someone who has luck getting things to grow. Things will grow whether you want them to or not. The real talent lies in taking charge of what grows and not letting the garden be the boss of you. You have to be ruthless.
I’m not.
Or, I wasn’t. After years of lamenting my lack of cruel streak, I have finally found my inner garden warrior.
This spring, as usual, I set about the annual task of assessing what is sprouting in the garden. Some things, like my Rambling Rose of Death, I recognize immediately. But what about all the many unfamiliar stems and stalks?
I go through this every year. Because I tend to let the garden self-regulate as the summer wears on, I often struggle to establish order when spring comes around. Just figuring out what’s a weed and what’s a beloved perennial takes up a good chunk of my gardening time.
I follow a three-step process for identifying the mystery plants.
1. I look for placement. If a plant is growing randomly all over the garden, there’s a good chance it’s an interloper.
2. I wait. As the plant grows, I might recognize it, either from memory or from a reference photo. The trick is remembering to keep an eye on it while it’s small; forget about it for a month or two, and suddenly my garden is 90 percent bindweed.
3. I see if I can find something similar growing elsewhere, such as at the garden center. I also look for examples in the wild, paying close attention to plants that grow in waste areas or disturbed soil, as those places most closely resemble conditions in my garden.
In the past, if I was unable to make a determination using any of these criteria, the plant — weed or flower — would generally get to stay. I never had the heart to stand firm and grow only what I wanted, where I wanted. But this year, something in me snapped.
It started when I found a clump of leaves that at some point had taken up residence (or had been lovingly planted, who can remember?) in several spots in the garden. Already over a foot tall and almost ready to bloom, it was something I had seen often, but where?
My three-step ID process yielded no clues. The clumps seemed well established, but their unlikely placement — leaning into the phlox and crowding out the hosta — seemed suspect. I couldn’t, however, find any roadside or garden-center matches.
It wasn’t until I was poking around at the edge of the yard (while looking for a new garden area to claim as my own and later abandon) that I saw the same plant growing freely in the woods. It was dame’s rocket. An introduced species with pretty pink flowers, it grows all around our house. It’s also invasive enough to be prohibited in several states.
In the past, I would have grudgingly let the plants stay in the garden, telling myself that the line between flower and weed is an arbitrary one. “Weeds are just flowers growing in the wrong place,” I would say with a sigh. I wouldn’t have dared to add, “But if the garden is the wrong place, yank ’em.”
This year, however, I’ve realized that as a gardener, you can be a nature lover without being a pushover. Given a chance, nature will trample all over you and your precious daisies. You have to fight back.
So instead of resigning myself to a garden full of dame’s rocket, I jabbed my spade into the ground and lifted each clump out by the roots — without once apologizing. It was exhilarating.
I dumped the clumps on the compost pile, and, when I was sure the neighbors weren’t watching, danced around it while letting out a series of cathartic victory screams.
Still on my adrenalin rush, I then turned to an unidentified but suspicious looking fuzzy plant in the middle of the garden. Without a trace of guilt, I raised a pitchfork high above my head and brought it down full force into the plant’s base. Grinning like Jack Nicholson near the end of “The Shining,” I nodded at the impaled plant and whispered, “See ya.”
I don’t know if it will make me a better gardener in the long run, but so far, I’m really digging this ruthlessness thing.

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