June 3, 2011
Six weeks ago I stuck some seeds in the ground. Now, in their place, are neat rows of lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard and pea vines. No one is more surprised than me. All the anxieties I had as a new gardener have subsided, and I’m enjoying what I had worried would seem a chore. Tending the raised beds is relatively mindless work that allows me to feel productive—and avoid actual chores, like house-cleaning—while leaving room to daydream.
It also allows the headspace to have little epiphanies. My first was that gardening has a lot more to do with encouraging death than life.
About a week after I planted my first seeds, I crouched over the raised bed admiring the rows of half-inch seedlings that had appeared. My self-satisfaction quickly faded when I looked over at the next bed, where I hadn’t yet planted anything, and saw that it, too, was teeming with incipient life—weeds!
Other than sticking the seeds in the ground and providing them with a decent place to grow and sufficient water (which hasn’t been a problem because I live in a rainy place that’s having an especially wet spring), the only thing I’ve done to foster veggie life is kill the competition. The garden is a dog-eat-dog world.
I’ve spent untold hours plucking weeds from the dirt. This has taught me something else: gardening is either the best or the worst thing an obsessive person can take up. I find it exceptionally, almost maniacally satisfying when I find just the right tension to pull a weed out along with its long, trailing root without it breaking off at the soil level. “Die, weed, die!” I think to myself, without the twinge of the guilt I always feel when I kill a spider, whose only crime was having creepy legs.
Then again, weeding could drive a perfectionist mad, because it’s a never-ending task. That first day, after hours of pulling out tiny weeds, I discovered that if I swept the top of the soil aside, I could see hundreds of little white roots that hadn’t yet reached the surface. As he has done many times before, my husband nipped my crazy in the bud and convinced me to wait until they had grown big enough to easily pull out.
Weeds—there are thousands of species, and I have not learned the names of the ones that have colonized my garden—are evolutionary winners. They have adapted through natural selection to muscle out other species. Left to their own devices, my namby-pamby vegetables wouldn’t stand a chance against these brutes.
Which leads me to my final epiphany (for now, anyway): gardening, and by extension farming, is an unnatural act. All the debate about “natural” food versus processed and genetically modified organisms ignores the fact that most of the plants that humans eat today are the result of our intentional tinkering with nature, starting somewhere around 11,000 years ago. They represent a step in the evolution of humans, not plants (which is not to say that GMOs are good for people or the planet). As Tom Standage explains in An Edible History of Humanity (I wrote about the book last year), the earliest farmers unwittingly aided—or defied—natural selection when they chose to gather, and then sow seeds from, grasses with a mutation that made them easier to eat. Left alone, these mutations would probably have been selected out, but instead, over many generations of human intervention, became what we know today as corn, or maize.
It may be a mutant, but it’s delicious slathered in butter.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.