Embarrassed by its unkempt appearance, I decided to finally tend to my kitchen window box, which this summer had been allowed to run altogether wild. I’ve had mixed success with past plantings, the mix tending mostly toward failure.
This year, however, I took the expert advice of a professional gardener and the resident green thumb of our apartment building. I purchased evergreen ivy, treadwell mint, and a perennial, all brands of plants that could survive not only a hot season, but also me. Yet when I pulled in the window box to transplant them, I was faced with several leafy green dilemmas. You would probably call them weeds.
That’s a term that has long troubled me with it derogatory tone. It communicates an implicit incitement to violence. We talk of weeds and immediately we’re impelled to kill them, spray them, pull them out at the root, when really, they are just species of plants. In general, we don’t get excited about the prospect of killing plants; in fact, if we’ve got a working conscience, we usually feel guilty for doing the very same. Certainly I do. Even as a young child, I objected to the routine slaughter of dandelions in our front yard. I actually thought they were pretty, in a rough-hewn way, and also cheerful and determined.
Not too many dandelions find their way to window boxes, so I don’t see them too much any more. I miss them sometimes. My neighbors in the city don’t have sprawling yards. Instead, they have small row planters and crowded container gardens. Whatever had staked its vegetative claim to my window box had been brought by winds blowing them rather far aloft. I assumed that these were kin to the lovely assortment of plants that lined the patio of our building a few floors below, all fruits of the labor of our hardworking co-op gardening committee. I even assumed that they had names.
“What sorts of plants are these?” I asked my husband, who had just walked into the kitchen.
Not even directing his eyes to the place where my finger pointed, he replied, “Weeds.”
My husband knows my categorical objection to this term. Although I had probably caught him in a provocative mood, I let myself be provoked. “Even if they were weeds — a premise I doubt — they would be some variety of weeds,” I told him, underscoring my doubt. “They would be called something in particular. Like dandelions.”
“They are all some kind of weed,” he answered. “That is the entire extent of my knowledge. Why are you asking me?” My husband has a narrow band of horticultural expertise that mostly involves strains of tomatoes. Like me, he’s a fan of our building’s resident greenthumb, but not one himself.
“You say they’re weeds because they’re wild,” I said. “Well, would you call wildflowers weeds? If you saw a beautiful arrangement of wildflowers, you wouldn’t consider them a collection of weeds. You wouldn’t be tempted to throw them out.” I didn’t want to trash this odd smattering of anonymous plants, but seeing the mint and ivy and perennials waiting to be replanted, I knew there would not be enough dirt to cultivate them all.
“Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to take these plants out of this window box, because I have to in order make room.” By this point, my husband had lost all interest in the strange, skewed conversation and I was talking to myself, orating for an audience of one. “But I am not going to throw them out. No – I’m transferring them to a pot. If people see these in a proper pot, no one would think, ‘Look at that pot of weeds!’ That would change their standing instantly.”
We had plenty of caly pots underneath the kitchen sink, a spot that has become the final resting ground for a series of unfortunate orchids, most of them well-intended gifts to us. Orchids are hothouse flowers that have a woefully limited lifespan on our windowsill. I wanted to see if the weeds couldn’t best them. After I dug all the existing plants out of the window box, I lined the largest pot I had with fresh soil and began to arrange them with an eye toward symmetry. I gave the nameless weeds a permanent home of their own and in the process, I believed, granted them the dignity they were due.
Back in the days when the five-and-dime store was still a shopping staple, an old friend of mine advised always buying houseplants from Woolworth’s. “Think about it,” she told me. “If a plant can survive in Woolworth’s, it could probably survive anywhere.” I’ve recalled her high praise of Woolworth’s plants with remarkable frequency in the intervening decades of my life.
In my adult years, a surprising number of people, institutions, and endeavors I’ve encountered have gotten categorized under the mental heading of proverbial Woolworth’s plant. These are scrappy survivors of every imaginable stripe, sprung up in poor soil and drought conditions and systematic neglect; they might appear a little lackluster at first glance, but they merit reconsideration, or at least a second look. What we ought to commend for heartiness, we instead denigrate. We overlook countless marvels in our midst, the natural wonders of our time and place. The question I’d like to see asked of the sturdy but slighted is the one that rarely gets asked: How in the world did you make it this far? I had to wonder about the so-called weeds in the window box.
With such speed and minimal effort, the leafy squatters outside my kitchen window could be replaced by a bumper crop of plants that I’d selected at a nursery, paid good money for, and transported home in air-conditioning. The distant nursery had been recommended to me by the professional gardener; he made routine trips out to the county for his clients. Of course, the plants there were given every earthly advantage. But at home in the city, they no longer compelled my admiration as much as they had at point of purchase.
Now the weeds in a pot, parked at a picturesque angle on our kitchen windowsill, commanded my esteem. They looked like something Woolworth’s would have been proud to carry on its shelves. Who was I to be embarrassed?