Why I’m Letting This Thistle Grow

This playful, yet thoughtful, little essay was written by my husband Andy Schmookler.April Moore


Before I get to the thistle, let me begin with a confession.  I’m not as ruthless as an ideal gardener would be.  I’m generally too reluctant to kill plants I don’t want in order to make my landscape more beautiful.

I have a friend who is a master at creating beauty with his landscaping. Over the years, I’ve learned enough of his practices to know what he would chop down, or prune off, or pull up.  And I love the results he gets on his land, which is a real showcase and quite superior aesthetically to what I accomplish.  But I often don’t do as he would.

One reason for my ruthlessnesslessness –or perhaps I should call it “ruthfulness”—is the philosophy of gardening I articulated in “How I Garden” [posted here on The Earth Connection June 12, 2013]:  I am philosophically disposed, because of my deepest life experiences in the spiritual realm, to give nature a rather strong hand in shaping my landscape, guiding more than dominating.  My ways are toward the opposite end of the spectrum on which the formal gardens of Versailles are on the other end.

Another reason for my ruthfulness is that there are some kinds of plants I especially appreciate. Having a soft spot for these plants, I have trouble killing them off when they volunteer where I don’t want them.

The oak tree is one of those noble breeds.  As a result, this year I’m in turmoil over the predictable results of last year’s extraordinarily abundant acorn drop.  Oak trees are sprouting up by the hundreds around my place this spring.  A couple of weeks ago, I had to screw my inadequate ruthlessness to the weed-whacking place so I could maintain the trail through my herb garden and not let it be turned into a burgeoning oak grove.  The ideal gardener would not stop there, however, but would strike down many other baby oaks that I’ve so far spared.

This kind of respect for breed is a necessary part, but only a lesser part, for my sparing this thistle that’s pushed its way out of the earth along our little road between a hawthorne tree and some Balm of Gilead poplars.

I do think that the thistle is a life-form that deserves more appreciation than gardeners generally give it.  Admittedly, this thistle comes from a less storied family than those baby oaks.  While the oaks are related to the masterpieces of nature that line the driveways of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, this thistle is but a cousin to the artichokes whose marinated hearts improve my salads and sandwiches.  Nonetheless, the thistle does have a beauty of its own.

“Weed” is not a biological category. It’s a gardener’s judgment cast upon an undesired, unplanned-for plant. The thistle is treated as a weed not only because it is not planted, but rather volunteers, but also because of what humans consider its salient quality:  it causes pain to him who trespasses upon it.

But this thistle is nowhere near where we need fear we’ll touch it inadvertently.  And I’m entirely willing to co-exist with a plant the requires of me only that I respect its space.  I can respect, too, its way of making that claim—standing there boldly, stalwartly, on its stalk, venturing out its shapely if pointy leaves and, later in the season, displaying its sweetly pink flowers.

To anthropomorphize for a moment, had this thistle been in my high school class, I’d have been interested in checking out what he had to say.

That explains the first –necessary but lesser—reason I decided to spare this thistle.  Then there’s the second reason.

One way I like to think about my property is as a kind of Noah’s Ark.  I celebrate the enormous diversity of life-forms contained in our few acres, the many kinds of trees and flowers and shrubs and the rest, whether planted by us or by their own parents and chance.  Some of that pleasure in diversity is a collector’s delight. Some of it is more spiritual.

I like to behold us, a community of living things, living well together for all our diversity.  Unlike with Noah’s animals, who boarded the ark two by two, I’m content for my list of passengers to be, in some cases, one by one.

Which brings me back to the thistle.  This plant is the only thistle I’ve seen on our place this year.  I’ve got burdock erupting here and there, so the thistle will not maintain for long its monopoly on prickliness.  But if I were to hack down this thistle, my ark would be one respectable species poorer.

April, who as we all know loves the earth and its creatures with a devoted heart, would be ruthless with this thistle.  But we’ve had our “Woodman, spare that thistle” moment, and for now it stays, representing its prickly but respectable family on our ark’s journey through this year of life on earth, three billion and whatever.–Andy Schmookler


4 Responses to “Why I’m Letting This Thistle Grow”

  1. Todd Says:

    I’m with you, Andy. I even got a volunteer raspberry plant in the middle of my beans!! :-)

  2. sandra rose Says:

    The accompanying photo of this much vaunted thistle makes this “nuisance” appear stately and wholly worthy of respect. One might even think it has been pruned/groomed to look so grand. Now a thistle like that I might consider allowing a place near me.

    My husband would agree with Andy given far more pedestrian reasons to spare it. He would extrapolate from the kingly thistle to all other “weeds” for the sake of biodiversity and of being relieved of yard work.

  3. Joan Merrill Brundage Says:

    Yes, I agree. It’s such a balance between aesthetics and nature—we leave a lot of desert plants in our yard and plant native plants that aren’t naturally growing there. The reward is always—-the native critters and birds move in to delight and amuse us.

  4. Andy Schmookler Says:

    Assurance to Sandi Rose: No thistle was injured, pruned, or even touched in the production of the accompanying photograph.

    Additionally, we follow all the guidelines from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.

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