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WEEDS

By: Richard Mabey.

Publisher: Ecco, 336 pages, $25.99.

Review: Mabey's lyrical, detailed ode to weeds will make you rethink the rogues in your garden.

NONFICTION REVIEW: "Weeds"

  • Article by: SUSAN AGER
  • September 24, 2011 - 1:59 PM

If you garden, you will love "Weeds."

It's written by a British guy, so it leans toward the weeds that plague that island nation -- specimens like Japanese knotweed and rosebay willowherb (known more commonly here as fireweed).

But it is a lyrical, wise, witty, intimate musing about garden outcasts -- and about us, too. Weeds, writes Mabey, a well-known British naturalist, "are plants which sabotage human plans." But, "we are their natural ecological partners, the species alongside which they do best. ... They use us when we stir the world up, disrupt its settled patterns."

Mabey educates us about the role weeds have played over the centuries, the good they've done, and the random ways they've since been demonized. The key, it seems, is that weeds have trained themselves to grow independently, ferociously, whereas precious garden plants you buy from a nursery must be pampered and, well, nursed. Weeds, various wise people have noted, are simply plants that grow where you don't want them to. They will not be obliterated. Indeed, they may survive us.

Mabey paints an ode to weeds, calling upon myth and science, superstition and art and even Shakespeare. He describes how ancient peoples actually studied weeds, closely, naming them for their delicate characteristics. Who among us has studied a weed before spraying it away with Roundup?

Roundup gets no mention in this book, which isn't about obliterating but appreciating weeds. It's so high-minded and clean-hearted that when I was done I trod out to my garden and genuflected before my weeds before I pulled them out and tossed them on the compost.

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