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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyDecember 16, 2023

Their house, my garden: Is it a weed, or is it my seed?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

This week on Their house, my garden, mysterious babies burst forth from the soil. One keen gardener hopes they are cucumbers.

One month ago, I received important news via text message. My friend had scattered 20 cucumber seeds around her garden, and had a pressing question. “Do you think they will grow?” she asked. “I went a bit ham in case many fail.” My reckon was, yes, why not? It was November, and it was meant to have been warm between then and now. Also, I knew this particular gardener was trying quite hard to please her plants, determined that they flourish, so she was at least going to water them.

Then, last Saturday, she sent a photo through the airwaves. A patch of woodchip with little seedlings scattered throughout, each with four oval leaves. Then, the big question: “Do you think these are cucumber seedlings or weeds?”

When you haven’t grown your seedlings in the otherwise seedless conditions of seedling mix, it’s hard to know if the little green things coming up are your babies or an enemy intruder. They could be seeds dropped into the garden in bird poo or blown in on silky parachutes, or they could be from an unfinished tomato someone put in the compost bin three years ago. Like human babies, seedlings can all look pretty much the same when they’re small enough, making it near impossible to tell the goodies from the baddies. 

The seedlings in question.

So what can be done?

Planning ahead is the best option for those who need certainty in life. When you sow a seed, you can place a marker next to it stating what it is. These can be things of beauty, like painted stones or spoons, or they can be popsicle sticks with Vivid on them. It really depends how much spare time you have. 

If it’s too late for this – as it almost always is when we realise we’re confused – we can try some identification techniques. The first thing you should look for are the defining features of what you hope the seedlings are: in this case, cucumber. Like many babies, cucumbers cannot be identified by their first pair of leaves. The first leaves are called cotyledons (seed leaves, for those of us who don’t have gymnast tongues) and are not considered “true” leaves, because they usually look nothing like what the plant is supposed to look like. 

The next leaves should have more clues for us. Baby cucumber leaves are triangular and lobed. They’re fuzzy and their edges are serrated, like green floppy knives. Unfortunately, in the hopeful gardener’s photo, the seedlings have four oval leaves, so cucumbers they are not. They are also not pumpkin, squash or watermelon seedlings, because they all have leaves that look like cucumbers’.

Good luck telling these apart.

The investigation continues. The next step is to consider what else they are likely to be. On the side of the photo is a potential clue. An adult spinach leaf munched by a snail has slipped into the frame – could the seedlings be its babies? Again, we hit misfortune. Spinach’s seed leaves aren’t oval, they’re long strappy things that almost look like blades of grass. The clue was a red herring.

Other plants in my friend’s garden include tomatoes (but tomato seedlings have shapely second leaves and fuzzy reddish stems), beans (their leaves are shaped like hearts) and until recently, cauliflower (but their seed leaves are shaped kinda like clubs). There are also cosmos flowers, but they have very recognisable, kind of stringy, leaves. All of these options can be eliminated. 

Not so identical babies.

I am always reluctant to determine a seedling’s fate before it’s fully grown, but after days of investigating it seemed that the tiny plants in the photo were in fact weeds. Call me a liar, but I did in fact say that maaayyyybbeee they were cucumbers, thinking that at least this would buy the baby plants some time before they get pulled out, and potentially show themselves to be worthy of the vegetable garden. 

Perhaps, even if they were weeds, they could live. In my opinion, people are too afraid of weeds. Weed fear turns us into nimbys. We get stressed that they’re going to take over and ruin the garden, when in fact, they’re just a plant (and sometimes pretty). In any case, it only takes about three seconds and very little effort for a human to completely undo months worth of weed growth. 

Plants contain multitudes.

The concept of a “weed” is a social invention, much like the order cutlery is supposed to go on the table. No one will die if the knife is on the left, and not all weeds are evil. Plus, what counts as an invasive weed to one person is a lovely plant to another, like jasmine. The best thing about September is going for walks in the evening, when the jasmine flowers have perfumed the air, but there is an official war being waged against them, since they kill other plants and native seedlings by smothering them. Weeds can sometimes be eaten, or their flowers appreciated, and they act as a cover crop or mulch for garden beds. 

If they start to completely take over the garden and choke out other plants, perhaps then pull them out. But when they’re barely 5cm tall and have four oval leaves, they are no cucumber, but they are also no threat.

Still, something nagged at me. The light green oval leaves had a familiarity to them, and they didn’t look like any of the common weeds I would expect in a garden. On Thursday, I zoomed in on the photo and a vague memory rattled around in what’s left of my brain. There weren’t only cosmos flowers in the garden. There was also calendula a chronic self-seeder with light green oval leaves. Mystery: solved.

Not a weed after all!

Top tip: Let the mystery babies grow a bit longer, breathe in and out 10 times, and let the weed fear go.

Task of the week: Have a go at identifying different seedlings around your garden – you never know what might have grown up from compost or bird poo.

Keep going!