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The Gift of the Wild Things, Good Weeds and Bad Weeds

by Susan Norris-Davis

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work in various public gardens dedicated to native plants and to share knowledge pertaining to their role in sustaining the health of our wider regional ecosystems.  Since they are gardens open to the public, where a pleasing, orderly appearance is usually required, weeding is a major part of the upkeep.

It occurred to me, as I pulled weeds, that some of them had to be native to our area and must have their part to play. The questions arose: What are their growth habits?  Will they work in this garden? What is their natural role? Do they have ornamental, medicinal, or edible traits? As I researched and weeded, more questions: What to do about plants that were unclear as to native or not? What about non-natives that had value in the garden and did not appear to pose a significant problem?  How best to get rid of unwanted weeds without undue disturbance to the garden which would cause additional problems? How are all these weeds getting here?

As I started to selectively weed, keeping desirable, mostly native plants and doing my best to eradicate those unwanted, I found the diversity of the native gardens deepening and my frustration at not being able to find more varied natives at local nurseries easing- and this diversity was free! — except of course for the work involved in research, identification, experimentation, and observation. My notes began to pile up and the information about these ‘weeds’ has become fascinating to me. Culturally, socially, linguistically, technologically – there are so many ways that these plants are relevant. I thought not only might this be of interest to others, it is arguably an essential part of living sustainably in our communities.

Convinced of the value of this localized information and its relevancy, I conceived of a way to create a tool by which people learning the ins and outs of their gardens, or just observing natural spaces, might find answers about the “good weeds” and “bad weeds that they came across.  In July, 2022, I submitted a grant proposal to LNPS to create this tool — an online database for weeds of southeast LA.  The idea was to provide a quick, reliable, online resource that allows the home gardener to make informed decisions about weeds. LNPS approved the grant to get started, and additional funding was procured  from the New Orleans Town Gardeners (NOTG), the Meraux Foundation, and the Native Plant Initiative of Greater New Orleans (NPI).  A web developer was hired and used FileMaker Pro to set up the database with an initial list of 20 species. I did the initial research on a volunteer basis to populate the database and worked closely with the developer, learning how best to set it up and get it up and running….by doing.