Thursday, October 9, 2008

on weeds

working as much as possible with, and as little as possible against the natural forces already present there.

a weed, like wilderness, nature, beauty, evil, and a perfectly clean shirt are all cultural constructs, a second order sign used to corral an ever changing set of beliefs, like herding cats. generally, a weed is a plant that grows better than the plants you would prefer to see growing in a particular area at a particular time. weeds are a constant ecological pressure exerted on the order & human usefulness of a given garden, pasture, or lawn. we want the system to grow like we imagined it would, and weeds often disrupt that idealized vision. so we pull them out, poison them, and curse the curse that kicked us out of the garden where apparently the noxious weeds were nil. of course sometimes weeds actually do some damage. they get stuck in our livestock's feet, poison the ground, smother the fruit trees, and grow through cracks in walls like they just don't care. billions of dollars in damage & lost revenue, a worldwide epidemic of virulent invasive species literally bringing down our homes around our heads. yet you don't hear the candidates talking about this problem do you?

well i have a solution to all your weed struggles. it's called reframing the weed debate and it's simple; instead of dividing up all the plants into two categories, weeds & non-weeds, just use one category, plants. as far as evolution goes, plants have been at it for much longer than we have and really have some pretty powerful tricks up their sleeves to avoid eradication. various government & private agencies spend millions of dollars each year attempting to remove targeted plant invaders from the landscape; arundo reed, knotweed, scotch broom, star thistle, english ivy, and as it turns out it doesn't work. the plants come back, or they will soon enough.

reframing weeds is championed by one of my favorite landscape architects, a frenchman by the name of Gilles Clement. this is a quote from the book enviro(ne)ment

This approach assumes that the garden and the gardener are totally interdependent, with the gardener keeping an attentive eye on the wanderings of the plants and animals and insects that enter into the garden. He follows the 'movement' of 'traveling' plants like Digitalis, the Mulleins, Spurges, and Hogweed, instead of confining them to "beds," which are traditionally employed to highlight flowering. This approach relativizes the notions of plants and weeds, allowing everything present in the garden to play an equal role in producing a dense and richly overlapping whole in which each development is treated as an evolutionary event

this reframing of weeds isn't just fun & games. if we were to recontextualize our notions of beauty in a designed landscape to include the wooliness of weeds & the process by which a bare patch of land becomes a forest we could save billions of dollars a year & untold consumption of resources.

This project by Clement included a large elevated island of bare dirt surrounded by a 30ft concrete wall. over time weeds & trees colonized the bare dirt and now there is a young forest floating above the rest of the ground plane, untouched & unmaintained.

another of my favorite projects is by Hans Hollein, a Pritzker Prize winning Austrian architect, where he took a good number of colored buckets, filled them with dirt from an industrial site outside town, put them in front of the local government buildings and let the weeds banked in the soil just grow.

but for the most part weeds are eschewed in landscape design, have been for 4000 years, and i doubt it's going to change anytime soon. but i believe in a guided evolution of a site where product, process, and design form three sides of a triangle, and if any side changes length the other two must shift in response.

this creates a dense pattern of ecological form & function, overlapping and changing in time. something i call ecological bricolage. Fran├žois Jacob uses the term bricolage to describe the apparently cobbled-together character of much biological structure, and views it as a consequence of the evolutionary history of the organism.

i think this is applicable to site design.


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