Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In the weeds: how to instantly feel better about your garden

     As July rolls around, I always feel like I just finished settling my garden—meticulously grooming beds, planting seeds and seedlings, and shaping borders—to turn around and see the weeds taking over. Though I feel accomplished this does not seem like a time to rest on my laurels. After so much time in the garden, yes, my house is dusty; I have roughly 105 loads of laundry waiting (okay, maybe not quite that many, but it feels like it); my hammock has remained unvisited; I haven’t even started that stack of paperbacks I had set away as my summer reading; and my son has found that he needs to yell  “Moooom-mmmmy!” more than I feel should be necessary.

     We can’t do it all, and life is short. Additionally, my father always reminds me that the garden should be FUN, not a stressor. Thus, I have decided to take a more zen-like approach to my garden weeds. Instead of stressing about them and spending all my time culling them, I am going to do—well—nothing of the sort. Furthermore, in my pursuit of higher garden awareness, I have come to realize that some garden weeds can actually be beneficial. Frankly, I’ve decided to embrace my garden jungle.

     If you too are teetering on garden insanity, read on to feel good about doing absolutely nothing.

     Last year, I sowed leek seeds. My wonderful husband, in his infinite and extraordinary willingness to help, offered to hoe and weed-whack the area around the garden, in order to make a proper border. He unwittingly butchered my row of leek seeds. I had given them up as a bad job when suddenly, ninety days later, a plentiful leek crop arose in a bordering hayfield. Traumatic redistribution and competing plant life seemingly had very little effect.

Basil does just fine with a surrounding carpet of crab grass. 
     As a rule, I assiduously obey the rules of companion planting. My brassicas are clearly separated from my nightshades with alliums, and my three sisters camp well together. One day, I went down to discover volunteer (heirloom!) tomatoes had popped up everywhere—in the broccoli and the onions; in the melons and on the paths. I transplanted about fifteen of them into their own bed, but as they continued to crop up I’ve just about given up. Thus, despite my careful scheming, my cauliflower plot is intertwined with tomato. I look forward to observing whether or not either will impede the other’s growth, but as of now, both are thriving and blooming.

            Incidents like this remind me of the well-worn cliché that nature finds a way. Plants are engineered to outcompete rivals and find a way to survive. When we domesticate them we dull their edge a little, but even so, how much do they really need us? How important is it to keep a weed-free garden?

            The most popular method of keeping a tidy garden in the United States is to spray that garden with chemicals. Those chemicals then join the ground water to seep down into the water table. My family drinks from a well located on our property, about a hundred feet from the garden. Those chemicals are also then present on the leaves and fruit of garden plants. My two-year-old son—to my great delight—loves to pick berries and beans and eat them right off their stems.  Thus, it is obvious why I will not be using chemicals in the garden. In making that decision, however, I am faced with a very weedy problem.

            Weeds are unpreventable. If you use composted manure, the very best of fertilizers, you are signing on for germination of all the seeds within that manure (which are plenty). Get used to it.  This is simply reality—plants of all kinds instinctively grow in good soil. Ironically, the more weeds you have, the more fertile you know your soil is.  To suggest another cliché, weeds, like that euphemistic excrement, will happen.

            My step-grandmother, who actively transplants creeping charley and lamb's ears into her garden as groundcover, always reminds me that "weeds" are simply flowers in the wrong place. And in fact, I've allowed a patch of yarrow (which developed beautiful purple blossoms that I harvested for tea) to grow up in my perennial garden. "Weeds",  therefore, are not entirely bad.  They may deflect those ominous looking insects you may have originally seen; I noticed my eggplant was getting munched on quite a bit and then, less out of purpose than of simply busy-ness, I saw some weeds grow up in the eggplant patch and—guess what—the insects preferred the weeds over the eggplants. I think I’ll be letting some of those weeds stand.

            Furthermore, in a raised-bed layout such as mine, small weeds prevent erosion on the sides of my raised beds and provide a groundcover through which other weeds cannot penetrate. I am a big fan of crab grass. I know this sounds crazy, but I love it when I see crab grass growing through my garden because I know it (a) holds up the soil walls of my raised beds; (b) prevents other weeds from growing; and (c) is nutritious when it decomposes back into the soil.

            All this being said, it is important to make sure weeds are not directly impeding seedling growth. Definitely pull weeds in the immediate area of seedlings, and make sure no weed is impeding their water or sun receipt. 

There are things more important than weeding the garden. 
            When you do have to pull weeds, however, the best thing to do is to simply leave them there. That’s right. Don’t make piles for discard. Don’t throw them out of the garden. We are conditioned to purge what we perceive as harmful, and habitually eject our garden debris. The most labor saving and organically nutritional thing you can do is to leave the pulled weeds in the beds. As they decompose, they will (a) block out the sunlight for up and coming weeds, and (b) add nutrients to your garden. You could actually have a garden-wide mulch of pulled weeds. Glorious, nutritive, and easy.

            So chill the champagne. Cue the Coltrane. Shake out your favorite blanket.  With this outlook, today will certainly involve a novel—and perhaps an afternoon nap.

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