Monday, September 14, 2009

Dancing With Weeds

The Beloved Dandelion

Why do we put up with some people, and others drive us crazy?  Why do we find some characteristics charming, while others drive us insane?  Why can't I take the advice I dole out so readily to my children...If someone is bothering youtry to have empathy for them...and do your best to find something you admire about them.

Disdained Bermuda Grass

Well, I've tried, and I just can't do.  I hate Bermuda Grass!!!  There.  I said it.  I just do.  I have been grappling with this weed for years in the Novato Charter School garden, and as much as I try to have empathy and find one good thing about it, I can't.  I guess I could admire the way it has both underground stems (rhizomes) and above-ground traveling stems (runners) to spread its seed... Well, that's a stretch for me.   If my life depended on finding one good thing about Bermuda grass, I would say that I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people, working alongside them for hours, pulling up the long, stubborn, pernicious and relentless web of Bermuda Grass that thrives in our students' garden.

On the other hand, above are some of the beloved weeds that thrive in my home garden (plantain, blackberry, mint).  Weeds are simply plants - roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds - which can sometimes add lovely tastes, smells, sights and healing qualities to our lives.

In the Indian Valley Organic Farm class last Wednesday, Steve Quirt shared the story of his personal journey with weeds.  He described a year on his own farm when he was just plain angry, struggling against "the invader,"  Persian Speedwell (Veronica Persica), which appeared in his farm.  It sounds like his rows became a battleground, and he says "you could see it in the way the farm looked."

In great battles, often both parties are destroyed...but, sometimes, we find grace, and make peace.  Steve made peace with the Persian Speedwell, and says he has come to rely on it.  Weeds are "indicators and providers of fertility," he said.  Now he leaves beds open for this plant and its delicate purple flower.

Persian Speedwell

We all have experienced the intelligence and agility of weeds - their disguises and mimicry of parent plants.  We know that if left unattended, weeds will suffocate, and, in some cases, poison, intended crops.  But if we can manage our frustration and remain observant over time, weeds will tell us about our soil:  Purslane and Thistle indicate a fertile soil; Curly Doc does well in a wet soil; Shepherds Purse likes a saline soil; if a thistle is happy someplace, chances are, its artichoke cousin will be also.

Weeds are great ground-breakers, with hearty roots to navigate compacted soil that most crops cannot handle.   As Vivien Weise's book, Cooking Weeds, demonstrates beautifully, we can harvest many weeds and partake of their high nutrition.  In late spring my youngest grazes on the Miner's Lettuce that grows on the slope beneath our house.  "I already ate a lot of salad today," he tells me at dinnertime. A relative of Purslane, Miner's Lettuce is succulent and delicious.

Miner's Lettuce

If you learn to pull up weeds before they seed, they might guide you without creating an extraordinary amount of work.  Wendy told the story of Doug Gosling from Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, who baptized the newly broken ground in the Food For Thought AIDS Hospice Garden with a sprinkling of Good King Henry, Amaranth and other "weed" seeds.  "They will show us the way to go," Gosling said.  Before they planted the hospice garden they would learn what they could about the soil from the "mother weeds."  The weeds broke ground, increased fertility and indicated the nature of the soil, and he was careful to harvest before the grown plants could re-seed.

A slat of fall starts wait to go into a bed at Novato Charter School.  We work religiously to keep beds free of Bermuda Grass

We can learn to dance with our weeds, a waltz of observance and timing.  At the Novato Charter School Garden our dance with Bermuda Grass is a little rough.  We lead, and keep our partner at arms length...And, we always hope he doesn't come back to the ball quite so eager next year.

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