Sunday, April 28, 2013

Eating weeds, or the wild wild weeds

The violets have started to bloom, and every year when they do it puts me in mind of a conversation I had once with a boyfriend, many years ago, when I was a grad student in Chicago.

We were walking, somewhere, and he said something about that "wild violet," gesturing to a little violet that was blooming in between the cracks of a sidewalk.

"That's not a wild violet!" I protested. "It's in the middle of a city!"

"Yes, it is," he insisted. "It's not in a garden. It's sprung up on its own, so it's wild."

I laughed. That statement was so very far, far beyond my personal definition of the word wild, the assertion did something crazy in my head. It took a word that, for me, meant everything the furthest of the far, as remote as possible, from the city, and plopped it down in a crack in the sidewalk in the heart of the city. I disagreed so utterly, so very, very utterly, that it was hard to explain, and yet, I could see the point.

I think I tried to argue, but with that particular boyfriend there was never any hope of arguing my own point, so eventually I let it lie.

But ever since then, I've wondered, what truly is wild? And, now that I have a garden of my own in a yard I own, for me the question is also associated with what makes a plant a weed.

To a poet and writer, this is a question about words. But to a gardener, it is also a question about practice. And to a poet and thinker, or, let's be candid, to me, that conjunction is a fascinating conjunction. What defines the word "weed," for me as a writer? And for me as a gardener, what makes me pull a plant because it is a "weed." And, to take it one step further, what makes me pull the weed, rather than spray it with Round-up, which I've already written elsewhere, is something I won't do, except in extreme cases. Are all those the same thing? No, I don't think so. Not at all.

And what does any of that have to do with the word wild? Not sure yet. We'll see.

To a certain sort of gardener, namely me, even weeds can be amazingly beautiful plants. Useful, too. And so, for me, the question of whether something is a weed is not a question of defining what a weed is, but where it is a weed.  Let me give you some examples.

This is shotweed. I never knew what it was, had never seen it, until last spring, when it sprang up everywhere in my yard. I think it's pretty. Besides which, it's way cool. It spits its seed, and not just any old time, only when it's touched. After it sets seed, when you brush it, the seed springs out everywhere, in every direction. It gives me joy, the kind of joy I had as a child, and so I love this particular weed and won't pull it, no matter where it is.

I've read up a bit on shotweed recently -- trying to find its name. I found out that it is invasive in certain places, probably where it doesn't die out from the weather. Here, it dies midsummer. Turns completely brown and disappears. If it was truly invasive here, I'd have to pull it. But, since it's not, I don't. I enjoy it.

Violet. The weed that spurred the post. I have white violets in the backyard, just in one corner. Everywhere else they're purple. I LOVE violets. They're beautiful when they bloom. 

But, they can be annoying in the garden the rest of the summer, and because they're tuberous and get giant leaves, they really can overtake other plants. So I leave them be in the yard and dig them out in the garden. And that works, for me.

Case in point, here it is to the left on the margins just outside my grape hyacinth garden in the front, a counterpoint ...

Here's one I don't know the name of. It's a creeping plant. Sometimes it grows into a garden in a mat and gets troublesome, but it is very easy to rip out and doesn't grow back very quickly, and it makes an amazingly beautiful carpet in the spring. So I tend not to rip it out.

Here is another creeping plant that makes a carpet. I think this might be called Ajuga, though I'm not completely certain (no, July 12, it is called Creeping Charlie). This one can be very annoying in the garden, and it can get to be invasive and hard to get out. It roots on every joint and grows very rapidly. So I rip it out every time I find it in the garden, and in a couple of my gardens I have trouble keeping it out. But in other spots, like here, by the porch and under a bush where grass won't grow, it is useful, and pretty. So I've made my peace with it.

Here's one I don't know the name of. There seem to be a lot of them this spring. I never noticed them much last year, so I don't know what happens to them over the summer. It looks innocuous enough and kind of pretty. But the few I tried tearing out yesterday resisted pretty heartily and came out without a root, so it might be a troublemaker. I haven't figured out what I want to do about this one yet.

Here are two of the many, many tiny little plants that live in the cracks of my brick patio. There is going to be a whole series of posts on the patio, but my current stance with weeds on the patio (excluding crabgrass, mugwort and dandelions), is to let them be until and unless they get too large and unsightly. The little ones I leave, precisely because they are my allies in crowding out the crabgrass and mugwort. Here are the two that are currently blooming, other than the dandelions and shotweed:

Here's a shy little woodland flower whose name I don't know. There was one here in just this exact place last year, under the fringe of the holly bush. And I let it go to seed and mowed around it all spring until it disappeared at some point (or maybe Capel mowed it, I don't know). This year, it came back double. I think it's miraculously pretty.

Here's one that strikes fear into every heart: poison ivy. I have learned to see it just over the past 9 months and turns out it is invasive in my north border. There is also a giant stump covered with it over by the garage (I'll try to dig up a photo and add that). This is the one thing I am willing to spray with Round-up, if push totally comes to shove. I haven't started spraying on the north border (that is the topic of another series of posts). But I did spray the stump and it seemed to work, for now ...

Here it is in the north border, just sprouting red leaves yesterday. One ...

And many ... 

The stump. All that tangle of brown boiling up above it is poison ivy root. Yikes!

And last, but not least, the weed everyone loves to hate, the dandelion. Like this, it can be pretty.

But not like this ... my front yard at the moment ...

Endless, it seems, pulling them out one by one, but that is what I do. I can't, well, won't, bomb the yard, because of the naturalized crocus and all the other beautiful pale flowers that bloom now, in the spring, so me and the dandelion, we're getting to know each other well. 

So, not to make a long post longer, here is my assertion:  What is in the wild is not a weed.

But my yard is not the wild. And so that could mean that a plant that is in my yard as a weed might be valuable as a piece of the wild secreted in my (not very tame) yard.

And that, I think, is why I sometimes don't pull weeds. Even though I know they're weeds. To me, they're a way of living with the wild. Protecting a bit of it. Engaging with it. Loving it. Holding it. Letting it be.

I will, though, eat them. I had a very nice dandelion salad for lunch yesterday, a meal of three dandelions I pulled from the backyard. Though, as I said to Capel, at that rate, I could have salad every day for a year and not make a dent in the dandelions ...

He laughed.

But that dandelion, it will no doubt have the last word.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Designing a full-sun flower/tomato bed, front street corner, and laying sod on the salt edge of lawn

Our project this weekend was to finish installing a new full-sun flower bed on our problem street corner. We started a few weeks ago by rototilling the corner of the lawn, or attempting to rototill, anyway, which resulted in this blog post about my irrepressible urge to get down in the dirt and attack the sod with a hand rake. That was two weekends ago.

Last weekend, I moved the daylilies from the bed I created for them last year, which proved to be too shady. That blog post is here.

This past weekend, I dragged myself back out to the yard at first with a slight reluctance, to finish the garden. I'm racing against time. Everything is popping out of the ground. I have lily bulbs and dahlias to plant. Peonies, coneflowers, russian sage and black-eyed susans to transplant from the garden that proved to be too shady. And I and my lowly hand rake are just not cutting it.

Finally, I upgrade from the rake to the pitchfork. Time has done some work, and the sod that was overturned two weeks ago is starting to die. I dig up clods of the stuff with the pitchfork, attack it quickly, wait for the worms boil out and gently move them to a more worm friendly environment than the bit of sod I'm about to demolish, and then after 30 seconds of hand rake to sod, shaking out what dirt I can get quickly, I toss the sod into the wheelbarrow. I have a new plan. I am going to create a pile of sod in an unused corner of the back yard, cover it with black plastic and bake the grass to death and then let it compost until next spring, when I can use it for my next new garden. 

This plan works well, and more quickly than the older plan, while still being machine free (my personal preference). And I very soon have, finally, a new garden of dirt, rather than clumps of sod. Finally! 

That was Saturday.

Sunday, bright and early, I convince Capel to help me with the other 50 or 60 feet of frontage where neighbors have fallen into the habit of parking their vehicles on our lawn, and the compression and salt from the winter, have killed the first two feet of the lawn. 

The plan. To take the best sod we saved from the new garden, till up the compressed earth along the margin of the road, lay the sod, install temporary fencing to entice drivers not to park on it, and start to put in salt-resistant ornamental grass as a permanent fix.

That's an awfully long preamble to this shot, of Capel, starting to till up the compressed, salty dirt along the street, with the long-handled version of a hand rake.

And, two close-ups of the salt and vehicle damage to the edge of the lawn:

Tulips, just blooming, just back of it. Pretty!

Then for me it is back to the grind. I start by taking things out of the garden against the studio wall, sun-loving plants I put in last year that didn't get enough sun. A pincushion flower, a coneflower, russian sage and black-eyed susan. These things go in back-to-back with the daylilies that face the road, here (to the right of the daylilies), in a row ...

And here, closer, in reverse order:

Then, I start to move peonies. That is a worry. Peonies don't like to be transplanted. And mine are old, and have not been blooming at all in their bed against the wall of the house. The instructions I hunt up online suggest digging the roots out and just moving the roots.

I do that to the first one, but I'm not really happy with the result. So for the rest, I dig up an enormous clump of dirt and haul it around the house in my arms like a big baby, gently laying it to rest in its new hole and filling the dirt in as carefully as possible.

My original design called for putting the peonies where these rocks are, but when I was digging on Saturday, I uncovered one of the original property markers--a square post with a cross on top. It's six inches down from the level of the lawn. 

A bit of old house history, right in the garden! I certainly don't want to cover it back up again. I've also dug up a fair bit of fieldstone. Ergo, rock garden. Though, at the moment, I have no rock garden plants. So I redesign around it as I go, shifting the peonies a bit, to compensate.

So that's done, peonies in, along with various hyacinths that were also getting too much shade, and some stray scilla, to add spring color next year.

Then, finally, I put in the lily bulbs. I'd ordered about 15 bulbs, asiatics and wild species things that should naturalize. And then 3 giant dahlias. Diligently staking as I go. And, lastly, to give the feet of the lilies some cover, since they like to be shaded, seeds for hollyhocks, biennials that won't flower until next year; a certain tall spindly verbena bonariensis, that I don't know if I can count on sprouting; and last, cleomes, which I think are pretty guaranteed to sprout from seed.

While I'm doing this, I'm interrupted several times by friendly neighbors stopping their cars in the street to ask me what I'm doing. Gardening in the front yard is evidently an invitation for a chat over the fence. As introverted as I can be, sometimes, I enjoy it on this sunny Sunday, having my Ossining neighbors stop to ask what's up, or give me a friendly thumb's up as they drive by. Stopping to introduce themselves and invite me to the Episcopal tea next weekend. Trying to recruit me for the Jehovah's Witness (no joke). 

Or, even more strange and touching, urgently honking their horns and screeching to a halt when I, briefly, lay down in the front yard to take a nap. "Is she okay?" two people ask, shooting out of their cars as I rise from my moment of smelling the grass and feeling the sun on my aching back. "I'm just napping in my own front yard," I grumble, amused, starting up to assure them I'm not dead. Everyone's a little startled, and I'm touched and irritated, though it is neighborly and strangely reassuring to know that if I were to keel over in my front yard, someone would call an ambulance. Not needed this time, I think, and move my nap to the back yard on the slope by the daffodils. The sound of the wind in the tops of the tall pines is calming and the muscles in my back relax and stretch out, sun warm and grass smelling of grass.

Then it's back to work, and finally, in the end, this too is done.

The bed of lilies and dahlias, sown with seed, and done.

I've left room on the far side of the lily bed for some tomatoes, which I also ordered last winter. Heirlooms. They'll go right in amongst the dahlias, with some basil and perhaps marigolds from seed.

Then, a quick trip to the nursery for some rock-garden plants: sedum mostly, a bit of creeping phlox and two sizes of dianthus. And last, impossible to show in a photo, several packets of alyssum seeds, shaken up together with rooting soil and broadcast over all the edges. Then I water everything in good.

A problem shows immediately. I didn't dig the bottom of the rock garden deep enough and the water pools. Terrible. I'll have to move the peony that wound up basically in a pond, and re-dig the bottom of the rock garden, but that's another day.

Meanwhile, Capel's finished laying sod and placing temporary fences.

And we've selected blue oat grass as our salt-resistant ornamental grass for this edge. It's not inexpensive, so we purchased two buckets and anchored the two ends of this stretch with the new blue-oat grass. We'll let it settle in, see how it does next winter, and then start growing and dividing, over time, to create a long stretch of oat grass all along the road. Will it work? Any thoughts? Love to hear them!

Here we are, end of a very long, long day. Shadows stretching out. All done. "Stop!" the neighbor says. "You've got to stop!" He's right. I do.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Guest Blog: Monarch Migration Plunges, Plant Milkweed

Guest Blog
by Jonathan Skinner

I was fortunate to visit the monarch sanctuary in Zitácuaro (Estado de Michoacán, Mexico) many years back. Little could have prepared me for the erotic charge of thousands upon thousands of copulating monarch butterflies, hanging from the pines and falling through the air.

North of the border, little prepares one for the diaphanous and buoyant appearance of these hardy voyagers.

Are we prepared for a time when the glory of the monarchs' migration will live only in our childrens' storybooks? 

Excerpts from a recent New York Times article read:
The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas disclosed at a news conference in Zitácuaro, Mexico. 
That was a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.
But an equally alarming source of the decline . . . is the explosive increase in American farmland planted in soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides. 
The American Midwest’s corn belt is a critical feeding ground for monarchs, which once found a ready source of milkweed growing between the rows of millions of acres of soybean and corn. But the ubiquitous use of herbicide-tolerant crops has enabled farmers to wipe out the milkweed, and with it much of the butterflies’ food supply. 
 A rapid expansion of farmland — more than 25 million new acres in the United States since 2007 — has eaten away grasslands and conservation reserves that supplied the monarchs with milkweed.

A more in-depth report can be found here.

When I wrote "Unfolder," I was thinking about forest fires. Fire, I now realize, takes many forms. (Including, perhaps, the fire of my own intrusion on that place.) Here is my poem for the day (originally published in Political Cactus Poems, Palm Press, 2005). 



the ardent ending
monarch’s ardor began
a large wedge-shaped
cloud in the spring
thousands were taking
a fluent thoughtful nap
re nocturne, alone
all of them witch-doctors
or in a Chinese dream
woken-up philosophers
the single golden rule
overarches, ark or pendant
limpidity of clouds

overlord my monarch
the length of two thumbs
light fills the windows
clings to sun struts
grows outward, leafing
monarch emerges steeled
blood jams into wings
all that tickling insect
clasped to cock’s fuzz
is a trance, inside syrups
a poison swapped about
bitter-tasting heart’s
spasm, an orange avoid

a million pages turning
the library of spring
spotted with shadows
the piteous monarch
propagates, replenishes
ejaculates homeward
to completion in summer
the monarch’s a cloud
woven of monarchs, one
leaf journey’s length
pulsating on, from ghosts
and milkweed deposits
a universe of monarchs

lazy winter monarch
on a warm day ventures
out for nectar, rubber
in the saps & rough stems
loves the poisoned milky
fields, sleepy his “eyes”
open above the coccyx
looking for black-smudged
veiny queens, wooed
by the harmfully harmless
lauzengiers, wing deep
slips between sign & referent
are not what they seem

monarch’s no mimic
no midas, this goldfeeler
melts you to the ore
nympho or mendicant
exasperating progress
discovered by millions
with wing covered sexes
gets sticky all over
in Zitacuaro it’s quiet
piteous monarch, go
roving, unfolding, trees
branched into flames
would that you lasted

NOTE: Written on news of a forest fire at the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) sanctuary in Mexico. “Lauzengiers” is from Old Occitan and means “flatterer.” The flattery of the edible viceroy mimic (Limenitis archippus) threatens the monarchs’ warning system—bright coloration meant to warn predators of the distasteful cardenolides the monarchs sequester from milkweed. When roosting monarchs unfold their wings to gather sunlight, it is as though an entire tree bursts into flame. 

for more on Jonathan Skinner and ecopoetics, see a fine interview at Poetry Foundation here.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Taming the North Border: Mugwort, poison ivy and other noxious rhizomatic weeds

This is a continuation of a series on what I call my North Border--a wild hillside I share with my neighbor to the north. The first in the series is here, and the second, here.

So, when I began in mid-March, this is what it looked like, from the second floor windows:

Here it is, up close and personal, all rasty:

And, now, after several weekends of work, the worst part of it now covered with landscape fabric. I haven't figured out yet if I'm going to cover the rest.

Since I first wrote about this problem area, I've figured out that my biggest problem plant (other than poison ivy) is mugwort. Here, just below, you can see it popping up all along the edge of the fabric. I'm going to try mowing this area all summer. I've noticed that I don't have any mugwort anywhere we mow regularly, so I'm hoping that I can reclaim this bit for the lawn.

And that's where it stands.