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.

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