The joy of weeding

There is a small but growing movement in the world of people who we will call “ultra-organic gardeners.” This term is not my own invention, but as defined in an excellent book, “The Natural Garden Book,” ultra-organic gardeners tolerate “weeds,” use no chemicals whatsoever, and are generous with patches of wild habitat in between cultivated plots. This method, also known as permaculture, has been employed by many indigenous cultures around the world since the beginning of time until, sadly, in more recent times, large agrochemical companies convinced many of them of a “better” way.

For those of us who work quietly with the earth, who frequently find ourselves in the prayer position, and whose pant legs are holey in the knees, garden magic is most fully revealed. When I first came to my mountain valley home, getting to know all the wild plants already here was of critical importance to me. My interest in wild herbs and wild edibles was well established in my psyche over my lifetime, so I knew many of the plants by name, as well as their uses. I also knew that habitat for bees and butterflies and other pollinators was being destroyed daily by development, so I made it my mission to explore and preserve as much as possible on my 11 acres.

I am learning that it is possible to work cooperatively with most of the plants already in my soil. They are all there just waiting to be recognized. Every year my daughter and I eagerly await spring to pick violet leaves and flowers, high in vitamin C, to put in our salads. We add edible chickweed, which is delicious, to the salad, as well, and give it permission to grow in out-of-the-way places, and frequently right in the cold frame. From the cold frame I get full salads everyday consisting of spinach, lettuce, tah tsai (mustard family,) and kale.

In my main garden is really where the magic begins for me, however. Over the years, I have rescued Canadian asters and wild Bergamot from being mowed along the sides of back roads, and there they still reside in islands between my many vegetable beds. When they bloom in summertime, bees and butterflies are drawn to them like a magnet, as well as the hummingbirds and hummingbird moths (ever see one?). These pollinators then pollinate the flowers of my tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, peas, and whatever else I have time to plant as a food crop. I guess you could say we are having a happy symbiotic relationship!

I rarely see weeding as a chore anymore. Rather, it is a process of discovery. Wherever I can I leave a clump of Queen Anne’s Lace here (a non-native, but then so am I!) some purple clover here and there, and of course, milkweed wherever it comes up. One year, a mullein plant decided to grow in my green bean bed, and instead of moving it to another place, I let it grow there, getting fuller and fuzzier as the summer went on. It grew to be 9 feet tall! Mullein leaves are excellent in a tea for coughs in the winter; its flowers are food for bees, and its seeds feed small birds in the fall. It is a win-win plant. So many of them are.

So, did I read all about this stuff? A little, but mostly I used good ID books to find out what the wild plants were good for, be they simply as food for pollinators, seeds for birds, or medicinals and edibles for human use. I now allow vervain, mullein, evening primrose, peppermint, purple clovers, white clovers, chicory, daisy fleabane, a variety of wild asters, golden rods, milkweed, phlox, wild spinach, and many more, too innumerable to count, to dwell here with me, within some limits. Some control is needed, but mostly we work cooperatively, to everyone’s benefit.

OK, you say, that is well enough for you, but I just want nice neat rows, free of all the things, the weeds, I did not plant there. To tell you the truth, I respect that. All I am saying is that the importance of giving wild plants space to grow in a person’s garden is vitally important for the health of the planet. Eventually, much like the languages of small groups of indigenous peoples, many essential wild plants and their value will be exterminated and eventually disappear, unless some of us care enough to get to know them, and appreciate their worth and beauty.

Due to lack of space in this column I cannot expound further upon why they are so important, but perhaps you might like to at least begin to explore these matters more in depth. There are many opportunities to do. “The Natural Garden Book” by Peter Harper, and other plant ID books, will help you explore on your own.

This year, enhance your relationship with wild growing things, and as you do perhaps you, too, will experience, as I have, the JOY of weeding!

Nature Note for 7/3/2016