Monday, May 12, 2003

watching the weeds grow

We are fortunate to live in a land where water pours from the sky often and unpredictably, where the water flows through the veins of the city into a long lake. They call them the Finger Lakes. Going outside in late afternoon after a rain to pick the asparagus is a chance to see the world in a different light. Drenched leaves soak up the sunlight coming low through drifts of pastel clouds. Green fungus growing on dark brown bark brightens in contrast. The world is refreshed, washed clean and dripping.

May is a worldwind of intense activity and intoxicating smells. Planted by the early settlers as a medicinal herb, now ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground threads its purple flowers through the lawn. Dead nettles sprang up everywhere in April and early May, like a crowd opening purple umbrellas in a sudden downpour. Now they've faded away and have been added to the compost pile. Yellow mustard flowers are still brightening abandoned lots. Dainty celandine flowers grow effortlessly along the foundations of houses. These weeds, many of them of foreign origin, follow us everywhere. We may disdain the common, but are the poorer for it. Blossoms of the cherry trees fall; the lilacs and native dogwoods, honeysuckles and viburnums take their turns coming into bloom. Many of the trees planted along our city streets are from foreign lands as well, like the ancient gingko tree from China, which is planted, or the tree-of-heaven, which, though beautiful when it blooms (not yet), is a weed tree, able to survive in a crack in the sidewalk; it even grows in Brooklyn.

Weeds are no longer weeds when we come to love them. There are some very useful weeds, attractive weeds, edible and medicinal, weeds that attract the beneficial insects who patrol the garden, and eat the trouble-makers. The Queen Annes lace or wild carrot can be invasive in a meadow, but in the garden they are lovely and attract the beneficial wasps, just as other members of the parsley family. The Virginia creeper and the wild grapevines, when not allowed to strangle every other plant in reach, provide food for birds and cover for other creatures, as well as a natural covering for a fence and color in the fall.

The best kind of gardening involves plenty of observation and contemplation. Weeding or thinning can be a most absorbing task when the eyeballs and fingers are down on the level of the soil and plants, and the ego takes a vacation. Observing what was there first and working with an understanding of nature is a different attitude than seizing control with roto-tiller and weed whacker. So many plants grow up unbidden, and instead of learning who they are and why they grow there, we tear them out armed with our plans; we try to tyrannize the whole terrain.

One by one I'm getting to know every sprout I see, whether I sowed it, or it volunteered, so that I can then decide whether to let it grow or not, and how much of it to let grow. Any kinds of airborne seeds, like the ubiquitous dandelion, can blow in; or be carried in through the guts of birds. I am open to gifts. When I see an unrecognized sprout, I often let grow to see what it will become (so long as the spot is not terribly wrong, and I'm not too angry/aggessive that day.) It could be something wonderful, like the columbines that migrated from a neigbor's yard, or it could be something potentially noxious like garlic mustard. When I first noticed the patch of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) taking a stand under the apple tree, I let it stay and flower and re-seed itself for a couple years. It's good to eat. Poor people used to call it it sauce-alone. The delicate white flowers above symmetric leaves in May is a welcome sight to the naive observer as myself, but I've learned, to my regret, that it is a menace in woodlands, where it manages to form dense colonies unlike other less agressive species, like ginseng and the spring ephemerals whose existence it threatens.. I figured I'd keep it in bounds in my yard in a city block in the West End of Ithaca. It is growing like crazy along the Cayuga Inlet, where they have cleared land for a powerline. But that's only a block away from my house, so last year I pulled it out of my yard, starting to feel guilty as I see it popping up now around the neighborhood. The little strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in front of my neighbor's house hasn't been mown lately and the garlic mustard is now flowering there--a foot taller than any of the other weeds or grasses.

Wild columbine purple, pink and yellow blossoms are bursting open. Though they're native from Saskatchewan to Florida and Texas, I just know mine came from my neighbor's yard. I always admired the abundant pastel blossoms at this time of year, when not much else is blooming, other than trees. The daffodils and tulips, the forsythia are faded. The neighbors gave us some branches full of columbine seeds one summer, and even though I kept them in a brown paper bag down in the basement for a year, finally I threw the seeds around in back of the yard around the apple tree where previously I had broadcast seeds of wild asters and queen anne's lace that I found growing along the railroad track. The following year in spring I noticed a new weed popping up in different spots all over the garden, and wondered what it was and where it came from, or whether it was something I was familiar with in flower but just had never recognized the small plant before. In a sudden ephiphany I remembered that it was the columbine. One of the benefits of getting older is that you start to recognize the details of each season. It becomes newer every year because you see more each year.

The young leaves of the wild asters and the goldenrod have appeared, and though I yank out some of them, I let others grow near the fence and in the little wild part in the back because they provide such beauty in the fall. Dames rocket looks much like the goldenrod at this stage, but eventually I'll sort it out. First you notice the flowers and then work your way back so that you can recognize what the leaves look like earlier in the season, so you can decide what to pull and what to keep where. Why plant mums when these wildflowers are for free? With a little considered weeding, the volunteers are encouraged to grow in certain areas, and rooted out in other places where there are other plans. The compost pile and the exercise of the body benefits. When a weed is given a little space in the yard--when a weed is weeded--freed from the competition of the plants around it, it can look quite a bit better than those struggling specimens in the parking lots, and rival the exotic bedding plants from the nursery with a more subtle beauty.

The work of the past bears fruit. The asparagus is abundant; neighbors who rent houses with old asparagus patches don't know any better, or they don't have the time or inclination to go out there and cut it and it grows tall. Another small patch grows near the railroad tracks and an aspiring guerrilla gardener tends the patch with water and compost, and in the night cuts down a few of the neighbor's asparagus which would otherwise fern out.

This year 2002 is the spring that followed the mildest winter on record. Of course it's only a little over 100 years ago that they started keeping records. This year was my best year for over-wintered spinach. The seed were sown last August. Ate the biggest leaves in the fall. All winter long and into the spring, Steve was good about covering the over-wintered spinach with leaves during the cold spells and uncovering them on the mild sunny days. We had spinach salad on Christmas eve, along with fresh kale. In a mild spell in January we had another fresh salad and again in late March. For Easter with the ham, we had brussels sprouts from the garden. New at brussels sprouts, I hadn't started the seeds early enough and the plant weren't budding out too well by Thanksgiving when I wanted to have them.

Now the lettuce, spinach and arugula sowed in late March are ready to thin. A few little plants pulled out from their roots give more space for their neighbors to grow bigger, and provide a fine, delicate salad, with the addition of garlic mustard, violets, sorrel and garlic chives. Last year the arugula was laced with the holes left by hungry flea beetles. Later in the year this is not usually a problem. But what seemed like a problem before no longer is. The leaves are still delicious. In the new light of late day, they have carefree look of a freckle-faced child. This year, for some reason, the flea beetles have not found them. Though the winter was mild, the spring is not exceptional, except in the way spring is always exceptional. The birds are going nuts with their singing, and what can you do but open the windows and turn off the radio!

Lambsquarter has shot up in clumps here and there in the garden an inch or two high, attesting to the fertile high nitrogen soil. Some I will let grow to eat later in the summer, and freeze some too because it is one of the best greens. Look for harvestable lambsquarters in late June or so.

The volunteers too are appearing in the garden. Sowed in previous years, now I don't have to sow them again. I see some cilantro, not yet dill. Some of the chervil is not only up but already flowering. It must have remembered the year I pulled a bunch of it up. It didn't know perhaps that I regreted I pulled it up, so now I am grateful that it is still coming up in a few spots. I'm not a big fan of such licorice flavors like the mild chervil, but in cooking as well as in the garden, everything has its place.. I hope to see again soon sweet alyssum, calendulas and sunflowers coming back. They're not always in a good spot, and sometimes gardeners must be a little ruthless, so that what does grow, grows well.

The next project I'm planning is to sheet compost around the viburnum bushes in front of the house. As an urban gardener I have an obligation to have a nice garden on my teeny strip of land next to the sidewalk. This gives people a hint that there is more in the back.