Vegetable gardening is not for the faint of heart. In the few short weeks of the growing season, there is all manner of botanical birth, growth, reproduction, withering and death in such ultra-compressed fashion, it can leave even the veteran gardener gasping for air. I consider myself somewhat bold and fearless in my every day roles, as any good physician (or mother) must be, but when it comes to the facts of life as played out in the garden, I turn all mushy.
This week there was no question what needed to be accomplished. The sun was out, the seeds planted a few weeks ago were finally beginning to show themselves above ground, but they were literally drowning in a sea of weeds. The joy of germination was turning into the heartbreak of overabundant indiscriminate growth. It was time for action.
I awoke early, emotionally preparing myself. I pulled on my jeans and hooded sweatshirt, stepped into rubber boots, armed my pockets with trowel and garden hook, and adopted a confident stance as I stared at the expanse of green sprouts before me.
“Gonna kill me some weeds,” I muttered menacingly from under my straw hat, looking like Wyatt Earp at high noon, rolling up my sleeves, and hitching up my pants like a sharp shooter.
I first went to the defense of the carrot row. Tiny carrot seedlings are some of the most vulnerable in the garden. They start as two little grass-like shoots, very weed-like in their beginnings. In a few days, the next shoot is the identity give-away: a feathery leaf looking very much like carrot green tops. True effective weeding really can’t start until the carrots can be distinguished from weeds, even the look-alike frilly weeds that pretend they are carrots so they will be left alone. Very clever camouflage, but not to my sharp eye.
The real carrots are tender little plants, barely clutching the ground with one little root string as compared to the deep hold that weeds have in the soil — weeds make a satisfying “pop” sound when successfully pulled out by the roots. This work requires down on your hands and knees finger weeding, the dirt-under-the-nails sort-through-each-little-green-shoot-to-find-the-right-one-to-pull technique. Even so, despite my best intentions, the “real” plants still get pulled accidentally: my father called that “thinning”, another cruel and painful aspect of gardening when perfectly good plants are pulled out to make more space for the near neighbors. It still seems all too arbitrary and capricious.
All this weed-o-cide makes me think about a book I read in the early seventies, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird. They gave me a new understanding of the challenges of being a plant. I almost can hear the high pitched little shrieks some scientists have recorded as plants are plucked, cut or mowed down. Then there is the very real question of what is a weed and how it has become victim to our human prejudice about what is worthwhile to grow and what is not. Maybe since the dawn of time we humans have watched the slugs, the squirrels, the birds, the deer and the rabbits decide what is tastier, and frankly my dear, it isn’t the weeds.
But who am I to say that a beet plant is more worthy to exist than quack grass? What animosity and enormous resource is expended to rid the world of the lovely dandelion’s perfect sphere of seeds about to blow with the wind, or the waxy buttercup meant to tickle a child’s chin into a yellow reflection.
But I’m only the gardener with a job to do. It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.
By the end of the morning as the sun beats down directly overhead, neat little rows of honest to goodness domesticated plants become obvious and the garden pathways are littered with weed carcasses as well as a few thinned radishes, beets and carrots. High noon indeed. I gaze at my spent weapons–dirty hands and fingertips that are barely recognizable–and sigh deeply. Until the next skirmish to keep the weedy invaders from infiltrating, I can rest easier knowing my little plants have less chance of being overwhelmed by the encroaching wilderness of weeds and varmints.
So I lay down my arms, clean the dirt from under my fingernails, and sit down to listen to the symphony sounds of plants happily growing…