Weeding Up Close

I’ve never been much of a gardener. I respect others who toil in the soil, but I’d rather dig through research books and plant ideas in people’s heads. I know the leverage in language better than a hoe and trowel. For example, I renamed my back yard a meadow and reduced mowing by more than half. My usual strategy with weeds is to wait. Once they evolve sentience, I’ll reason with them to leave my meadow.

Some of that changed last summer. A neighbor admired my grassless front yard and suggested its size and sunniness would suit native strawberries quite nicely. Another neighbor steered me to a mix of wildflower seeds that would make bees happy.

I’ve given up running barefoot through lawns, so both these options sounded good to me. I planted five rows of bare-root strawberry plants, cast wildflower seeds between the rows, and watered the area daily.

Then came winter, wetter and warmer than usual. I was away for much of it, but my neighbor told me almost every day had some rain, and some sun — ideal for botanical bliss. (How many rainbows did I miss, I wonder?) The results speak — but don’t spade — for themselves. My task this week was to trim back the taller vegetation, sunning my ripening strawberries.

This has required hours of weeding, which is an odd word, when you think about it. Shouldn’t it be de-weeding? The verb came into usage almost 200 years before the noun, which should arouse suspicions. Since naming is always easier than doing, nouns usually enter our language first. (Just ask my meadow.)

People were clearing their land of plants that offered them neither beauty nor nutrition, before they had a word for what it was they were clearing. Naming could wait; taming could not.

It’s now the verb that has fallen out of favor. We’d rather spray than weed. Fun fact: the leftover nitrogen from military bombs was repurposed into commercial fertilizer. Pesticides followed. Weeding waned. Uprooting became unpopular.

Any general can tell you that aerial attacks create more damage with less risk, but it doesn’t work everywhere. My mornings this week have been less like modern warfare and more like community policing. I’m locating a strawberry plant and carefully clearing the ground around it, stem-and-root by stem-and-root.

The work requires a firm grip, a strong pull, a gentle touch — but never all three at once. Each situation is slightly different, but patterns quickly emerge. Some plants have deep roots, some send trailers along the ground, some gain advantage with thorns. And then there are blackberries, which do all three.

I’m learning which tools work best to remove which plants. Vigilance will shape my summer. Maintaining control is easier if you get them when they’re young. Even the blackberries are manageable, if you reach them before they grow hair on their legs.

Like self-repeating fractals, close attention only reveals more complexity — strangled strawberry stems, blanched understory, bugs with mouthfuls of leafy lunch. And me — watching, learning, clearing. Hunched over and sweating, being at the top of the food chain feels more like being at the end of the line.

This is not the sort of work we naturally enjoy. There is no such thing as enough. Or, if there is, it’s invented, not discovered. Doing it all is impossible, but not doing some. Edible gardening will be ripe with reward, but that’s not what’s on the menu today.

The intimacy of careful attention offers a more immediate satisfaction. I can see the logic of a plant winding up another plant to get the sun. One weed inserts itself near many of the strawberry roots. Is that lazy or shrewd? There’s a thinking-without-knowing on display, around me and in me.

I feel something very like admiration, respect, empathy for these little intruders — even as I’m pulling them up to foster my fruit. Not exactly old friends, but familiar faces. The good news is they’ll be back, so what I’ve learned can remain useful.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each week for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. He shares his underripe strawberries with deer and squirrels in south Eugene.