Literally in the Weeds

Literally in the Weeds July 2, 2014

My family bought a house this spring. Our first home. Our first plot of land that is ours to maintain and serve. It’s a large piece of land for our area and for us. Our house is small (1096 sq. ft.) but we sit on 1/5 of an acre, most of which is taken up with an enormous garden. It is easily the size of  a footprint of a small house. The previous owners grew a lot of their own food, raised chickens (the house came with a beautiful chicken coop!) and goats. I almost feel bad that their good work was sold to people who don’t know the first thing about gardening.

On top of buying our first home and garden, we had a baby the night we moved in, ten weeks ago. Our third child, on top of the 6 and 3 year olds. Let’s just say that gardening and getting to know the land has not been our first priority.

Spring hit just as we moved in. Rain and sun and untended land turns into weeds and a jungle. I managed to find some university students from the sustainable agriculture program at the local university who will use much of the huge food garden. Why waste such prime land? It’s mutually beneficial that the land be tended. But the rest of the yard and surrounding area is overgrown in the extreme. We cannot even keep up with mowing it. I stupidly suggested we buy a non-polluting, less expensive, human-powered push mower. Turns out our yard is not level and wow, is mowing vastly more difficult if the grass isn’t smooth already. Sigh.

The adorable stump table and chairs in March. Room for three!
That same location on July 1. Can you find the table and one chair?

I have a hard time with clutter and disorder. We aren’t even finished moving in on the inside! Having the outside be chaos as well is extremely overwhelming for me. It’s so challenging that I nearly cried about it this week. I don’t know where to begin! I don’t know what’s a weed and what isn’t! I don’t want to be the house with knee-high grass and ivy overrunning everything! I don’t want the kids to get attacked by invasive blackberry thorns when they go out to play! I don’t want to disrespect the land and neglect it; I want to honor what we’ve been entrusted with.

After spending a week freaking out about all of this, I decided to get out and start. Start somewhere, start with the obvious: I decided to weed. I’d pull the weeds that are overtaking the walkway and the driveway, and pull out the pretty delicate yellow flowers that I know are weeds.

What are these? The ones with yellow balls are easy. The ones with boy choy style leaves and long vertical wands are little buggers to get out.

I spent one hour weeding and it made an adult of me. I spent the first half hour squatting, with the baby strapped onto me, pulling out those yellow-flowered weeds from the front of the house, attempting to pull up some dandelions (key word: attempt), and some other pervasive weeds that I don’t know the names of. I felt primal: squatting in the dirt and rocks, working with my hands, with the baby in a carrier. Later, I laid the baby in a shady part of the grass and went to work on the driveway. I smiled to myself. Something about owning and working land made me feel like I’d finally become an adult. It wasn’t having kids. Oh no, it was weeding that did it.

As I weeded I talked to the land. I talked to the weeds. I told them that these weren’t good places for them. That we’d need to find better spots for them to grow. I told them I admired their strength and tenacity (holy crap, some of those weeds are TOUGH). I asked the land spirits to guide me as I worked, to help me know how to care for this land.

I learned that weeds are strong. Some of their roots go deep. I learned that they can be very pretty. I realized that a lot of weeds look alike! Many of them have similar types of roots and shapes of leaves. I realized my plant biases too: fireweed is my favorite plant of all time. Some of it grows on our property! It’s a weed I’m keeping. Weeds are also smart. Those blackberry bushes that put out limbs as thick as my fingers, traipsing along in the shadows, under other bushes, as if they can keep growing if no one knows they’re there.

I learned that weeding is addicting. Just one more. Just one more section, one more pull, one more yank. An hour passed  in the blink of an eye. There is so very much work to be done in our yard. And that doesn’t include growing food yet! Or raising chickens! Or the bees we hope to get in a few years…..

For now, I’m dealing with the overwhelming feelings I have by going out and doing one easy thing first. I hope to learn as I go. Without consulting a single book (my typical plan of attack) I went out and started. Learning by doing. By experiencing what the weeds themselves could show me. Hopefully the land itself will teach me and together – land and humans – we will shape this place into something mutually beneficial.

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  • Bianca Bradley

    Mulch 3-4 inches deep, cuts down on watering and cuts down on weeds. I would suggest cedar mulch. For the blackberries, if you can toss a trellis down and zip tie their butts to the trellis, I would keep the blackberries. 1. The fey will approve and two the plant is very very protective. If you do weed it out, pull at the very very bottom, less hurtful. Maybe replace with a thornless variety.

    Seriously mulch is your friend.

    If you want to know more, poke me, I may have some sites for you. I’ve done gardening in two of my houses. Butterfly and Hummingbird. I failed at veggie gardening.

    Oh and where the water drains quickly after a rain, it has sand, where it drains slow, clay.

    • I’m embarrassed to say that there is lots of mulch and we’ve just let things go for the last 2 months. We definitely want to be bird, bee, and butterfly friendly. I’m most concerned that the morning glory is going to strangle out everything else.

      I need to find out if this type of blackberry produces fruit or just these gnarly thorn tendrils. We’re trying to cut much of it back. My husband has tried to dig some up by the roots, but that is so time intensive that I’m in favor of just trimming back so 1) we don’t get hurt, 2) we have more of a sense of what we’re working with time and space wise (do we need to dig up by the roots? maybe that’s not the first priority right now!), and 3) we establish relationships on the ground.

      • Bianca Bradley

        I think all blackberries produce fruit. They will produce fruit on the second year vine, the first year is just going to be vines. I’ve seen people put them on trellis’s. That’s why I suggested plop one down and zip tie the runners to it,(that trains the vines, and less digging). Also blackberries will have this white flower on them.

        IT’s ok to add yet more mulch. It eventually decomposes and turns to compost and makes worms and everything happy. What pops up that you don’t want you yank. What doesn’t pop up, just got squished to death:)

        One of the gardening guru’s says take 5 minutes a day to weed(this is after you’ve established order). Drink your coffee and wander about and yank out stuff that you don’t want.

        Give me more time to brain, and I’ll come up with some plants for butterflies and birdies.

        Also congrats on the house.

      • Bianca Bradley

        I wanted to add, when the Mormons come to visit, have them help weed. It’s part of their missionary thing. You are helping make them right with God, and you get volunteer weeders. It’s a win win. They aren’t that annoying, and it can be counted as interfaith:)

  • I’ve a post on working with the soil over at Paths Through The Forests, it has lots of tips that are useful. When it comes to how nature works it is constantly going toward reforesting. So what we normally call weeds is the first phase of succession, then it gets shrubby, then treed. Weeds are providing the structure and nutrients the soil needs so that the next phase can happen. The ones with long tap roots are breaking up compact soil and bring up nutrients from deep down, the ones with net roots are holding soil together, the ones with nodules (little round root buds) are nitrogen fixers, and the ferns replenish potassium depleted soils. You can quicken this natural process by cutting the weeds at the base – leaving the roots do their thing, and letting the rest mulch down into the soil they would have ended up as. Then you plant desirable species that are part of the next phase of succession – herbs, trees and shrubs that are pollinator and/or fruit/nut/pod bearing species, along with support species that fix the nutrients you need so you don’t need to bring in fertilizers and the like to keep them healthy and happy.

    I don’t know what climate you are in but a great source is Temperate Climate Permaculture – tcpermaculture (dot) com to learn more about how to go about this and to find what species suit your needs best. I have a few posts on Paths Through The Forests that also go into land management so that it ends up taking care of itself – primarily the water and soils posts.

    The photo with the “wand” plants are common Plantain – a medicine.
    The ball ones are pineapple weed – often used in teas.

    All the best in your gardening adventures!

    • Thank you!! This is helpful. I do want some purdy flowers and a little less chaos, but I’ve always been skeptical of the whole ‘no weeds’ ideology. They serve a purpose! Thank you for telling me what it is. I refuse to use round up and that type of stuff, yet pulling out by the roots is really really hard work (esp for black berry). I want to work *with* them. I’d rather keep them in check than blitz them entirely!

      And I’m in the PNW. Coastal Washington, south of Seattle.

      • Then the website I provided would be a great resource for you! Here is their plant index –

        All you really need to do is if you are growing an annual crop – have a variety of the same kind so that the ones better suited to your environment and for that year’s weather leave you with a good crop. The successful ones you collect the seeds from so that over time you develop what is called a landrace – a lineage that is good for where you are, your own special heritage breed. Let the weeds grow with them because they help the soil – Chop & Drop the weeds (chop at their bases and drop down to mulch) that are over crowding your desired species, but don’t clear them so much that the sun reaches the soil. Keeping it shaded with weeds prevents losing moisture from your soil, avoids rain compaction and erosion. It is much less work and your soil improves every year. Its much the same thing with the perennial plants, and once they get big enough they’ll shade out the “weeds”.

        For perennial plants, grow support species with them (they often double as pollinator species). Support species are usually legumes (shrubs or herbs that grow pods like locusts or sea buckthorn – this one producing edible orange berries), and dynamic accumulators (often are deep taproot herbs like plantain, for trees the easiest examples are maples, birches and basswood).

        For clearings you try to out compete other plants by growing a low herb or mosses over that area. I like clovers personally.