Weed Woes

THE REAL DIRT

May 24, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Weeds are like obnoxious relatives. They pop in unannounced. They take over your bed. They mooch your food. And they won't leave unless threatened with a garden hoe. While that might work on cousin Frank, I have my doubts about dandelions.

Excuse my sarcasm. I just spent two hours digging weeds from '' the garden. Most of that time I spent on my hands and knees, ripping up fistfuls of chickweed and purslane and God knows what other bothersome plants in the vegetable patch.

Why did he make weeds, anyway?

There are 24 types of plants growing in my garden, half of which are gate-crashers. These plants have benign-sounding names like speedwell, lady's-thumb and heal-all. They think they can trick me into letting them stay. Then they'll multiply like rabbits and overrun the garden. Frankly, I'd rather have rabbits. A single purslane plant can produce up to 190,000 seeds a year to menace the gardener.

Alarmed by such threats, my mother declared war on weeds back in 1985. First, she attacked the dandelions in her lawn and garden. They struggled in hand-to-plant combat for several weeks: Mom armed with her trowel, and the dandelions with their stubborn taproots.

Mom kept a daily count of her dandelion kills. After one week she had wiped out 351 plants; after two weeks, 718. By the fourth week, 1,052 dandelions had met their fate. But still the yellow hordes kept coming.

Exhausted, her hands blistered from digging, Mom finally surrendered. "I quit," she croaked. The dandelions had won. Mom still engages them every year, but not with hopes of annihilation. All she wants is to keep the weeds in check.

A homeowner can ask no more. Despite one's best efforts, no garden is weed-proof. The seeds sneak in on the gardener's shirt or the soles of his shoes. They ride in on the wind, the paws of scavenging wildlife and the hay mulch that we spread on the garden in hopes of reducing weeds.

In fact, the garden has been called a ticking time bomb: The seeds of some weeds may lie dormant underground for hundreds of years, germinating only after being rousted to the surface by cultivation.

Some of these plants were once held in high culinary esteem. Chickweed, rich in copper, was a favorite salad herb. Purslane, cousin of the pretty portulaca, was a tasty side dish in the Middle East.

Lamb's-quarters, a popular vegetable in the Middle Ages, is loaded with iron and has half the vitamin A and C of spinach, its kin. All parts of the dandelion are edible, from the leaves to the root, which can be roasted as a coffee substitute.

Imagine the chagrin of Rip Van Weed upon germinating after so many years, only to learn that its image has gone from that of dinner to sinner.

"If these plants were human, they would probably have their pictures hanging in the post office," writes Barbara Damrosch in her book "The Garden Primer."

Weeds are the freeloaders of the garden, draining the soil of moisture and precious nutrients. Many weeds also harbor insects and diseases and should be uprooted early on. It doesn't take a genius to understand that it's easier to yank a small weed than a large one.

William Shakespeare knew zip about gardening, yet in "Henry VI" he wrote:

"Now tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted. (Ignore) them now and they'll o'ergrow the garden."

Not all weeds are evildoers. Some, like groundsel and the ubiquitous stinging nettle, are a source of food for birds and butterflies. Others, like bishop's weed and butterfly weed, have won enough public support to be sold in nurseries.

What is a weed, really, but the right plant growing in the wrong place?

There will always be weeds to pull, but it need not be a chore. Weeding may facilitate a bond between gardener and his soil, as Nancy Bubel suggests in "The Adventurous Gardener":

"When you kneel in the row and focus your attention on one small space of ground at a time, you find yourself viewing your cultivated patch in a more intimate manner. You get to know how the plants grow, the turn of the stem, angle of leaf, attachment of fruit.

"You hear the bees in the squash blossoms, smell the sun-warmed herbs and feel the quality of the soil from which you're pulling weeds."

L It's nearly as satisfying as waving goodbye to cousin Frank.

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