Whacking Those Weeds

THE REAL DIRT

August 01, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

My vegetable garden has produced more than 200 pounds of greens this year, including 20 pounds of spinach and 10 pounds of lettuce.

Alas, the rest is weeds.

It has been a banner year for burdock, and the chickweed just won't quit. I've been digging up chickweed for nearly six months. I've harvested six wheelbarrows of the stuff. Why can't vegetables grow with such gusto?

I've gathered enough ground ivy to fill two garbage cans, and enough purslane to fill Imelda Marcos' purse. Still, the weeds keep coming. Each time I think the battle is won, these plants rise up again, like thousands of leafy little Terminators.

Their mission, of course, is to conquer the world, or at least my tiny corner of it. But I'm just as determined to stop them.

It isn't easy. Weeds multiply like rabbits; sometimes I wonder which curse is worse. When weeds reproduce, some take their (( time appearing. Sneaky weed seeds may lurk in the soil for centuries before germinating. The smart ones are now hiding underground, plotting a coup for when I'm too old to care.

Then these weeds will spring into action like well-trained commandos. They will invade my garden, steal food and water from the soil and choke out my chosen plants.

Weeds have remarkable staying power. But so do I.

We've been at war for 20 years, the weeds and I. Who's winning? Call it a draw. Each time the weeds advance -- egged on by rain showers -- I'm there to push them back. Sometimes I am armed with a trowel or hoe. More often I wrestle the weeds barehanded.

Dusk finds me crawling on hands and knees in the garden, tearing out weeds by the fistful. Some plants surrender to one hand; the stubborn ones need two. Weeding by hand allows gardeners to work alongside the veggies, many of whose roots would be damaged if struck by a hoe.

I'd like to weed in an orderly fashion. But since weeds seldom grow in straight rows, I end up zigzagging across the yard, trying not to step in the beans and carrots while dogging the trails of pesky plants like stinging nettle and lamb's-quarters.

Problems aside, I've grown to respect the tenacity of these gate-crashers in my garden. I've studied the habits and histories of my 12 most troublesome weeds. Mug shots of the Dirty Dozen hang like "Wanted" posters in the garden shed, lest I forget what they look like.

(Ironically, they weren't always weeds. Plants such as lamb's-quarters, purslane and burdock have deep-rooted ties to the kitchen. Their leaves can be eaten raw or steamed, or added to soups and stews.)

Weeding is a challenge I've come to enjoy, at least early on when the weather is cool and the plants are small. Come midsummer, the weeds grow faster and I work more slowly. Like many gardeners, I start falling behind.

Vacations also pose a problem: Who will tend the garden in my absence? There are plenty of volunteers to pick watermelons, but none to pick weeds.

By August, I see my lead over the weeds slipping away. My work gets sloppy. Some weeds slip by. THe taller ones quickly go to seed, creating a nightmare for gardeners: One purslane plant can produce 200,000 seeds, negating all of one's weeding efforts this year.

My wife, Meg, stops working her flower bed when the jewelweed goes to seed. The plants produce tiny pods that burst on contact, exploding in her face and eyes. This ensures the plant's future. It also drives Meg from the garden.

"It's hard to weed with your eyes closed," she says.

I've also got a bumper crop of lamb's-quarters, or pigweed, the plant's more derisive nickname. In fact, a pig couldn't eat all the pigweed I've yanked from the garden. Certainly I would never have eaten it. Until now.

Last night, out of curiousity, I popped some pigweed in my mouth. Then I tried purslane. Finally, I had some burdock.

I was mildly surprised. I've been cursing these plants for years, yet all three tasted better than, say, brussels sprouts.

The results were so encouraging that tonight I plan to cook the weeds. I'm told they taste like spinach. I'll keep you posted.

I do feel odd about making the switch from weed whacker to weed eater. But what other choice is there for a gardener under siege?

The weeds left me no alternative. If you can't beat them, eat them.

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