by: Kerry Riley
In honour of the first day of spring, a few thoughts on gardening…
We North American baby boomers have embraced gardening with all the blindly excessive enthusiasm that defines us, waxing, at times, positively redolent in its praises. Like a horde of ravening Victorian tourists, we’ve come flooding through the garden gate, crowding out the locals, and inflating prices, obdurate in our determination to be charmed, tweeking nature on the cheek and pronouncing it all delightful. The extravagant complexities of compost and manure have all been praised and prettified, celebrations of self-sufficiency sung amidst designer toad houses, genuine, imported, leatherbound seed-keepers, and charcoal- filtered slop pails. All of this, of course, to the doleful amusement of the real gardeners, with their misshapen compost heaps and unartfully tattered hats, who know better. Not unwilling to call a stink a stink, they alone remain willing to recognize the dark hypocrisy lurking at the core of any successful garden. I speak, of course, of the fascist agenda assumed by the garden-state, in relation to the weed.
A definition please.
Fascism: any political or social ideology of the extreme right which relies on a combination of pseudo-religious attitudes and the brutal use of force for getting and keeping power…”1
Could one, I ask you, find a better, more incisive description of the politics of gardening? For what is a garden plan, if not an individual’s vision of Eden, defended by force? A great gardener must be brutally, and egocentrically dictatorial — unflinchingly prepared to decide (often based on no more than personal whim) which species stay, and which don’t. In short, he/she must weed.
Tender liberal sensibilities find this troublesome. For someone like me, who, as a child, worried that the cut out bits of a paper snowflake would suffer from rejection, weeding has always been a problem. Raised on Dickens and Disney, I am forever susceptible to the plight of the underdog.
Think about it. Some poor seed, without an advantage to its name (and likely as not an orphan) through hard work and sacrifice, gains a precarious foothold in our Highland soil. Bravely, bravely, it persists through spectacular winter cold, clinging to the hope of fulfilling its dying parent’s last wish that it go forth and flourish. Spring finds our young protagonist flourishing, indeed, in all its youthful glory, a sturdy testament to resourcefulness – only to be torn out by the roots, and discarded on the compost heap – all for impinging on the comfort of a peony? How democratic is that?
While I may be the only gardener foolish enough to commit these qualms to print, I know, for certain, I’m not the only one to have them. Show me a tomato patch adrift in waves of sniggering pigweed, cleavers rampant, and scutch run amok, and I’ll show you a closet garden democrat, whose avoidance of weeding has a lot to do with guilt denied. Sure we make rueful jokes about our incorrigible laziness, or construct elaborate litanies of time constraints. Feeling bad for the weeds, is just, well, too goofy — but the intensity of these arguments, and the number of times we feel compelled to repeat them, hint at our real dilemma.
Dissemble as we may, the fact remains, a lovely garden requires the acceptance of one of horticulture’s (and perhaps life’s) more difficult lessons: not all underdogs are nice, and fascism, in the garden, if nowhere else, is a necessary evil.
I think, in particular, of wild portulaca and pigweed, both of which are quick to exploit any weakness of purpose on a gardener’s part. They are, I believe, directly responsible for my own uneasy, intermittent conversions to localized despotism, having abused my sense of fair play without decency, and without end.
Consider the beastly pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus). I was, at one point, concerned that my irritation with this ubiquitous pest had developed into a full-blown neurosis – as I became increasingly convinced that it was hiding from me by assuming the identity of whatever legitimate garden-dweller it happened to be crowding at the moment, appearing carrot-like in the carrot patch, and pea-like amongst peas. I was quite relieved to read that horticultural researchers have also recognized this behaviour, going so far as to dub pigweed, “the great pretender.” These chameleon-like qualities explain pigweed’s unnerving, Escher-esque ability to appear in any spot that you stare at for a sufficient length of time.
Resistance, in the face of such cunning, seems futile. However, as one agricultural bulletin notes, with I think, a hint of pessimism, early cultivation in spring, to encourage seed germination, and persistent attacks on the young plants as they emerge, “will be of some value.” Apparently outright victory is too much to hope for.
Ditto for bedstraw (Galium aparine). When you first encounter this delicate little beauty with the roots of steel, the elegant clusters of six pale green leaves strung along thread-like runners, and understated white flowers seem far too ethereal to pose any threat. Big mistake. The next time you think about it, it’s your only crop. Beside the apparent ability to triple its size overnight, the secret to its success lies in the willingness of its long runners to break into a thousand little pieces, at the first hint of gardener aggression. This makes it almost impossible to find the roots, which, even if identified, exhibit a tenacity which seems to call for dynamite. My feelings on the matter?–go with the munitions, if necessary.
Wild portulaca (portulaca oleracea) is also known, in some quarters, as “Pussley” which may help explain its anti-social behaviour. Some clemency is due, one feels, to any living thing saddled with a name like that. Pity is misplaced, however, because this plant comes as creepily close to immortality, as the real world allows. Its freakish ability to regenerate from the tiniest bits of itself, remains its most repellant quality. I suspect that you could put portulaca through a juicer, and, the contents, if spread on the garden, would regrow into a thousand little pussleyettes, somewhat refreshed for their change in scenery.
Clearly any attempts at control must include the scrupulous removal of all parts of the plant from the garden, right into the fall, to prevent late-forming seeds, which can survive for years, from infesting next year’s garden. Its only weakness, it seems, is a tendency towards snobbery. Wild portulaca prefers not to mingle with the hoi polloi, and will not (sniff, sniff) colonize an already weedy garden.
Fellow closet garden democrats, will, like myself, be quick to pounce on this last bit of information. If, in fits of misdirected good will, you have been bestowing, willy-nilly, stays of execution to apparently deserving seedlings, and now, quite unfairly find your garden overrun with pushy undesirables, you can always hold your head high, and declare, craftily, that, while it may appear to be simply a weedy garden, its really your secret strategy against “pussley.”
1. The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.