Caring for and Healing the Earth


The Weeding Hurts My Soul Garden

by Ben Lubchansky

    I originally typed this while home visiting, and after having   freshly  stepped out of the garden in which I have spent the past three years learning. These three years have been filled with lessons not yet finished yielding, and a great one just arrived.  The focus of my gardening efforts, to much dismay and misunderstanding, had been the co-existence of wild and cultivated species.   Overcoming criticism and years of patterning has been difficult.  For the garden has often appeared a jungle of overgrowth and neglect. And for the most part it has been an amateur effort.  However, this morning’s walk seemed to put all of this into perspective.  Within this 25’ x 35’ garden I can find all of the following:  A groundhog den (a bane to most, a teacher and a challenge to you the caretaker), a variety of bird sign, small mammal networks, over thirty species of plants (I estimate) including a variety of herbs, forbs (flowering herbs), grasses,  sedges, and some perennial cultivated herbs. There are plants with different vegetating cycles, flowering cycles, heights of growth, moisture and sunlight needs, differing reproductive means, and rarity.  I have been able to study garden predator (groundhog and rabbit) diet preference and seasonal change, as well as dining habits and sign.  There are toads, spiders, insects, and a snake whom I believe returns here annually.  In addition the garden contains many edible plants, many medicinal plants, and many plants whom I do not know.  That is in fact how most of this started.
    As I commenced an new gardening year two seasons ago, I felt obligated to perpetuate the act of bringing order to a plot of earth via roto-tiller, pitchfork and fist. After a short while I simply could not go on eradicating species of plants which I did not know and understand.  That, and the fact that I was making terrible progress as fascination distracted me from my labor.  Many plants I let stay just to see how they would grow and change.  This of course provides wonderful opportunities to observe, sketch, identify, and investigate.   The cultivated plants were relegated to small areas, and often into irregular rows as the construction of cultivated areas yielded and swerved for the more randomly arranged indigenous plants.
    Now, I must say that tools have their place, although one or two friends with pitchforks can all but replace a roto-tiller in a modest garden. And, nothing can replace the quietude of hand turning soil as compared to the roar and exhaust of a machine tiller.  In addition, I believe that the more you let your flesh touch the soil, the better. Grow your own roots into the garden as well!
    Okay, that said, there have been three ways in which wilds have come into the garden:
        1) They were already in the soil (the seed bank)
        2) They have arrived there naturally via wind or animal.
        3) I have introduced them -- an action which I prefer to call "inviting" them.
While the first two are basically sit back and see, the third requires some consideration and effort.  There are several questions which one should ask before inviting wild plants into the garden:
        At what stage in their life cycle will I collect these plants for introduction?
        What will be the impact of my collection upon the area from which I am collecting?
        Is this an exotic species?
        Do I know this plant? (Edible, medicinal, ornamental, toxic to you, pets, others in the garden community)
        What role within the garden community will this plant take?
        What soil conditions does this plant prefer?
        Does my garden provide that?
        How will I control/interact with this plant to ensure that it will not create havoc within the confines of the garden?
This is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a fair start.
    First of all, you must address how it is that you will be introducing wild species to your garden.  I have experience only with collecting seed and sowing it.  I collect and disperse seeds in the fall into lightly agitated soil, which is naturally mulched by that year's plant skeletons, or maybe some straw.  And then some re-aggitation after broadcast dispersal.  Try to imitate as closely as possible the natural dispersal method.  Some seeds drop, so I drop them.  Some are dispersed by wind, so I dance around with the entire flower/seed head waving the head in the air so that the seeds disperse and settle into the garden.  However, research and experimentation are imperative.  Not all plants germinate under the same conditions.   Some information resources may be wild plant conservancies and nurseries, and restoration ecology projects.
    I collect seeds from places where there is an abundance of that particular species, and even then I am very conservative in my collection.  Not only am I taking a means of reproduction out of the system, but I am also taking a food resource important to many through the winter months.  I also collect from places where plants are in danger:  construction sites, roadsides, and places out of balance due to weed infestation and neglect.  Be careful in collection.  Not all places are welcoming or safe.  And remember, roadsides are not safe for collecting plants you plan on eating or using as a medicinal right away.  However, their seeds will grow in your garden, and hopefully will thus be healthy in that generation.  If you wish, wait an extra generation before harvesting.  Hopefully, after the initial collection, your plants will start self-propagating.  This is a boon to your garden.   Additionally, you can now return to the Earth what it has given to you.  If you have the seeds of a rare plant, return them to their place of original collection, or another suitable site.  Act as an agent to help this plant maintain its populations – in this way we are acting as reserves and safe houses for these challenged nations.
    Propagation brings up to another topic: how you will interact with this plant?  Natural propagation within the garden can be strong and sporadic.   Remember that wild plants are designed to survive, and a gentle garden can be too generous – they will move toward imbalance if you are not decisive and prepared.    Balance is as important in your garden as it is anywhere else.  You must know how you will deal with this, either by harvesting, transplanting, or weeding and composting.  Be sure that you study the plant's means of reproduction.   Goldenrod, for example, produces rhizomes, and can thus very densely mat an area and crowd out other plants.  This can make it very suitable for transplanting.    In addition, circling known populations with a shovel thus cutting the rhizomes and roots – called root pruning – may be effective. I must say that when dealing with the plants in a life altering capacity remember to use asking, explanation, and communication to these beings.  Also do thorough reading on gardening techniques.  Libraries usually have huge gardening sections.
    Next, know the plant you are introducing as well as possible.  Be especially careful when dealing with wild exotics.  Remember that you will be creating a seed sanctuary, and providing this for an exotic could wreak havoc on your garden, yard, and entire area.  Garlic mustard in particular is a troublesome exotic in my area.  It is also particularly delicious in many stages.  If you have or introduce it be sure that you know what you are going to do with it. Harvest either before it flowers or before the seeds disperse to control its dispersion. If you collect the seeds , toast and grind them to make mustard powder, or use them whole in pickling or other cooking. Grind the vegetative root and prepare as horseraddish, or steam/saute/stirfry the broccoli-like flower heads (before they bloom) - these will probably freeze well too.   The leaves of the vegetative (pre-flower head) plant is delicious raw in salads, sauteed, or used in egg dishes like quiche, fritatta, and omelettes.  Just remember that every system needs limiting factors.  And in your garden you will be it.  I think that your possibility for yield will amaze you.
    Finally, is your garden suitable for the species you wish to introduce and or tolerate (if they are already there)?  Examine thoroughly the place where you find the wild plants growing outside of your garden.  When you introduce them into the garden, will they have suitable moisture or drainage? Sun or shade? Nutrients and soils type?  Pollinators and pest controls? Neighbors?  Let your garden's variations help you plan where things will grow.  I have a shady and damp area in one corner -  nettles have taken off there.  In a more open place goldenrod, evening primrose, and curly dock have taken off.
    In closing, the harmonizing of wild and cultivated species in a garden is a beautiful opportunity which will seize hold of you with a world of powerful lessons.   The strongest for me have been patience, tolerance, faith, and perseverance.   Enjoy !


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