Rant 14 May 2004: Weed the garden

Some of you more astute folks have probably noticed that this rant is a bit late. Among other reasons, I’ve been spending the last few weeks playing in the dirt. You see, I am a gardener.

I’m not a tremendously good one: I have a mean streak and have been known to murder plants that piss me off by being fussy, by stabbing me with a cactus spine, or just by being plain old fugly. My husband, a gentle soul who loves all living things, is always horrified when another piece of greenery bites the dust to the soundtrack of my evil cackling. I’m also fairly laissez-faire in my approach. Native, hardy plants only for my garden; I refuse to coddle exotic species or create a microclimate for some chlorophyll drama queen. Oh, the crybaby wants to be misted again? How would you like to end your days in the compost heap, whiner?! *smush* I even purposely developed a “thugs garden” in the front of my house, which is an arid, shady spot beneath a giant moisture-sucking tree. I planted specimens known to be goonish, tough, invasive, and aggressive, just to see how they would duke it out. (Mint was a clear winner, but musk mallow a strong contender, and daylilies held their own. Bugleweed bought it.)

With my trial by fire ethos, after years of practice, I’m not doing too badly. Every year I have successes and failures, and thankfully the ratio of yea to nay is looking better and better. Oh sure, some of the failures have been spectacular ones, such as the lovely Japanese maple that checked out during a very hot and dry summer. I probably could have watered it more attentively, but yknow, sometimes it’s just sink or swim. On the other hand, three plants I’d written off as deader than the acting in Troy managed to survive the winter and are happily growing like gangbusters.

Despite my love for playing in the mud, last year I didn’t touch my back garden at all. You see, that was the site of the Great Deck Building Project of 2003. There was no point in paying any attention to the garden because it was quite likely that whatever I tended would get stepped on, covered in concrete, or dug up.

This spring I went out to survey the scene. A nest of weeds greeted me. Most of the old standbys were looking pretty good, thanks to some careful mulching, but the rest was a shambles.

As I hauled bags of mulch, dug up weeds, and reconstructed the compost heap after the raccoons had munched holes in the black plastic container, I thought about the application of a gardening metaphor to the rest of our lives.

I hear a lot from well-meaning sources about how dieting is really bad for you and that 95% of people regain back weight that they’ve lost through dieting. Thus attempting to maintain a healthy level of bodyfat through nutrition and caloric restriction if required is a waste of time, quod erat demonstratum. Of course I think we can all agree that doing dumb stuff like popping amphetamines and subsisting on broccoli or rice cakes or grapefruit or whatever momentary fad is in style is not a good lifestyle choice. Short term solutions are just that, short term. The piece that’s missing in this advice is the fact that just like gardening, health and wellbeing is a lifetime project.

Getting in shape isn’t something you do to look good in a bridesmaid’s dress or impress that cute boy at the beach. That’s like weeding and watering the garden once before company comes over, then leaving it for the rest of the summer. In the garden, poor quality, stopgap solutions usually fall apart. Raccoons eat plastic compost bins. Shallow watering results in stunted root growth. Wood retaining walls rot. Stomping a dandelion instead of pulling it out by the root ensures that it’ll just come back bigger and meaner.

We don’t say that teeth brushing fails because 95% of people regain tooth plaque once they stop brushing. The point is that fitness and nutrition are good habits that have to be repeated, over and over and over. Gardens look best once they’ve had time to mature over several years, as the consistent care of the gardener becomes evident in healthy, vibrant plants.

Though it has a good foundation, my garden needs maintenance or it will return to chaos. It’s not enough to just pull a few weeds. I have to give the green space the TLC it needs to thrive. And as a result of this attention, my garden rewards me by being a wonderful space to inhabit and look at. While I take care to choose the right plants for the climate, exposure, and soil, I don’t rely on my garden to find its “natural” self, because its natural state is anarchy and a choking forest of garlic mustard and wild mint. Rather, by judicious pruning and maintenance, I enable a lovely variety of things to thrive.

Isn’t it time to get out and weed?