The Pleasures and Profits of Weeding
Pulling weeds and pickin’ stones
Man is made from dreams and bones
Feel the need to grow my own
‘Cause the time is close at hand
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature’s chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land
Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down
Plant your rows straight and long
Thicker than with pray’r and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her love and care
Old crow watchin’ hungrily
From his perch in yonder tree
In my garden I’m as free
As that feathered thief up there
– from The Garden Song, written by David Mallett, sung in my mind by John Denver and the Muppets
I do not strive to have a weed-free garden. In fact, I encourage certain “weeds” – a word, like “pest”, that I try to avoid – in some garden spots, calling each plant by name before I decide whether it is a plant growing where I do not want it, or if it is a plant worth nurturing. This close scrutiny of every plant slows down the work and demands that doomed plants be removed by hand rather than by any weapon of mass destruction, mechanical or chemical.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), for example, is a common exuberant plant in Marjorie’s Garden. Seeds produced last year germinate in June’s warm soil and the soil-colored seedlings go unnoticed until suddenly one day they have become red-stemmed rosettes of succulent, paddle-shaped, dark green leaves. Everywhere. The rosettes coalesce into large colonies that, left alone, will quickly fill every open spot of cultivated soil.
Purslane is an easy plant to pull or hoe out of existence, but before you decide to annihilate it, give it a taste. It has been used as a tasty and nutritious warm-weather salad green for hundreds of years. Native American tribes were fond of the greens and used the seeds for cereal and bread. And recently, due to development of cultivated forms by European breeders, purslane has achieved gourmet status.
There are numerous recipes available on the Internet, but you might start with Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 recipe from Walden:
“I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner . . . simply off a dish of purslane which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. . . . Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries but for want of luxuries.”
The wild type suits my taste as well, with a flavor that resembles the best lettuce, perhaps a bit more peppery. And the nutritional value is greater in wild plants. Purslane is rich in vitamins E and C and beta carotene, quite high in protein, and considered a better source of essential omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy plant. I wonder, how many of us are paying high prices for sources of these nutrients in pill form while waging war against the purslane in our gardens?
Knowing all of this, I manage purslane in Marjorie’s garden, pulling it out where it competes with the planted crops, encouraging and harvesting it where it colonizes open space. It makes an attractive groundcover, particularly growing along the edge of a stepping stone.
June begins the weeding season, for sure. And I suspect that there are as many approaches to this task as there are gardeners. For me, weeding is a leisurely start and satisfying end to every summer day in the garden, and the punctuation necessary for completion of every garden task.
Bent over, fingers in the soil, I sing my version of The Garden Song while the bumblebees wing theirs.
Note: This essay was taken from my upcoming book, The New England Gardener’s Year, to be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. Updated previews of the book can be read on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/negardener.