I have a personal essay coming out this fall in The Banyan Review about converting my lawn into a yard with purpose. My adventures in environmentally conscious landscaping have been somewhat of an inspiration to friends. So to those of you following in my footsteps and cursing the weeds taking over your mulched beds (you know who you are), I feel the need to disclose a dirty secret.
First, a word about the essay. There will be no pictures of what my yard looks like on an overall, grand scale because frankly, it’s not conventionally beautiful. When the editors requested photos, I submitted closeups of my most colorful harvests and a select weed-free section of my brick path, sort of like those strategically angled Instagram selfies and swimsuit pics from the first days of my luna de miel—before the raw ceviche and tap water.
Real talk: It’s not sustainable for one person to pull weeds by hand on a large lot in a neighborhood ruled by a strict homeowners’ association (HOA). Have you seen those green monsters growing through concrete on the side of the road? They’re relentless. The $1k my partner and I spent on industrial-strength weed cloth when we first overhauled our yard doesn’t do shit. In fact, it actually makes it harder to pull the weeds out by the roots. Even gravel doesn’t do the trick. When seeds and dirt blow on top of and between the rocks, it’s over.
The dirty secret is weeds are a fact of life. Like aging, we’ll never outsmart them. Decide to use chemical weedkillers, and the weeds will grow back hardier, like those wiry black hairs that sprout between my eyebrows in place of the blonds I pluck. If anything is to be done about the weeds, the only solution is to change our relationship to them. I’m talking about altering our standards of beauty. As a particularly well-versed gardening friend recently reminded me, weeds are just wildflowers most people don’t want.
This summer, I turned 42, and my thoughts on what it means to be attractive are doing some major cross-pollination with what constitutes beauty in nature. Resisting reality is exhausting. It requires more and more time in the gym when I could be articulating my thoughts on the page. And all those hours I spend on my hands and knees pulling weeds could be put to better use planting and harvesting.
Part of the reason I can’t stop is my own incessant drive to keep up. Sometimes I think I pull the weeds because I want to be a good neighbor. I exercise more than I need to because I want to be attractive to my partner. In truth, I am my own worst drillmaster. I see the yards and the bodies around me and think this is what the world calls beautiful. And who doesn’t want to be beautiful?
Lately I’ve been wondering what might happen if I set myself free from the standards of beauty that have held me captive for so long. Who else might I set free? Have I been holding my partner to unrealistic physical standards by forcing them on myself? What about my children teetering the awkward cusp of puberty? And what of my neighborhood so entrenched in short-term appearances with no eye to long-term consequences?
I get a lot of practice at freedom in my backyard. It’s a bountiful weed paradise, thanks to my trusty white fence that hides all. My front yard is another story. In a neighborhood with an HOA, I do my best to minimize weeds and maintain my values. The marshmallow-stick-looking trees and the sparse tufts of green sprinkled over mulch and gravel have grown full, lush, and wispy. I’ve inched the standard of beauty in my neighborhood away from manicured and a little more toward genuine nature. It’s not magazine ready or yard of the month. As sure as there are creases in my skin and dimples on my thighs, there are weeds in my front yard. But it’s real. It’s aligned with my values and the health of the planet, and produces food that supports the health of my body.
The point of this dirty secret isn’t for you to resign your beloved garden beds to the weeds (though that’s okay, especially during seasons when tending the kids or your work demands more time). Aging gracefully is an act of self care, as is working with the earth to grow what you want and discourage what you don’t want. So to close, here are my tips that can make a difference for those committed to pulling with good old-fashioned gloves.
1. Use a cobrahead. This tool is excellent for loosening the earth around unwanted plants, which makes them easier to pull out by the root and saves your fingers quite a bit of work. To spare your lower back as well, opt for the long-handled cobra.
2. Find the true root. Don’t stop at the scraggly bits just below the unwanted plant. Find the tuber-looking lump under elephant ears and the little white ball at the base of clover clumps. Some grasses are next to impossible to remove completely, with taproots extending more than 20 feet underground. Go as deep as you can.
3. Cover bare areas with hay instead of mulch. In areas where you’re beholden to unnatural standards of beauty (like my HOA-ruled front yard), mulch is better than bare dirt. Out back in my garden beds, I use a thick layer of hay, which is cheaper and more effective than mulch at controlling unwanted growth.
4. Smother what you don’t want by planting what you want. Nature hates a vacuum. Empty spaces in garden beds are destined to be populated with some type of plant. If you don’t want dollar weed and clover, try native bushes or vining ground covers like melons and sweet potatoes (the ultimate lazy gardener’s crop).
5. Get help. We pay extra for the people who mow our weeds in the back yard to pull weeds by hand in the front yard twice per month. When that’s not enough, I get backup help from my mom, the true source of my gardening knowledge.
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