Thursday, May 29, 2014


Yes, the tv show was great, with its clever take on the messy ambiguities of life.  But it is the commoner, cheaper weeds I write of today, about which there is no ambiguity.  Or so one would think.  There is a school of thought out there (and by school of thought, I mean sloppy set of rationalizations and wishful thinking) that insists that a weed is just a misplaced plant, that we are in no position to pass judgment upon species, to create plant hierarchies.  Even Emerson said something to this effect, though he was just being habitually provocative and surely knew better.

These same botanical idealogues would look with horror upon an apartment-dweller who refused to condemn as pests the rats and cockroaches infesting his kitchen, but apparently plants are different.  I suspect the problem is that the weed egalitarians confuse the utilitarian virtues of some weeds (burdock is great in sushi, young dandelion leaves are highly nutritious) with the goals of gardening.  Grow those weeds agriculturally if you must, or let them flower in a homeostatic meadow (late summer ironweed is one of the crowning glories of the Indiana landscape), but please don't tell me weeds belong in your yard.  That's just laziness masquerading as virtue, like the slob who refuses to dress up for formal occasions because he's "just keeping it real."

Weeds are weeds, and they require weeding.  Here's why.

What define a plant as a weed are several distinctive features.  Not all weeds possess all of these, but for a weed to qualify as such it should have at least four.  Those on the margin qualify in my book as sometime weeds, examples being virginia creeper, which is truly beautiful in the fall, and purslane, which is both attractive and full of heart-healthy fatty acids.  These do not require attentive weeding, except when they do, as when virginia creeper pulls down entire weak limbs of trees, as happened here yesterday.

What makes a weed a weed?

1.  they are not what you want in a given place.  The simplest definition of gardening (or forest stewardship, for that matter, or agriculture) is the cultivation of certain plants to the exclusion of others.
2. they are opportunistic.  Weeds invade disturbed areas (and all gardens and landscapes are disturbed areas) and quickly take hold.
3. they move fast.  Most weeds germinate and reproduce quickly.
4. they are enthusiastic breeders.  Most weeds produce great numbers of seeds, and those seeds generally remain viable in the ground for years, awaiting the right moment.  This is not the case for, say, the rose, or the hibiscus.
5.  they tend to outcompete the more delicate desirable plants of the garden.  This can occur by smothering, crowding out, strangling, shading out, stealing nutrients and water, etc. etc....
6. they are ugly, or at least not as attractive as the plants we grow in their stead.  And no, aesthetics are NOT all relative.  Anyone who thinks a sumpweed is as beautiful as a lavender is either an idiot or so spiritually enlightened as to be useless in this world.

In short, weeds are invasive.  Either native or alien, they somehow find their way into your garden and take over unless you take action.  There is no equilibrium, no homeostasis, and this is what homeowners who think they're "going natural" fail to realize.  The weeds will take over entirely because they are more vigorous than the desirables; the only thing that will displace weeds is the succession to weed trees:  mulberry, ailanthus, black cherry.  Again, okay for a wilderness, as eventually desirable trees will crowd out the weed trees, but that will take at least a lifetime, and in the meanwhile you're left with a hell of a mess, and, not incidentally, so are your neighbors.  

In the Harik gardens, now is the moment of opportunity for various maples, which were prolific in their whirligig production earlier this spring.  Maples aren't really weeds (though a case could be made for the silver maple), but they come up in great numbers these days.  Ground ivy is another troublemaker in the Harik gardens, and this one is truly diabolical.  It slithers through the grass, into beds, just about anywhere, and is very hard to eradicate.  I've been struck this year by how persistent the clover and the dandelions are.  You can hate weeds, but you have to respect their toughness.

So that's my take on weeds.  It's a necessary category, as weeding is a necessary activity.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Caged Beauty


 Inquiring minds want to know--or at least they should--what's going on in the Harik Gardens, so here's my mid-spring report.  Spring came all in a rush this year, eager to get on with it after the long, unrelenting winter.  All the trees are in bloom at once, so once again, as is often the case in this global weirding climate, spring is abbreviated but spectacular.  The early daffodils, two weeks ago lone sentinels of spring, are now looking blowsy and unnecessary.  The grass has taken on that lush, fresh green that makes one think of Ireland, even if one hasn't been there.

First, the damage report.  The winter took its toll on the yard's more vulnerable citizens.  A mature dogwood, always a bit of an oddball loner, bit the dust, as did several azaleas, particularly those brutalized by the deer thugs.  Spirea and weigelia, iffy every spring, are looking spotty, but I'll give them time a bit more time to prove themselves before replacing them with my latest crush, the new lime-green barberry.  Not like me to fall for lime green, but spring does funny things to a guy.  Two more boxwoods bit it, these ones especially dear to me as I grew them from cuttings taken in Charlottesville 18 years ago (!).  A slow grower, obviously, but a fine variety, at least for the C-ville climate.  Too cold here, apparently. 

Now for the Enemies List.  The deer are at bay, it seems, thanks to a rather ingenious little device I came up with in the depths of winter, as my mind churned angrily and impatiently.  I can't reveal the details, as I might move to patent it if it's really as good as it seems, but suffice to say that it involves coyote urine.  In any case, damage is very minimal thus far this spring, and this is prime grazing time as the winter-hungry deer are quick to swarm emerging day lillies, rudbeckia, and anemones.  So I'm grateful for that.  Also for the wise actions of the Bloomington City Council with regard to protecting our beloved Griffy Woods from deer overpopulation, but that's another blog.  Enemy #2:  the rabbits.  It's difficult to determine whether my deer device is effective on the rabbits.  They're sneakier and well, smaller, so they're harder to spot at work, but so far they haven't done much damage.  I see little bark damage, and apart from some gnawed-upon coral bells, little plant damage.  So again, cautious optimism.  As for Enemy #3, the ground ivy, the yard is supporting a bumper crop this spring.  This is a truly troubling prospect, as ground ivy, at least the Harik variety, will quickly take over if allowed to establish a foothold.  I've been battling it mano-a-mano for decades, but am on the verge of calling our friends at Green Dragon to do an herbicide treatment.  This cuts against my deeply held organic and environmental principles, but the heartbreak of ground ivy can test the mightiest man's resolve.  Plus, they're offering a 50% discount.

A fourth potential enemy, the Eastern tent worm, is having a banner year in neighboring fruit trees, but so far nothing here.  I'm keeping a close watch on things, though.  Tent worm infestation can turn your stomach, as victim and long-time chum Andrew Miller well knows.  

What's happening that I like?  Strong growth on the lilacs and surviving boxwoods.  The grass I seeded ages ago is finally up; this is a new variety that spreads epiphytically.  I have great hopes for it.  Forsythia seems to be filling in the maddening gaps created by the deer.  Lots of Virginia bluebells this spring.  It has taken me a long time to get them established.  Good crabapple and dogwood blooms.  And nice lettuce growth in various well-protected secret locations.  Potatoes and leeks growing up together in large barrels:  I have a long-cherished wish to return to that wondrous summer of '04, when garlic and potatoes grown cheek-by-jowl in the same plot took on each other's flavor.  It was magnificent.  Everybody I have told about this scoffs, but I know what I know.

So there it is.  Much more going on, of course, in this most busy of gardening seasons, but those are the highlights.  Onward and upward. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I have just finished Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, Caleb's Crossing.  Based on the true story of Harvard College's first Native American graduate, circa 1660's (so early:  just forty years after they first set foot on Plymouth Rock and they already had a university esteemed by Oxford and Cambridge back home!), it is a beautiful meditation on what is lost and what is gained when we forsake the familiar and chase after strange knowledge.
Caleb makes a kind of Faustian bargain when he leaves the rather idyllic Martha's Vineyard for Cambridge, and the price is high.  Yet Brooks is a writer sympathetic to all her creations:  she lets us see clearly the nobility of Caleb's desire for the white man's learning.  

It is also about the terrible clash of cultures (and here is where I begin to bring this around to my garden).  The inevitable tragic decline of the Wampanoag is heartbreaking, for tentative early attempts at coexistence were showing promise before all hell broke loose in King Philip's War.  It was ever thus:  the sensitive and the thoughtful reach out to the Other in curiosity and mutuality, while the fearful, the hateful, the violent seek out the Other to destroy.  I think of that other English--Indian encounter, halfway across the globe on the subcontinent, so fruitful and so ill-fated.  Or the Golden Age of Spain, a time of relative peace and incredibly generative cooperation between Arab, Jew, and Christian, until the Inquisition and Ferdinand and Isabella put an abrupt end to all of that.  The seeds of those scorched Iberian orchards remain, however, and they continue to put forth shoots at unexpected times and in unexpected places.


I, too, am at odds with the native population of this land.  Any gardener is.  Not the Native Americans for whom this state is named, but the flora and fauna that want to swallow up my artifice and return it to the forest and prairie that was here before.  It's more complicated than that, really:  it's the invasives that really want to swallow up the place.  So I am engaged both in the morally dubious enterprise of "turning back the wilderness" and the more righteous battle against the invasives.

Compromise and contradiction, this is the way of the gardener.  I am of necessity a conquerer, intent on imposing my own will on what is, and yet pained by the damage I do.  As an American, as a gardener, I am a sensitive soul in a conquerer's state, forever contradictory, forever guilty.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Apres le Deluge

Endless rain here in Bloomington, Indiana.  The yard is waterlogged, puddles everywhere.  New plantings will be sitting in water-filled holes, I fear, and the grass seed is doomed.  Is this the weather gods' cheeky punishment for my last blog on drought?  Is it a tad solipsistic to imagine that the weather hinges on what I write in my blog?

To escape these gloomy thoughts, I went to see "Noah." Also to perhaps get a few tips in case the rains don't let up.  It turns out to be pretty good.  Plenty of Hollywood kitsch, of course (Vidal Sassoon hair, costumes via Flashdance, too much reliance on CGI), but still pretty good.  Only a few clunkers ("Shem, you will bury your mother and I." What, a cast and crew of hundreds and not a one knows the difference between I and me?).  

It's certainly not your father's Noah.  Aronofsky has a keen biblical imagination.  He fills in the gaps in the original (so many gaps...) both creatively and compellingly, given a certain suspension of disbelief that comes with the territory.  How did they get that ark built, after all, and who really were those "giants in the earth"?  Aronofsky comes up with some great answers, and thus the story holds together somehow.  Too many films today forget to hire a screenwriter, with terrible consequences for coherence and plausibility.  Aronofsky at least makes the effort, and usually it works.

Most importantly, it is a theologically rich film.  He doesn't let us off easy, and there is little of the trite "just-believe" schlock that seems to be headed our way this year on a raft of "inspirational" films and TV series.  No Orson Welles (or even James Earle Jones) voice of God to make us roll our eyes. Instead, there is some relatively sophisticated engagement with the theological challenges of the text:  the long-term implications of original sin, the perennial tension between justice and mercy, the fallibility of Noah.  Regarding that last, the film nicely explores the deadly stupidity of certain religious ideas that certain people (usually men) get stuck in their heads.  Noah's morbid obsession with humanity's sinfulness almost scotches it for all generations to come (us); only thanks to the maternal instinct of the film's heroines do we survive his foolishness.

And so it is a Noah for the 21st century, a Noah that gives women their due, and that just as importantly carries a strong ecological message.  This latter is in the text, of course, but it is buried, and it gets buried much deeper by traditional Christian exegesis that misconstrues man's "dominion" over nature.  The dominion model is rightfully demolished in this film, both by its placement in the mouth of the villain, and by the evidence all around of what happens when man's arrogance uses the world selfishly.  Of the deadly sins besetting humanity, the film clearly understands that the cardinal sin of modern man is greed.  The others are there in good supply, but greed it is that drives the collective ills of the modern age:  global warming, territorial aggression, corporate and Wall Street depredations, Citizens United.

None of this will make it past the towering mental firewalls of the biblical literalists, of course, but I like to think that the film's message will make an impact on the rest of us.  I entered the movie house in a downpour, and when I emerged two and half hours later, the sun was peeking through the clouds, and the sky was just the color of the sky above Ararat.  God was in His heaven again, and the world, if not exactly all right, was looking less gloomy.  It's a good film.  Even the New Yorker says so.  Go see it.    

Saturday, March 29, 2014


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Is it too early to start worrying about drought?  Probably.  It rained two days ago and it's currently coming down in a nice drenching drizzle.  Still, the summer looms.  Even the thought of predicted rain not materializing can set me off.  I feel a bit like Jean de Florette, from the 1986 movie of the same title.  You may remember that Jean, played by Gerard Depardieu, is a 19th-century bourgeois romantic who takes his family from Paris to Provence to pursue his poorly-thought-out dream of raising carnations in the country.  Alas, two rustic Provencal scoundrels in the neighborhood decide to foil him by blocking up his only water source.  (spoiler alert) Jean's carnations dry up, he goes slightly mad, and he dies in a vain attempt to dynamite a new well.

I saw this film some 28 years ago, before I knew the difference between a carnation and carne asada, and even then it made a big impression on me.  Now, whenever we go two summer weeks without rain I get a little antsy, and within a month I start looking haggard.  Surely there must be a reliable water source somewhere in this blighted half-acre!  I start wondering whether to contact a dowser, though few have been seen in these parts since early in the last century. 

Granted, I have two 55-gallon rain barrels.  And since the Great Drought of 2012 I have put in as much drought-tolerant plant material as I can.  Zoyzia grass, which luckily I kind of like, is now spreading nicely across the yard, stopping wherever the direct sun doesn't reach it.  Heavy mulching with wood chips from my tree-cutting friend Andy holds back the dessication for awhile.  But ultimately, if the rain gods (and the vicissitudes of the new global climate) decide to make trouble, there's little remedy for it.  I'll either have to adjust my attitude, or start dynamiting.

Probably the former, though the latter might be easier.  I hate to see plants suffer and die.  More to the point, the loss of control we must face when dealing with nature is quite hard for me.  Gardening is indeed a salve to the soul, but it can also be crazy-making (see blogs on deer).  So many variables conspire to foil our best-laid plans, even without malicious French rustics (there's a great Simpsons episode based on Jean de Florette, by the way.  Bart is an exchange student in Provence and somehow ends up in the employ of these very same scoundrels.  Naturally, justice triumphs, and Bart learns French.)  So gardening, if we go the path of sanity, can be a great school for learning equanimity.  Enjoy the play, but let the universe (nature, God) be in charge.             

I'm still far from it, still too attached to my creations.  I try to keep in mind the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of the mandala, in which monks spend weeks creating a sand painting of astonishing complexity (itself highly symbolic of the inner and outer realms), and then dump it in the river to teach non-attachment and impermanence.  All is flux, all is flux.


Interestingly, I don't fret nearly as much about excessive rain, which can be as bad for the plants as drought, and worse for some.  Somehow it doesn't capture my apocalyptic imagination the way drought does.  I imagine the future, this man-made future we are forcing upon a nature that left alone would keep us well, as more Mad Max than The Postman.  Mad Max, now there's another film that strikes a little too close to home...

Thursday, March 20, 2014


On this, the first official day of Spring, I stick my shovel tentatively into the ground, here and there, and find that, indeed, much of my yard is still frozen.  I talked to a construction worker a few days ago who told me that in places they were finding it frozen to a depth of two feet. That's practically permafrost.  This explains the agonizing delay in the appearance of spring bulbs.  Either they were killed outright by the cold, or they just can't get through the soil yet.  (Though nobody reading this blog needs to hear it, it bears repeating that globally this has been the fourth warmest winter on record, so the climate-denying know-nothings yet again have nothing to work with).

All this provides me a much-needed opportunity to learn patience and humility.  We gardeners, despite our pretensions to work with nature, really work against nature, if by nature we mean the wild.  Michael Pollan, in his indispensable early book, Second Nature, reminds us quite bluntly that a garden is a civilizational artifice, something we do over-and-against nature's singular imperative, which is to over-run everything and establish climax forest (or prairie, or desert, etc.).  We are less Thoreau Romantics than Voltaire Rationalists, even when we prefer the tangled English garden to the order and symmetry of the French (see last posting).

Left alone, nature would quickly swallow up our proudest achievements, as the recent book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, demonstrates quite devastatingly.  Using that paragon of the human will-to-build, NYC, as a model, Weisman makes it clear just where we fit in the scheme of things.  You don't have to read his book though; just take a look at an abandoned lot in your own city, or at the yard of your neighbor who imagines himself a naturalist because he's too lazy to tend to his property.  His "natural landscape" turns out to be all opportunistic weeds and trash trees, a far cry from the old growth forest he foolishly imagines growing in his yard.  And that's to say nothing of his role as a distributor of weed seeds for the neighborhood, making the rest of us work that much harder to undo his thoughtlessness.   


But I digress.  We gardeners hold back that natural super-abundance.  We tame nature, at least in the short run.  By choosing what grows and what doesn't grow, by creating artificial micro-environments for the cultivation of what WE want, we shut out nature's drive to plant a succession forest in our back yard.  And that's fine.  Indeed, that's absolutely necessary if we're to live in a city or town, and not an oak-beech forest.  There's a certain power in that, perhaps even a bit of prideful self-importance.  After all, we are the ones who beautify and feed the world, and what could be more important than that?  So to remind us not to get too full of ourselves, Mother Nature sends us drought, flood, and, most recently, the Deep Freeze.  She reminds us quite plainly that we are not in charge; at best we get to play on her sandlot.

We gardeners need to find that middle ground between arrogance ("I control my yard") and helplessness ("there's nothing I can do with my yard").  We need both boldness and humility.  Mother Nature giveth and she taketh away.  The sooner we understand that, the sooner we develop that perfect Taoist relationship to nature, neither master nor victim. The sooner we learn, river-like, to flow around the boulder rather than smack right into it, the greater, paradoxically, is our power.  We then garden in gratitude to nature for allowing us to play on her sandlot, and in response to that gratitude, she blesses us with what we need, no more and no less.

I may be getting too theological here.  Really, I just want to learn the humility and patience that teaches us that we don't get to decide when to put in that flame azalea or start our beet seeds.  Nature decides, on her own schedule, not the Farmer's Almanac's.  It's different every year.  Our job is to watch and wait for the opportune moment.  And then plant something that will make Mother Nature proud.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My Inspiration

Okay, so that was a flop.  I guess gardening and great literature don't mix.  I've been racking my brain for literary works in which gardens and gardening figure prominently, but apart from the early chapters of Genesis, I got bupkis.  Please let me know if you can think of any.  But before I let go of the literary impulse, allow me to wax enthusiastic over a book I'm reading about Jefferson's Monticello gardens, A Rich Spot of Earth

Often I wonder at the things people read.  Gun magazines, Madeleine Albright's autobiography, Paolo Coelho.  Why?  Yet it occurs to me that others might wonder the same about me.  Perhaps not everyone would consider a book about Jefferson's gardens a must-read.  Here's why it is.

After writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as governor, secretary of state, and president, founding and designing the University of Virginia, and living in Paris as minister to France, all Jefferson really wanted to do was retire to Monticello and tend his gardens.  This gives one pause, does it not?  Is Voltaire right that our main concern in this life, no matter how brilliant we are, should be to "cultiver nos jardins"? I do think a case can be made that the careful, loving stewardship of this once-paradise is about the highest calling available to us. Plus, as a good Catholic, I like the penitential aspect to healing humanity's cardinal sin, the wanton destruction of God's creation.  Tikkun olam, as the Jewish mandate has it:  repair the world. 

Jefferson understood that there are few salves to the soul more healing than tending the earth.  Gardening summons in us the deepest of satisfactions.  The gardener is at once visionary, dreamer, pragmatist, artist, healer, steward, provider. Here's Jefferson on his calling as a gardener:

I have often though that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden.  No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.  Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another...But tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener.

Of course (and here comes the elephant in the room), the hard work was all done by slaves.  J's record on slavery is a terrible blight on his name.  A benign slaveholder, but a slaveholder nonetheless, and one who is particularly blameworthy, given the inexcusable gap between his mighty human rights rhetoric and his persistent refusal to manumit, even after death.   As one of the most enlightened and briliant Americans before or since, he certainly knew better.  And no use excusing his behavior as a product of his times.  Plenty others of his class, Washington, for instance, were much better on this score.

And yet.  Here's how I square his slaveholding with my tremendous admiration for the man.  Jefferson's greatness was so boundless, so capacious, that even when we subtract the slaveholding debit from his reputation, he remains one of our greatest Americans.  I do realize that this form of moral reckoning is risky, but that's where I am on this question.  Jefferson was one of those for whom Whitman's words truly do apply:  "Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes."  I use this line all the time on myself, but for me it always rings kind of phony.  Not for Jefferson.

What I really love about Monticello and the other Revolutionary-era estates of Virginia is the restraint these founding fathers showed in their design plans.  Just as their seminal writings eschewed the bombastic and the self-aggrandizing, their estates too demonstrate a certain modesty.  The Palladian impulse toward balance and harmony is very pleasingly blended with a healthy and humble appreciation for the vast, untamed wilderness they found themselves in.  They easily could have modeled their grounds on the prissy, hyper-symmetric Enlightenment gardens of Versailles and Schonbrunn.  Instead, they chose to embrace their English heritage, with its quaint love of the slightly unruly and the particular.  Spend some time in piedmont Virginia, as I did for two years when I taught in Charlottesville, and you will be struck by how perfectly the human imprint complements the land.  I have seen that nowhere else but in the mountains of Lebanon.