Last fall we teamed up with our neighbors with whom we share a driveway that crosses our respective property lines and hired a guy named Max to bring his excavator out, level the driveways, then smooth out a nice load of gravel (“Gravel #67” from the Stone Center of North Carolina) to give it a uniform look.
Part and parcel of the effort was to bury or otherwise obliterate the veritable weed farm that had grown industriously through the mashup of crummy soil and lifeless little stones over the years.
Max told us that his scraping and sizable overlay of chunky new stone would keep the weeds to a minimum so we shouldn’t have to worry much about an invasion for a good long while. Which is when I should have followed up to ask for a more quantitatively specific definition of “good long while.” But I didn’t.
I came to find out in short enough order, though: about six months.
That’s when spring saw fit to appear yet again in its old and predictable ways, which always and everywhere includes a renewed profusion of grimly predictable weeds. There they popped up yet again in our long stretch of what had been our mostly gray driveway, accented fetchingly by fallen leaves and pine needles, not a weed anywhere at sundown but mugging contemptuously at us with the dawn.
Under the shadow of night, they had wended their way through the soil, fulfilling their God-given task of offending the aesthetic sensibilities of us orderly types who want plants to adhere to some Platonic ideal of growing where we want them and staying the hell away from where we don’t.
“Dudes, I do not want and cannot bear a patchy glop of crabgrass and dandelions and doveweed growing through stones like some cheap and awful rendition of hair plugs on an aging man whose male pattern baldness resembles an aerial map view of islands in the Caribbean archipelago. Be gone with you!”
But how to accomplish the self-appointed task? Careful applications of Roundup?
Not an option. Don’t mind using poisons on nettlesome bugs (carpenter wasps, OMG!) and select other creatures, but to loose them upon innocent soils that tend to enact payback via the Great Karmic Wheel has always struck me as something close to sin.
Early in this Weed War of 2021, I tried spraying with a mixture of vinegar and water, which had the effect of quickly yellowing and killing the invaders but paradoxically seeming to cause their root systems to lapse into a state of rigormortis, making them nearly impossible to budge for the next 10 days or so. That meant encountering them every time I traversed the driveway or garden to get at more weeds—a thoroughly unpalatable option.
Finally, the truth of what I had to do set me free: the ancient, primitive practice of stooping, fingering the base of each offending weed with a sturdy combination of forefinger and thumb that recruited the metacarpal and forearm muscles to full engagement, and then pulling firmly, with resolve. (Along with a triumphal spirit of accomplishment.)
One down, only 10,000 or so stoops or knee-bends to go.
“He was one of those gardeners who would pull weeds anywhere—not just in his own or other people’s gardens, but in parking lots and storefront window boxes, too.”
That’s plant and life guru Michael Pollan, in a lovely 1989 essay in which he amazingly described the exact arc of what became my own obsession with weeds as they infiltrated our new driveway, along with the only-slightly-older gravel paths we had installed along the byways of our front and backyards, and in the lush gardens that Mary has tirelessly designed and cultivated there, and for which neighbors ambling by with their dogs or baby strollers invariably blurt out, “I love your garden, wow!”
It is true that they rarely add, “And hella weeding job there, too!”, but let’s face it, being Chief Weeder in any venue is akin to being a football offensive lineman, laboring in the trenches of obscurity in order to protect the prize quarterback and running backs in their dashes to beauty while the crowds blurt out to them, “We love your touchdowns, wow!”
Not that I need the positive reinforcement, though.
Verily, I say unto you, it is reinforcement enough to feel the deeply satisfying surrender that each individual weed is forced to concede as it gives way to the insistent demands of one hand or other, or in particularly stubborn cases, both hands yanking mightily, or even employing one of those V-shaped weed tools in a multi-pronged assault that amounts to heavy—though organic—artillery in this War That Cannot Possibly End All Wars, Since Weed Wars Will Go on Forever.
Nevertheless, there are triumphs amidst many days of sustained battle, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this side gig occupation of Master Weeder over the years, one overarching truism that holds me in good stead in both desired results and the state of mind required to return and do battle yet again, it is this:
Do a little bit every day. And not necessarily in one session, either.
My strategy at this stage of life has been to become a kind of constant weeder, but mostly in micro-bursts—one, two, five minutes at a time, maybe on rare occasions, 20.
To wit, I try never to walk up or down my driveway or up the steps or paths leading to the gardens without espying and bending down to extract “a few” weeds.
This can be as “few” as three or four, sometimes an intended five or 10 that becomes 20 because, like Pollan’s gardener described above, I can’t always stop myself from indulging my obsession. But rarely do those repeat exertions add up to more than those 20 minutes or so on any given day at peak season.
And you know what? They add up.
The key is to stick with it, one easy pluck at a time, when the weeds are newly sprung through the rocks or soil, their root system not dug in and spread out yet in that way they will be all too soon, especially in drier climes if you’re reading this from there.
Here in North Carolina, we are blessed with magnificent and regular thunderstorms that regularly shower us with their watery gifts of turbulence and drama, an especially welcome occurrence in summer, when the weeds, too, thirstily drink up their abundance.
That, however, is when wily Weed Abatement Aficionados stand ready to pounce, the soils again moist and pliable, the evil weeds temporarily robbed of their firm anchor, defenseless against us marauding hordes of weed haters who give no quarter, since we surely do not get one from the weeds who may die on the driveways and walking paths and gardens of today, but whose progeny will surely persist, and yes, thrive, in a world where most Weed War Combatants simply lack the time or strategy or resolve (or healthy enough backs, but that’s another essay…) to carry on the good, and glorious, and never-ending fight.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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