Posts Tagged ‘invasive weeds’

Higgeldy-piggeldy wanderings through spring

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver writes that on Mother’s Day, in keeping with local tradition, they took a tomato plant to a neighbor. “Carrying the leggy, green-smelling plant, our family walked down the gravel driveway to her house at the bottom of our hollow. ‘Oh, well, goodness,’ she said, taking the plant from us and admiring it. ‘Well look at that.'”

In her region, she explains, you never say thank you for a plant. “If you do say it, they vow, the plant will wither up straightaway and die. They have lots of stories to back this up. They do not wish to discuss whether plants have ears, or what. Just don’t.”

DSC03182Lucky me…when I moved into this house, I was also the recipient of plant gifts–including tomatoes. Imagine my surprise when black globes began to appear on one plant. Since I didn’t yet know the language of heirloom varieties, I thought they were diseased.

???????????????????????????????Other gifts were left over from earlier plantings by the one renter who loved growing things. Huge sunflowers. Oregano–several varieties.  Alyssum, with its snowy sweet-smelling drifts of flowers.

Hops came over the fence from the neighbor’s house. “Hey!” I said to my husband. “We could make beer.”

Anna+was+HereThe farm community where my husband grew up is at the heart of Anna’s new Kansas home. He said, “Sure. All we have to do is grow something like barley.”


I didn’t realize you needed grain to make beer.

Kingsolver talks about how her husband grew an urban garden during graduate school and befriended some boys who would run through the alley. One time Steven pulled up a carrot and asked his astonished audience if they could think of another food that might be a root vegetable.

“Spaghetti?” one of them guessed.

DSC02354Well, I wasn’t quite that bad. But never having grown plants in the damp Northwest, I had quite a learning curve from those first days including how to identify powdery mildew on my squash plants and what Neem oil is.

A friend in Ethiopia said, “Visitors come from the U.S. and ask me, ‘what’s the name of that plant? What’s that bird we’re hearing?’ but I grew up in the city. I say ‘Grass’ and ‘bird.'”

???????????????????????????????I learned to try hard to identify plants, though, after having the misfortune of nurturing a few invasive botanical bullies. Luckily, this one–gift from another sister–has brought nothing but beauty to my collection.

I’m so thankful for my sisters and other friends who shared and shared their plants and knowledge with me. As Kingsolver says about how her garden grew, my yard, too, has grown “higgledy-piggledy, florescent, and spontaneous, like friendship itself.”???????????????????????????????






One thing

Do one thing.

It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?  In The Oregonian article I was reading while keeping my mom company this morning, the one thing was to ditch harmful chemicals used to clean toilet bowls and, instead, sprinkle baking soda in the evening and wake to sparkling white.  Hmmm.

So much to do in my life that feels important.  Reading.  Writing.  Teaching.  Family celebrations.


Volunteering, too.  So many kids who deserve a thinking, active, reading education in Ethiopia–like these kids who gathered around the Ethiopia Reads mobile horse library near Kololo.

Off to Kololo 052

It can be overwhelming.

And now so many weeds to pull.

1 weeds (2)

Last week, I had my visit from the volunteer from the Portland Backyard Habitat Certification Program–and I got some surprises.  This one, for example, isn’t invasive.  Oh, it might take over and dig its roots deep deep deep, but it’s not competing with Oregon wildflowers and dominating public spaces.

English ivy is.  My visiting sweeties loved the clip and snip of helping me fill this city compost bin with it (one bin down, hundreds more to go).


Pokeweed is.  Last year, I kept wondering, What is that plant??  This year, after the backyard visit, I dug in to try to dig out its roots.  (This is only the crown.)


Creeping buttercup is.  I only had a small infestation (I think), which I replaced with wood and rocks that I gathered from other places in the yard.


It’ll take years to turn my back yard into a place Lanie could be proud of.  But I can do one thing.  Or two. Or three.  And when one of my sweeties got back home, she sent me a picture of a weed to ask if it was one of the bad ones.


When we do one thing and the kids of the earth see us, who knows what one-two-three things they’ll do, too?


My backyard skin

Are we inexorably drawn to the things we knew deeply and warmly when we were little?

arialIn Maji, Ethiopia, my backyard wasn’t neat or cozy.  It was full of frogs and bugs and plants that we pulled apart and stitched together in our games.  It stretched outward to that path that led to a waterfall, the one my sisters and I ran up and down telling stories abut the curled fern tips we called our water babies.  We were outside all the time.

1 bek751All too soon, my kids were young gardeners and our back yard had a big vegetable garden that gobbled up hours of spring and summer.

1 weeds (1)When I moved to Portland, I was less interested in a big vegetable garden than in plant choices that would support the lives of bees and butterflies and birds. I turned a patch of grass in front into ground cover and started looking around the scruffy back yard and trying to identify weeds.  This one, I thought, was a charmer.  That was before it started sending its roots crawling and its seeds flinging everywhere.  Oops!

(I must say I haven’t given up vegetables completely.  I’ve grown tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and some champion kale here.  This year it’s flowering–still good to eat.)


Last year, I was a weed dabbler.  This year, I’m obsessed.

In my quest to identify the Big Bad Bully weeds, I found a form on the web and filled it out.  This week, the Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon Society will send a volunteer to look at my back yard, help me identify the worst invaders, and come up with a plan for better backyard habitat.

???????????????????????????????I do already have BETTER backyard habitat than I once did.  But one of the big offenders–ivy–sprawls over the fence between our neighbors and us and climbs the neighbor’s trees.  I’d have to take care of that to even have a Silver Certified Backyard Habitat.  A Gold or Platinum means people have “taken heroic measures to remove invasive weeds, increased stormwater management on-site, and created beautiful habitat for local wildlife.”

???????????????????????????????(What is this weed??  I’ll find out!)

I am YEARS from silver.  Now I know Lanie was probably years from silver, too, even if I did give her a great yard.  But my outside genes pull me into the back yard almost every day identifying all kinds of weeds–and looking at them in my neighbors’ yards, too.  Alas.

???????????????????????????????I now know bindweed and toadflax (sigh…I thought it was snapdragon and had welcomed it) and pokeweed (can’t believe we let two specimens get HUGE and grow fat, fleshy roots), and weedy fennel (I proudly asked a master gardener at the farmers’ market what this aromatic herb was) and henbane and chickweed and a bunch of others.

???????????????????????????????And here’s the hopeful thing.  I spaded up a bunch of crabgrass and other scruff in this spot by the street and planted a few steppables last year.  (Have I said how much I love steppables??)

???????????????????????????????A year later, it already looks like this.  Friends of Trees also planted that tree, by the way.

maji514The best thing is that I feel like that shirtless kid again, loving the feel of the earth on my skin.

Come on, Mother Nature, give peace a chance

On Saturday, I was honored to speak at a young author’s conference in southern Washington, and was it ever special. These days, it takes almost heroic effort to pull off such things–teachers, parents, kids all choosing to be part of a reading and writing event instead of all the other things tugging at them. On the way home, my sister Cathy and I stopped at Hortlandia. I wanted to look for native Oregon plants. Writing the Lanie books woke me up to what a difference we can make with native plants that support native insects eaten by native birds–and now I have a garden to play with.

1 weeds (2)Alas and alack, one of the plants I bought shows up on some lists of noxious and maybe even invasive plants, which sent me back to trying to learn more about the weeds in my back yard–like this one.  More and more I realize that the things in my back yard are unwanted.  I’m learning all kinds of new vocabulary from “vigorous” to “pushy” to “thug.”  My weekend reading made me see in a new way that invasive plants are crowding out Oregon native wildflowers and ground cover because they are just so bold and strong and overpowering, and I should be doing my bit to not add to the problem.


???????????????????????????????I like moss.  I’m happy to live with a lot of things other people call weeds.  I’m having fun playing with the stones I dig out of my dirt.  But a lot of the weeds hanging around my back yard are the really bad ones that will bully other plants around–and now I know I need to learn more about weed identification and weed pulling.

Come on!  Why can’t at least some of the weeds that have invited themselves in be nice native plants that will behave themselves?  Why are ALL of them the bullies?

t189The only hopeful thought of the day is a metaphorical one.  My friend Ann Porter in ND introduced me to Betty who grew up in Ethiopia without all the coaxing and tending of reading habits that goes on in the United States.  No reading teacher.  No library.  No tutor.  No ELL teacher.  No special stories crafted just for her interests…and yet that seed of reading fell, anyway, and she ended up loving to read…and her reading opened doors for her to eventually get an advanced degree…and now she’s running a marathon so that kids in Ethiopia can have more. books.

Bertuan KebedeThis teacher of a new Ethiopia Reads school explained to an interviewer that she has made it a mission to protect young girls from the practice of forced marriage. “Being a woman in this society, you aren’t supposed to speak. Being a teacher, I now have a voice” Girls who are not in school are frequently forced to marry as young as 12 years old. Kololo opened this school year with children as old as 12 years old starting in kindergarten and first grade. “I’m helping the girls by empowering them. If they are educated, they can be heard.”

This week, I’ll fly out to Denver…and from there to Kansas and NYC where Ethiopia Reads volunteers have organized events to help us keep going on our efforts.  I’ll leave the garden and yard weeds behind for a while and think about reading seeds that, thankfully, grow in the strangest places.

How is Ethiopia Reads like my garden?

I’ve been working on my lecture for the Vermont College MFA residency and one of my author/illustrator friends asked if it was going to have any gardening metaphors in it.


I wonder where she got that idea.

Sometimes creating books makes a body feel all glorified like the top of this sunflower getting ready, as I said in my last post, to wear its tiara.  Sometimes we feel impossibly tall and bursting with energy and new beginnings.

When I started volunteering for Ethiopia Reads about fifteen years ago, I was startled and amazed by how many people wanted to give their time and their money and their energy to help.  Beginnings are so exciting.  A lot of people–like this adoptive family–love books and wanted to share.  They’ve planted a BUNCH of seeds.  In fact, we’re working with more than sixty seedling libraries now.

This week in the garden, I was reminded that just as my lettuce came charging back this spring, a lot of unwelcome plants keep relentlessly charging into my space, too.

I like the relaxed and even unkempt look of a lot of Portland gardens.  But some weeds are just way aggressive.  I’m trying to learn to identify things by their leaves.  Clover is easy and I guess it brings nitrogen into the soil, so fine.  I have been known to transplant a bit of clover on purpose this week.  But is that stuff in the back yard wild geranium or Shiningstar Geranium, which my GardenSmart Oregon book says is invasive?

So I’m spending a lot of time out there.  Yesterday we yanked and spaded and wrestled weeds.  Do you know roots make a lovely slurping sound sometimes when they let go?

The planting was not easy.  Not one bit.

But without the tending, the beauty wouldn’t be able to keep shining through.

And so it is with Ethiopia Reads.

Turns out it’s not enough to just put books on furniture in Ethiopian public schools, important as that is.  It’s not enough even to hook up a donkey to a cart and invite readers to gather round.   Lots of careful, respectful listening and sharing has to continue for our literacy efforts to put down deep roots.

Sometimes, that’s not the fun work.

We’re kind of addicted to beginnings and plantings and saying, “Wow!  I put that there where it didn’t exist before.”  We aren’t so good with patience and endurance and all the work of keeping something going.

I’m proud of Ethiopia Reads for crafting each project–not doing mass work–and for being stubborn about asking good questions and figuring out how to make ideas bloom.

It’s hard, though.

Like with the weeding, it’s enough to make my muscles and mind ache.

But people talk these days about “human capital”…the parents and teachers and donors and communicators and kids who can join hands in figuring out how to make things work.  When things are done well, you see the beauty…like the pride that bursts through this picture, a first graduation in the school that Mike built and where I hope we’ll soon plant a new library.

Yay for those who plant and also for those who keep things going.  Shine on!