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The Humble Gardener

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Inhabit the Garden

It seemed like a perfect day for gardening. The temperature was in the mid-fifties. The sun warmed the air, the ground, and me. Part of the vegetable garden was already planted. We needed to till two other areas, plunk our plants into the ground, and we'd officially be finished planting.

As I walked down the hill towards the lower garden, I stopped midway to take the fence down and do a bit of hand weeding. The fence is the plastic snow fence type that we use to keep the two very large dogs who share our home out of the garden. Confident that Chip would have left them both in the shop, I started to weed. Out of the corner of my eye, a flash of black passed. Before I could formulate a comment, Chance, our 90 pound dog, was anointing the sunflowers that line our garden. Yelling and swearing had no effect on Chance. In fact, he pretended he couldn't hear even though he was five feet from me. (This behavior from a dog who can hear the crinkle of a candy wrapper from one floor away during a violent thunderstorm.) The black flash was joined by Ike, slightly larger than Chance but just as oblivious. The sunflowers were likewise watered by Ike. Casting around for more mischief, both dogs headed for the lower garden. Turning to watch them, I was dismayed to see how many weeds had sprung from the recent rains (and the helpful dogs). Knowing that Chip would soon appear with the tiller, I rounded up the dogs before they could refuel and water something I planned to eat someday.

Returning to the garden, I was met by a tiller less husband. Some mechanical malfunction had occurred which necessitated major surgery on the tiller. It was Sunday, no parts stores nearby were open, and perhaps the tiller's ailments involved more than one problem. I resigned myself to several hours of hand weeding.

Yes, we own hoes. But because we garden the way we do, it's tough to attack what seems like a bunch of weeds with a hoe. Some weeds are keepers. We allow lambs' quarter, dill, milkweed, and sunflowers to grow where they like. We garden around them. Right now the lambs' quarter is about three feet high. The dill is just emerging but easy to identify. Some milkweed plants are a couple of feet tall and some are so tiny it is easy to miss the emerging plants. I mark these with cut offs from the dried pampas grasses so we don't accidentally till them under. The sunflowers, thanks to the minor gardeners, are prolifically scattered throughout the weeds. I want to remove the rest of the weeds in their entirety so hand weeding it is.

I know my back will give out before the end of my weeding session so I employ the "sit and scooch" technique. Fortunately, the recent rains have made it easy to grab the weeds at the base and prise them from the earth. Exception: Huge dog prints recent visitors have left result in smushed leaves-if the dogs were teenagers, they'd wear size 13 shoes-that make the weeds difficult to get out. The occasional sticker plant makes me wish I had gloves on, but fortunately they are few in number and young enough that I can remove them with little damage to my hands.

I imagine how happy the swallowtail butterflies will be to see one of their favorite host plants, dill, as it cascades down the slope. I avoid pulling it just as I avoid weeding out the milkweeds. The monarchs will lay their eggs on these and we will help them out by raising the caterpillars in our monarch nursery until they pupate and leave as adult butterflies. We have seen two admiral butterflies in the past week but no monarch sightings yet. I count thirty milkweeds in our gardens; monarchs will be visiting soon.

I pinch the tops of the lambs' quarters; Chip will be thrilled to see one of his favorites on the supper table. I encounter dandelions in the weed mess. I grab my cobra, a marvelous hand tool shaped with a wide hook on the end that is wonderful for getting tough weeds. I think of Papa, my Italian grandfather, who would gather his many grandchildren, deliver us to the open spaces of the forest preserves near Chicago, and have us pick dandelions for dandelion wine. We thought it was great fun; no one talked to us about child labor laws so we merrily picked away.

Three hours later, my fingers are numb, my hands are filthy, my garden is weedless. Robins wait patiently for me to exit so they can feast on the worms I've unearthed. I happily oblige.

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