Weeding: obstacle or opportunity?

May 27, 2014

Possibly the most distasteful task for gardeners is weeding. My UC ANR colleagues spend a good deal of time on the science of weed management, which represents a significant challenge for school, home and community gardeners (and for larger-scale agricultural producers). The UC ANR Master Gardener Program has excellent suggestions for school, home and community gardeners about how to reduce weeds.

This growing season, I've taken a more philosophical approach to weeding. It's all about falling in love with gardening, again, every time I work in one. You take the good stuff – vegetables and flowers – along with the weeds.

Most of my professional life has been spent in garden-based education: the practice of it, the teaching of it, and the history of it. When my daughter was younger, I spent six years as a garden volunteer for an elementary school. I moved on to working with middle schoolers, and have worked with high school students to plan and implement garden projects. I've also worked with community gardeners. My professional (and also a highly personal) mission is this: “A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

Recently, I've found great joy in helping my church begin a congregational gardening project. It's a small and simple effort, but it has the wonderful feel and rhythm of summertime: longer days, a more leisurely pace, casual and unplanned meetings with new friends in the garden, and the feeling that there is more time to focus on tasks.

I live in an area where we are blessed with the ability to garden year round, but summer gardening has a particular feel to it that evokes wonder and memories of other summer gardens. (Cupping in my impossibly small hand a sun-warmed tomato grown in my grandparent's garden; eating that tomato with them that night at supper with cornbread. A summer I was in high school, when I grew watermelons in the desert; it took a lot of water, and all sorts of creatures liked the vines. Container gardening with my husband on the back stoop of our first small apartment. Helping my daughter plant carrot seeds and holding her small hand in mine after, the way older hands held mine).

Our congregational garden is tucked away behind a gate and a block wall, a small oasis of quiet in what in recent years has become a busy urban neighborhood. It's a good sunny spot, a great place to grow vegetables . . . and weeds. Saturday morning, I arrived early to beat the heat and pull a few weeds. I was somewhat dismayed when I surveyed how quickly they'd proliferated. Truth: overwhelmed.

But I got down to it and focused on weeding, pulling one at a time. My busy mind began to slow down. Alone in the garden, I listened to the sound of birds, the muffled city traffic and got some much needed exercise. Weeding provided an opportunity to reflect, to look at how the garden is progressing, to ponder about how we might grow our efforts, to consider that the pace of garden development is a season (not a day), and to anticipate the harvest we will reap. Weeding also provided a quiet time for me to think about what I want to accomplish over the summer months. At the end of an hour, I felt a sense of accomplishment and peace. And I realized that the weeds had not been an obstacle, but rather, had provided an opportunity for me to just be in the moment.

We plant gardens, and they produce wonderful things for us. Invariably, they also produce weeds. Whether we view them as obstacle or opportunity is our choice.

The author's latest book, Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I, is available on the McFarland Publisher's website. Anyone who orders the book can message Hayden-Smith via her website, http://rosehayden-smith.com, to receive a signed WWI-design bookplate.

By Rose Hayden-Smith
Author - Emeritus - UCCE Advisor in Digital Communications in Food Systems & Extension Education; Editor, UC Food Observer; Food and Society Policy Fellow