Weeds, Words and Sustainability

Some tasks lend themselves to extended thinking. Swimming. Painting. And reclaiming my lawn. The latter is a task that’s been going on all summer and grabs my attention for several hours each weekend. I tend to do math while swimming laps. The bucolic nature of working beneath the pine trees puts me in a greener frame of mind.

Creeping Charlie

When we moved into the house my friend Viviane, the noted vegetarian food writer, took one look at the lawn and warned me about Charlie. That would be Creeping Charlie, the familiar name for ground ivy (Glechoma Hederacea). Charlie does indeed creep, at times he seems to sprint. And using the shade created by the towering Norway Spruce’s at the back of the yard he’s turned the sprint into a marathon and chewed up huge tracts of land.

(Land is a family issue. I grew up on a 40 x 100 foot lot surrounded by the same. Consequently many things true suburbanites have encountered–wildlife, poison ivy, hour-long lawn-mowing sessions–are brand new for me. My wife, growing up on one of the larger tracts in her hometown, gazes at the empty field behind the spruces and wonders if we can afford to buy it.)

So Charlie took over a lot of my lawn and when I decided to take it back I started learning about grass and ground ivy. Like strawberries or periwinkle, ground ivy is a rhizome. That means it throws out shoots and roots that form new nodes and the plant spreads from there. It’s why periwinkle makes great ground cover and why Charlie is intractable.

A Section of Lawn Overrun by Creeping Charlie

I decided, mostly on the basis of a hunch, that doing the whole lawn or even a major section at once was not the proper course of action. Plants are funny. They like to keep their root- and super-structures in balance. Cut your grass and a corresponding amount of root dies fairly quickly. As the grass grows back so do the roots. I reasoned that the trick with Charlie was to disrupt the mechanism for regrowth.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with my title (although I hope you’re enjoying the photos of the greenery). In fact, it has everything because to me Charlie is a weed. Here’s what Webster says about weeds: ” a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.” Facts are stubborn things and, fact is, Charlie is a better ecological fit than grass in my yard. A weed, in common usage, is a pest merely because we don’t want it where nature intends for it to be.

Lots of words are like that–making a distinction that’s false. All too often we employ such words, which really express an opinion or bias, as though they referred to a concrete circumstance. Charlie is a warning to us all.

And sustainability? I think sustainability risks being one of those words like weed because in common use it seems to embody a contradiction. Sustainability often appears to be about continuity: many definitions speak to maintaining present standards of living without negatively  affecting future generations. It’s hard to believe that we can persist in using more than we need and think that behavior can be sustained.

A Section of Lawn Reclaimed

My lawn, though, might be.  I set out to reclaim the lawn without use of herbicides or other chemicals. I discovered that you can buy rhizomatic grass seed from Garden’s Alive, a purveyor of organic gardening materials. Section by section Charlie’s rhizomatic root network (think a social network diagram in dirt) is being replaced by  one of grass.

With some continued elbow grease, it’s probably sustainable.


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