Especially Now, Weed Mindfully

Just as spring sprinkled into full swing, the nation was brought to its knees as shelter-in-place orders went into effect near and far. With school closures came deserted school gardens left to nature’s whims. We could all use a little more fresh air right about now and I’m no stranger to pulling weeds as an antidote to stress, but I urge everyone to consider weeding mindfully, especially now.

Weeding mindfully begins with first acknowledging the relative importance of weed management at a time like this: arguably low. The country is in crisis; a few weeds never hurt anyone. In fact, when researching community gardens in practice, I found that “weeds are a sign of thriving” (Strohl, 2013). By comparison to the positive impact school gardens have, weeds are a mild nuisance at best.

In my own home gardening practice, I abide by the mindset that weeds are in the eye of the beholder. My neighbors may not appreciate my front yard meadow, but similarly their barren lawn does very little for me. It also provides no ecosystem for native bees (I have at least three varieties), beneficial insects (I have all four stages of ladybugs) or water (I rarely water) and energy conservation (I never run a gas-powered mower). Personally, I love my messy, flourishing blend of native reseeding phacelia, poppies, and grasses, among more mature shrubs such as manzanita, rock rose, and salvias.

Weeds are in the eye of the beholder.

~Me, many, many times.

Over the years, some plants I’ve planted have died back while others have naturalized and spread to where they are best suited to thrive.Not all the plants in my front yard were carefully placed. Neither are they heavily pruned into awkward, unnatural shapes, which often gives the appearance of being “weedy.” However, what one person perceives as untidy, another may understand as intentional.

Last December, I visited a community garden where I used to be a regular volunteer. There were mallows as tall as dwarf fruit trees! I was told that the deep taproot of Malva neglecta is a nutrient seeker, drawing micronutrients from far below the topsoil. Some gardeners even revere mallow weed for its medicinal and culinary uses (think: marshmallow).

Not only does the Vallejo People’s Garden invite ladybugs, they leave mallow weed as an alternative to chemical fertilizers, relying on the plant’s ability to draw nutrients from deep below surface level.

Several weeks ago, when the largest school district in my home county was still drafting board policies related to campus closure and employee safety, I was contacted by a parent looking for a reprieve from apartment living and online learning. As compelling as a few extra pairs of hands sounds, I personally am not comfortable with potentially putting others’ health at risk. If you do have access to the school campus or garden, be mindful to follow safety protocols: wear masks and gloves, carry hand sanitizer, use separate tools, wipe down surfaces such as entry gates or locks, and maintain physical distance from other gardeners. Most importantly, communicate your presence to all who need to know.

Community gardeners I know are taking serious precautions to socially distance in the garden, but they are also tending a garden that contributes to the food bank whose demand has grown so much that the National Guard has been helping keep the operation safe and efficient for everyone. By comparison, the weeds in a school garden are (pun fully intended) small potatoes.

On the other side of the argument to leave weeds be is the exclamation that “the gardens will be overrun!” To this, I say, “So what?” In response to this fear, I recently reminded my colleagues and fellow gardenistas: all plants have a cycle. We normally don’t get to see “weeds” in their full glory because we typically plan a family event to involve them in the garden. in the absence of that event is the opportunity to watch the school garden’s weed profile develop. I am 100% confident I could articulate a potential educational activity for every single plant in the garden right now, giving each one purpose and protection. Just like the pandemic, the weeds too shall pass.

In a summer dry climate like the Napa Valley, especially on the heels of several bad fire seasons, weed abatement ordinances do exist. Facilities crews may try to bully teachers or principals to clear their gardens with threats of fire hazard penalties. To this I say, “I dare you.”

Most schools are typically located in urban spaces where the risk of ignition is already low. Furthermore, most school gardens are far enough away from buildings or structures and are small enough parcels surrounded by concrete, features that lessen risk even more. Furthermore, gardens with persistent weeds usually have automatic irrigation systems, yet another defense against fire risk.

Put another way, the weeds in the school garden are no more a risk than my front yard meadow. Just like my neighbors who don’t love the look of my yard, most groundskeepers think school gardens are disheveled. If facilities and maintenance are so concerned about risk, then I invite them to be partners, rather than antagonists to school gardens and co-develop plans to better care for all plants on a campus.

The practice of over-pruning trees is common on school campuses. This method–typically adopted to to reduce leaf canopy and therefore labor required to clean up leaf litter–not only reduces tree structure and resilience, but also distorts trees shape and look.

It’s true, many school gardens represent a departure from the redundant practices of school maintenance crews (commonly referred to in the the more progressive landscape design circles as “mow and blow” technique), they also represent a much greater educational value. In contrast, taking a permaculture or regenerative approach will have even higher educational and environmental value. Leaving tall weeds to shade the ground, for example, potentially blocks out the more pesky weeds (like bermudagrass).

Conserving energy (including your own), maintaining appropriate health and safety protocols, and appreciating a plant’s adaptive power (and the learning that comes with that), are just a few reasons I urge you always to be intentional about your approach to weed management in the school.

But especially now, please weed mindfully.

Tips for Putting Your Energy Elsewhere:

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz Corey says:

    Every single word written here speaks to me! I almost cried when I saw the school garden two weeks ago. You’ve given me a positive and productive mindset! Now, I wonder how our bird population is benefiting from our thriving weed population!
    Just last week I asked my husband if he thought the neighbors were annoyed by our front yard garden. He didn’t think so, but it still bothered me what they might think. You know what? It’s ok! My garden serves my neighbors with peas, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, strawberries and carrots. Yay us!
    Finally, I’m constantly thinking of ways to invite the maintenance into school gardens when they begin giving unsolicited advice about how it should look and run. But I’m met with the policy that their department can not help or contribute because school gardens are the sites responsibility. Ok, then. Run along and let us continue our vision of what school gardens should be, look like and provide.
    Thanks, School Garden Doctor! You are amazing!


    1. Truth. I will let you in on a little secret. It was your text message that prompted me to write this post because you were the third person to suggest that there might be some underlying stress associated with the hidden expectation that the garden look great all the time. So, in reality, I was writing to you, Liz, and all the other lovely comrades who do this labor out of love. We have to be kind to ourselves right now and take the opportunity to make change happen. You inspire me!


  2. janeeslattery says:

    You efforts are inspiring ! Wonderful. Will you be working at the school garden ? If so, I would like to join you.




    1. Thank you, Jane! I so appreciate this comment. Yes! We are working on safety protocols now. We also had a generous offer from a landscaping company to do some of the heavy lifting. I’ll be in touch!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.