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).
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.
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:
- Take the time you would spend weeding the school garden to plan a back to school work party that involves everyone in meaningful tasks: Make a List, Check it Twice: How to Keep Everyone Busy at a Garden Work Party
- Study your garden’s weed profile and develop games to engage youth gardeners in mindful weeding: When Weeds Get In the Way
- Rethink the way you conserve energy in the garden by adoption a permaculture approach (A Rave Review of “the School Garden Curriculum” by Kaci Rae Christopher or How to Be Patient, Instill Permanence, and Promote Passive Gardening).
- Pat yourself on the back for the work you already have done to build a resilient and abundant space for learning: Four Ways to Labor Less in the School Garden.
- Finally, remember summer is still ahead of us. There will be ways to recover lost time in the garden: School’s Out for Summer! (Well, not really, but almost.)