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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Policing or editing?

Where should weeding stop? I confess I have trouble stopping myself from pulling out certain weeds, even when they’re not on my property.
One I missed this spring
            My number one target is Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Starting in April thousands of its offspring peek through the groundcover in front of the house, sprout in the compost pile, and even poke up in compacted areas of the lawn. As I move around the garden in spring, I clutch an expanding bouquet of the little seedlings. If I miss them their first year, they’ll be back the next spring woodier and harder to pull out.
            Cities chose Norway maples as street trees because they can tolerate urban conditions. Can they ever! Fence lines and hedges around the neighborhood bear witness to what happens if you ignore their seedlings for a few years—they soon grow tall and out-compete everything below, blocking the sun, hogging the water, and spreading their phytotoxins, chemicals they exude that prevent other plants from growing. 

            I find it hard to keep my hands off the multitudes of Norway maple seedlings I pass in other people’s front yards as I walk my dog. Ailanthus altissima 
(tree of heaven, the tree that grew in Brooklyn), another rapacious grower, also makes me want to yank it out. 
            But how would I feel if someone else weeded my garden without my permission? Outraged and insulted. So I try to hold back. I don’t always succeed.
            All this weeding makes me ask whether I’m trying to police the world. Gardeners reserve the prerogative to decide what grows in their gardens. Outside the garden gates, though, should we stay out of it and let the strong survive? 
            Roger Swain, whom you may remember as the host of the PBS show The Victory Garden, wrote about “editing” a patch of woods on his New Hampshire farm. He subtracted trees and shrubs in March to incline the population toward the native plants he wanted to foster. This seems like a sane approach to the plant world. But when he was in Lexington to film the TV show, I wonder if he found himself twitching out Norway maple seedlings.


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