Zen and the art of weeding


The seed heads of dandelions are covered with dew in this photograph made Monday, May 6, 2013, in Lancaster, Pa. (Richard Hertzler/AP)
John Kelly
Columnist May 12, 2013

Were there weeds in the Garden of Eden? I certainly hope so, for few things in life are as enjoyable as weeding.

I say this as someone who doesn’t weed that often. I’m not much of a gardener — too much shade on our property is my excuse — and about the only thing I do outside is mow. I don’t even much care what I mow, as long as it’s vaguely green.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But on a recent lovely spring weekend I spent the day weeding a big slope we stripped last year of its brownish grass and planted with pachysandra, juniper bush, liriope and artfully arranged rocks.

I was reminded how pleasantly tactile weeding is, how irresistibly sensual: Grab the offending plant near the base. Pull gently on the shaft. Easy does it now. Don’t rush it. Just a little more. Here it comes. Yes! Yes!

Ahhhh.

I suppose if I had to weed for eight hours a day, the appeal might wane. But I don’t, and so I revel in a well-pulled weed. About the only thing I’ve found that feels as satisfying as weeding is scraping ice from my car, when freezing rain has formed a thick carapace on the vehicle, and I manage to winkle the scraper under an edge and pry off great gelid sheets that move like pack ice before shattering on the ground.

How can any app compete with that?

A successful weed-pull — one in which not even the slightest trace of the noxious plant is left in the soil to creep out later and despoil the garden — is something to be proud of. But not every weed-pull goes as planned. That feeling you get when the tap root breaks and your hand jerks skyward is probably the closest most of us will ever come to losing a climbing partner on the face of the Eiger: Nooooooooooo!

On this perfect Saturday, I leaned over the earthen bed, moving methodically from left to right. I don’t know the names of all the weeds that infect our patch, but I soon developed a crude taxonomy. There were grass-like things that came out easily, as if they were just too lazy to take hold properly. There were low, scrubby things that had sent out horizontal tendrils. As I pulled them these shoots rose like skeins of rope or fishing nets freed from the sand. There were miniature oak trees, their roots ending in split acorns. There were evil-looking things with long vertical roots that necessitated my handy weed tool. I would force its cloven tip into the ground then lever it up and lift the weed from the dirt.

Often I would expose earthworms and I took this, rightly or wrongly, as a sign that the loamy soil was healthy.

“Hello, worm,” I would say while shaking the weed to knock off any excess dirt before flinging the rapidly desiccating miscreant into a pile on the street, from whence I would transfer it into a huge paper yard waste bag.

I’m not alone in my affection for weeding. I consulted the public relations coordinator for Blandy Experimental Farm, Virginia’s arboretum in Clark County, a man with the entirely appropriate name of Tim Farmer.

“I think it is a spiritual and kind of Zen-like thing,” Tim said of weeding. “I get into this search-and-destroy mode. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides, certainly not around the vegetable garden, so you have to kind of rely on your elbow grease to get in there. . . . I kind of work my fingers down to the base of the plant then try to get just a little thumbnail below the surface of the ground, then sort of wiggle it.”

And out the weed pops, whether pokeweed or pigweed, purslane or thistle.

Unless it doesn’t. Unless the weed fights back, the root snaps and a little bit of malevolence remains, a reminder that evil will always be in our world, a reminder that we must remain eternally vigilant.

The war to end all wars

After my column last week on how the sequester has forced the cancellation of an annual event at the D.C. World War I Memorial, many generous readers stepped forward with offers of financial support. I was amazed, as was Tom Kouyeas, who has chaired the commemoration since 1976.

Tom says there just isn’t time to organize the event for this year but hopes it will return in 2014 — 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — bigger than ever.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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