MARCH, AT HoME, PiTTsBuRGH
In March, if it snows, I nearly always try to take advantage of it by sledding or skiing or just playing. Often the late winter snows are a bit wet for sledding but excellent for packing together a snow character or snow fort. My husband's snow forts in particular tend to last long after the other snow piles have disappeared, and though they may be a bit muddy looking toward the end of their life spans, the melting shapes are a pleasant reminder both of the best of a good winter and of the emergence of sun and spring.
Sledding season, however long it lasts, offers a reprieve from the sights and thoughts of weeds. The white smoothness hides any number of flaws, and for a time, the only weeds we see are the ones that are tall enough to interrupt a good sledding hill. Before our eldest daughter was born, one of our favorite sledding hills was a long, steep swath of dead goldenrod stalks at the Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, which required a few passes (eyes closed, or simply riding backward) with a sled to knock down the season's dead stalks before the run reached its full potential.
Patches of teasel made some sections of the slope unapproachable, but these weren't hard to avoid. In Jean Auel's novel The Valley of Horses, the main character, living alone off her skills and wits in prehistoric Europe, supposedly uses teasel to comb her long, blonde, perfect hair, but frankly I doubt it. Teasel is mean stuff, and the thorns are not fragile pin prickles but chemically laced needles that leave a stinging rash after you remove your hand from the stem. I'm glad that I mostly see it on roadsides, not in my garden, where I'd have to rule in favor of the human residents rather than the butterflies' dinner.
With snow, any weeds lower than the mower blade become invisible for a time. We cut the dead goldenrod and other field weeds to ground level after they turn brown, so for a time our snowy lawn seems to go a bit farther down the hill. Our backyard isn't quite steep enough for good sledding. We have friends nearby whose yards slope down toward the house instead of away from it, and they must erect straw-bale barriers to prevent their children from sledding dangerously fast into their own houses.
In between snows, anything greenish is welcome, and at this time of year I care only if the plant is perennial, with leaves waiting for the first warm days (or nights) to emerge from dormancy. I no longer care whether the plant is on my personal list of favorites. This is not a beautiful time of year in the Northeast. Before the buds burst, before the green lawn revives, we see lots of brown and grey, lots of mud. This is a good time to reseed the bare patches — a "frost seeding," when seed is worked into the ground by the freeze-thaw cycles of cold nights and thirty-five-degree days. This is a time of year when I hope, fresh and naive, that I can outcompete the crabgrass this summer, so that next year I won't have this swath of muddy brown in the upper backyard. I might, optimistically, take a shovel to some of the bare ground and convert another square to vegetables, figuring it simpler and more virtuous to grow food than bad grass. I might, with resignation, take the brown paper bag of Penn State grass and white clover seed mix back to the mud again, thinking that this space is for ball games, not tomatoes. If I do, I will have the optimistic three months of beautiful young green grass and miniature clover leaflets before the crabgrass emerges to the summer heat.
For now, the clover is dormant with its symbiotic self-fertilizing bacteria sheltered in its roots. The young clover I planted in fall might survive, and the clover I seed in these last weeks of winter might manage to get buried by frosty soil and sheltered until emergence in the thaw. This same clover will flower, white or pink, for children's crowns next summer. The clover makes me think of bees, which I feel increasingly protective toward since I have learned about the many problems they face, and which we could face without them. Weedy hedgerows and other common weeds are, Rachel Carson reminds us, "the habitat of wild bees and other pollinating insects. Man is more dependent on these wild pollinators than he usually realizes."
Bees also make me think of the beekeepers in my family—two women who never knew each other. The first I knew was my flower-loving grandmother's sister, Lucille. Lucille was known as a charming eccentric, and I met her only at family reunions. When older relatives spoke of her, they would say "Aunt Lucille was a beekeeper, you know," as if the beekeeping explained the fact of her being eccentric. She died around the same time as my grandmother, and I always wished I'd known her better, partly so I could ask her more about bees. Since Lucille died, I have met another beekeeping cousin from a different part of my family. Brigid is a midwife in Hawaii and sometimes sends me a jar of her rich, waxy, home-gathered honey. Last time she sent it, she included a separate jar of sea salt, collected from rocky tide pools on the shore near their home, and it seemed that the two jars — one of honey and one of salt—contained all the essential nutrients, the salt and sweetness of life itself. Beekeeping and midwifery are both professions of watching over females bearing offspring, of facilitating creative acts of female power. I admire this work. I hoard the honey Brigid sends me and give myself straight-up spoonfuls after a workout to refuel my own powers. I hope to be like these two women, if only a little. I'm sure neither ever sprayed a clover, because I can't imagine either of them caring what any two-legged neighbor thought of her lawn.
I try to take care of the bees here, by luring them with food. Two winters ago, in anticipation of spring, I started marigolds from seed and grew them in peat pots on our dining room table. They did not exactly thrive—I planted perhaps fifty and ended up with ten or so plants. They were also slower to flower than the flats of marigolds I bought ready-to-flower in May. The bees, though, thought these were the best flowers in our garden. While the hybrid marigolds grew lonely and genderless, with their doubled petals and reduced centers, the grown-from-seed marigolds had bees on every bloom. I know that many gardeners shun annuals, as they can be such easy shortcuts to a colorful garden. But I have wondered since growing my own marigolds if the real problem might be the particular varieties rather than annuals themselves. If that is the case, then I could add to my winter tasks: grow annuals from seed. Like frost-seeding the clover, it is an optimistic venture, full of all the promise of the slowly lengthening days.
While the annuals are still tiny seedlings in their windows and greenhouses, the clover lies green and dormant, or its scattered seeds lay waiting for spring. Meanwhile, another spot in our yard that hosts a great deal of unseen winter activity is our brush pile. I know that a brush pile is a rather low-class yard item, well below the status of a compost pile. We have a stone turtle in our front yard, too, so given that we've entered the realm of lawn ornaments as well, perhaps the brush pile fits right in. Our brush pile is not, like a proper wood pile, a place that shows forethought and preparation for the cold months ahead. It is tangled and uncovered and sprawling, and on the occasions when we have used the wood for a fire, it lights slowly and produces enough smoke to remind me that even old fashioned wood fires are a source of air pollution. Perhaps as a result, we have yet to use our home's fireplace, and though I have nostalgic feelings about fireplaces, my primitive understanding of our atmosphere leads me to think that our gas heat yields more warmth for less global warming than would a fire in our standard-issue fireplace.
So the brush pile sits, occasionally scavenged for marshmallow roasting, but mostly as what I like to think of as wildlife shelter. Perhaps bees live in it through the winter, or rabbits, probably chipmunks. I like to think that some of the standing dead trees might harbor some queen bees over the winter, either native wild or European honey bees. We have many dead ash trees in our yard, bearing no signs of insect damage, their short life span likely due to wet roots from the seasonal stream in that section of yard. We were tempted at first to cut them, but the combination of fear for our living trees and the expense of hiring a professional service has resulted in our acquiring a certain philosophy about the standing dead trees being good for wildlife.
I like the idea that our leaf pile and our brush pile are minimal as eyesores while serving as winter shelter for critters, four- and six-legged alike. A year ago, I applied at the National Wildlife Federation to have our yard certified as a backyard wildlife habitat, via a questionnaire asking about various aspects of our yard, including seeds for animals' food, flowers for insects, water sources, lack of routine pesticide treatment, and kinds of shelter, like standing dead trees. I know that the brush pile counted for our qualifications (though now that we are certified through the questionnaire, I'm not sure what exactly we are certified to do, besides continue watching wildlife in our yard). In a pinch I figure the brush pile could serve as fuel; for now, it is just storing carbon, locked up in the wood of all those dead branches. Biologically speaking, in winter the brush pile is at its best—especially when covered with snow, its crevices possibly filled with warm, furry little bodies, waiting for spring.
By March, the snow begins to melt, and the bunnies emerge from the brush pile to graze again in the yard. For many, this ugly period of the lawn year is the time to call the lawn service, and renew or begin the contract. For those who want alternatives, the snowmelt is a sign of the time to apply corn gluten, which inhibits germination of a number of plants but doesn't inhibit perennials coming from overwintering roots. Though it can prevent crabgrass emergence, I don't use it, because it also prevents me from reseed-ing grass in spring.
No organic commercial product can kill clover in a lawn, but clover is killed by all common lawn herbicides. I wonder at times if the definition of a weed shouldn't be expanded to:
A plant out of place, or a plant that is killed as a bystander during the process of herbicidal control for lawn care.
Calling clover a weed is a commercial necessity for herbicide companies. After all, if clover isn't a weed, then none of the current lawn herbicides do their job, which is to let desirable species survive but kill all the weeds. There is not a single herbicide in existence that can safely be applied to our lawn grasses, while excluding clover from the selection of other planta-non-grata it kills.
Clover used to be part of commercial seed mixes, before the introduction of lawn herbicides, but now I have to order it separately, because the neighborhood garden store doesn't carry clover seed on the shelves. Growing clover in my yard feels, if I think about it, like one of those wonderful everyday acts of rebellion. I will not be a well-behaved lawn owner, I will wear purple, I will grow clover. I enjoy casting the seeds, willfully disobeying societal norms. I simultaneously wish that others would admire the variety of beautiful leaf shapes in our lawn, and I even fantasize about arguing with a judge that the plants in my yard cannot be weeds, because I like having them there. I like to think I am the adult version of the teenager who rebels with colored hair and nose rings but avoids drugs and earns good grades, secretly.
The peak season for clover is not winter, but warm weather. In warmer seasons, clover has flowers for necklaces and crowns, and nectar for the bees we know to be threatened. But one of my favorite traits about clover, compared with so many other weeds, is that it seems never to turn brown. The bluegrass, in hot summer, turns brown, and the crabgrass, in winter, leaves patches of my yard bare and brown, but the clover goes dormant still in its deep summer green. The snow melts for a moment (or the trail of the snowman's growing round body leaves bare lawn behind) and the clover appears all ready for the first ray of sun to strike its lucky leaves. Why should only the four-leaved clovers be lucky? Anyone who appreciates clover can grow her own luck, simply by letting it thrive in the lawn.
Making, or growing, our own luck can take a bit of effort, or at least tolerance. Tolerance is good practice, at home or work, indoors or out; tolerating a bit of clover seems like an easy way to start inviting some luck into the yard. I hope this year I can treat the lawn like family. My older daughter, age eight at this writing, talks openly when I lay down with her after the reading light goes out, telling me about her day. I am grateful that she shares with me, grateful that she trusts me and tells me what some mothers tell me they never hear from their children. I also wish she would Just. Go. To. Sleep. I have to tolerate the late bedtime to hear her whispered secrets in the dark. My five-year-old daughter knows exactly what she wants to wear, and she wakes easily and dresses quickly each day. I am grateful for her initiative and grateful that since she was a toddler, I haven't had to allot time in our hectic mornings for urging her into her clothes. And I also wish I could lure her into wearing something besides a dress for her soccer games. My tolerance for her clothing choices offers the reward of Hazel's confident, joyful, freckled grin. Tolerance implies dealing with something distasteful, but it is also necessary in even the most deep and passionate love. Perhaps tolerance means that when I dislike something in a loved one, I acknowledge that there might be a defect in my vision.
The weeds in our lawn have their moments of beauty. They bloom, or I get a taste of their leaves, or I see their texture—feathery yarrow, furry mullein—and I love them. Then their bloom fades, the stalk turns brown, and their season is past for a few months. With my children, the cycle is shorter—thank goodness I love them more than one season a year!—but still, they and the weeds grow beyond me and without me, and my choice is not to change them or eliminate them but to love them, tangles and all.
I admit, the golf course grass felt good the night of the fireworks. I'd love to get rid of our crabgrass, and I'd love for the poison ivy to just please grow somewhere else. I'd love for our yard to look rich, soft, and green all summer instead of crunching a bit in August. But really, I mostly just want to be outside on a nice day, knowing that our yard has healthy bees, bugs, and earthworms for the birds, flowers the kids can pick, and turf where they can play barefoot without my having to check the pesticide label first.
In late March, I look out at the mud, melting snow, and lawn. We take the dead stems from last year's garden and give the last snowman some fingers. We watch the crocuses—warm little oases for early insects—opening out in the melted spots in the yard. And I think ahead to what surprises and friends await me with the coming year's weeds.
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