Violets

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MAY, MY PARENTS' HOME, LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY, and my home, Pittsburgh

When I was small, my parents often told me how, around the time I was born, they had renounced the customary lawn care service because they just didn't know what those guys were spraying. Later, when I was in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my parents noted that three of the four women at their corner intersection had received this diagnosis, and all had used a lawn service at some point. (The remaining one hadn't lived there long.) Although my parents had no research to back up their suspicions, a 2007 study showed that breast cancer has a statistical association with use of a lawn service.

Along with my parents' suspicion about the spray's danger, my dad both showed me and told me how they enjoyed violets and clover growing in their lawn. My parents remain my inspiration as lawn revolutionaries simply for valuing lawn weeds at the critical period of my childhood contact with the lawn.

My parents' yard was small—even more so when they added a room to their house when I finished college—but they seemed to enjoy puttering around in it. One particularly lovely area was a thick patch of violets growing under a mature hemlock tree. These violets were in one of the few private spaces in their front yard, a highly visible corner in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. As a child,

I would gather handfuls of violets in bouquets and then just sit and soak up their color.

More than twenty years later, when I was working as an agricultural extension educator at Cornell University, I got a call from a gentleman who wanted to know what he could do about the violets in his lawn. Rather than looking up an answer in my textbooks on herbicides, I asked, "Why?" He tried to explain that they were all over his front lawn, and I, without thinking, told him I thought they were beautiful. The conversation ended shortly thereafter. I should have referred him to his local cooperative extension office, given that he'd clearly called the wrong person. My job was to talk to the county agricultural extension agents about sustainable agriculture techniques for weed control in corn, not to answer calls from homeowners about lawn weeds. But rather than pass him on to someone else, I simply refused to acknowledge that there are people who might not want a lawn full of violets.

In May a couple of years ago, just as we were moving to Pittsburgh, I took our daughters down to Kentucky for one of many trips to see my parents and my in-laws, who live an hour apart in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky. This region has rolling hills and a limestone-based soil that is ideal for the growth of young racehorses, because the minerals contribute to the nutritional content of the turf grass, leading to stronger bones for the horses. In my first course on economically important plants, I chose my beloved Kentucky bluegrass as my project and was shocked to learn that it was not native. Instead, bluegrass, named for its lovely blue-green leaves, had been accidentally introduced on the East Coast by European settlers (perhaps through seeds in hay) and spread quickly to Kentucky to greet them there upon arrival. (I have always thought that violets look particularly lovely with bluegrass.)

Before our visits, I like to get an update on what's new both in Lexington and at my parents' house. My mom had been telling me that as they no longer felt up to regular yard work, she had hired a "yard man" named Patrick. Mostly, she reported, he mowed for them, and he had helped them with plant selection in a few difficult spots.

When I arrived, though, I saw clearly what I had not noticed before, though I had probably looked at the evidence for a year or so. The yard was sprayed. There was no little telltale flag, but there was also not a single violet or clover in sight. The grass species was different from what I remembered—she had told me they had put in a new type of grass that would tolerate shade better, and probably the first time I saw it I attributed the perfect, even grass to the new seeding. Now I knew that my parents, the ones who had raised me to value the little lawn weeds, had sold out to convenience and societal standards. My parents had employed the Evil Empire.

The scene that followed was ugly. I felt angry and betrayed, and I suspect I reverted to my worst language since the time I was twelve and my parents wisely forbade me from dating a sixteen-year-old boy. Flowering bulbs I had planted—a Christmas gift to my mother—had failed to grow that spring, and I now knew why. Mom's primary answer to my accusing questions was "But he was so persistent!" The receipts and business cards revealed what Mom would not admit—Patrick was not simply an independent land-scaper but worked in the herbicide application business. I canceled the contract by phone during that visit, and Mom reported later that she had to confirm the cancellation at least three times after I left. Sullenly, I refused to let the kids play in my parents' yard. I told my mother that I would resume my annual tradition of planting bulbs and perennials in their gardens when I saw clover and violets growing there again.

I don't know that I would have been so angry with them if they hadn't previously emphasized their position on lawn treatments. I do know that I felt that they were not who I thought they were, and that the lawn service was somehow a symbol of a change I didn't want to see. I felt childish in my response and frustrated because when angry I would normally take retreat in their yard; this time, the idea of going outside just made the whole situation worse. I was trapped.

Reverting to childlike behavior is a common response when adults argue with their parents, at least according to many friends I've talked to about this scene. Fortunately, going outside and being in a natural place is a healthy way for people of any age to calm themselves. Children, whether angry, happy, sad, or just serene, need wild spaces to play and to be alone. This topic is well covered recently in books on nature deficit disorder that introduce the idea of a "green hour" (one in which — shocking! — children play outside without an agenda set by sports or parents). Rachel Carson wrote that the greatest gift a child can be given is a "sense of wonder" and that this sense could best be honed by spending time outside observing small plants that might be beneath an adult's notice. "A lens-aided view into a patch of moss reveals a dense tropical jungle, in which insects as large as tigers prowl amid strangely formed, luxuriant trees." Historically, Richard Louv notes, children experienced this kind of play on their family farms, but as suburbs advanced, the range of safe free space in nature shrank to the yard. As an adult, I came to use larger local natural areas—the arboretum in my childhood neighborhood, the community center woods in our current suburb—as part of my home range. As a child, however, the first outdoor home I experienced was my own yard. Yards are not really wild, but there is room for wildness in them, depending on how we construct them. In teaching, I sometimes try to get students thinking about wilderness by asking them to write about wild places they visited as children. The place should be one that the student, as a child, had regular access to, instead of someplace they visited on a single or rare vacation. The least wild example was a student whose special place was the nearby basketball court with weedy edges. Many of the places students describe are places unloved by adults, and students often use the word "weeds" in their descriptions. One student wrote eloquently about the weedy alley between her row of houses and the row behind them. Many students write about small wooded areas with weeds and wildflowers. These places are where my students were able to be themselves, without grownup supervision, often where they went when the resident adults had proved less than satisfying, or in some cases, untrustworthy. One student from a year ago recently wrote me: "Everytime I see you I remember that little assignment you gave our class to remember a place in nature that we felt was ours growing up. I think that was my favorite paper I've written in college."

I would argue that adults benefit greatly from wildness and wonder as well, and that the lawn is a great place to practice these qualities. If we allow ourselves to be surprised, we might see that a spider in the garden is elegant, not creepy, that a particular beetle has iridescent rainbows covering its wings and head. We might see that the low-growing plants in our "weedy" yards have lovely little flowers. We might, if we're open to the possibility, allow ourselves to be distracted from sadness or loss for a moment by noticing the lilac sprig that blooms in July, out of sync with its pollinators and neighbors.

Violets are a particularly wonderful yard weed not only because they are beautiful—both their rich green leaves and their lovely, shy flowers—but also because they are, unlike so many other yard weeds, native plants. Their many cousins—long-spurred violet with a hornlike appendage that resembles the tip of a cornucopia, smooth yellow violet, dogtooth violet with its spur the length and shape of a dog's tooth—are fairly easy for an attentive eye to distinguish, without a hand lens, and I can tell that my students feel on familiar ground identifying them. When I take students on woodland walks in spring, the violets are a reliable presence, interesting enough to be worth some attention but not too intimidating to provide a challenge at species identification. In addition, violets offer such clear familial resemblance—even to their cultivated cousins, the pansies — that the concept of plant families is visible to nonexperts. Violets are wonderful teaching tools, and their beauty makes them great motivators.

I do have to confess, I have one patch of violets that bothers me. In our front yard, we have a round flower bed. This bed is fairly droughty and mostly sunny. As I build up the population of varying perennials in it, I have continued planting some annuals, partly to support the plant sales at my children's school and partly just because I am a bit addicted to the instant and constant color. One patch of this bed is shaded, and because I can't bear to treat violets as a weed, they are taking over the shaded portion. I am trying to accept that the violets are solving my need for perennials-on-a-budget. In any case, the annuals aren't happy there, so the violets are also forcing me to pay attention. If I'm not smart enough to plant the right plant in the right place, I can count on a weed to give me a better suggestion.

Many weeds indicate soil problems. Crabgrass, as I will discuss later, can indicate that a soil has been compacted; tall clumps of spiky, tan broom sedge indicate poor soil nutrition; broad, reddish-tinged leaves of dock can indicate acid soil—but violets simply indicate shade. We can choose to listen to what the weeds are saying, or we can try to cover the problem by spraying and putting down sod, in square trimmed patches as natural as peroxide blond hair. If I do, ultimately, pull the violets from this bed, they've still told me something I might not have noticed about what plants will do well in that spot. I should replace them only if I can choose a better plant for that place than the one already growing there. I often think about this when I try to seed grass in the space next to our driveway, the one we always run over if we back in hastily. If crabgrass won't even grow there, perhaps we need to put in something to help us with our aim, rather than cursing the grass for failing to cover our sins.

But in my parents' yard, the lack of violets was what told me about the problem. This wasn't a soil problem, exactly, though the herbicide is probably still lingering in the soil. The problem was that violets couldn't grow there. If edible lawns were ever a food security necessity, my parents would have been out of luck that year, because most vegetables couldn't grow in that herbicide residue, either. Thanks to mom's persistent lawn man, I finally saw the evidence: the patch of violets that had thrived there for years was gone.

Time passes, and rain falls, and herbicides degrade thanks to soil bacteria and weathering. Herbicides are generally meant to last a season, not forever. On herbicide labels, companies list crop rotation restrictions, telling you how long until you can plant soybeans after a corn herbicide has been applied, for example. I wonder if fewer people would use lawn herbicides if such a list were given to homeowners. The label warning might read something like this: "Clover or violets cannot be expected to grow for one year after herbicide application. This lawn may not be converted into a vegetable or flower garden for sixteen months after application. Do not plant ornamental bulbs for at least six months after application." I don't have a label for the pesticides that were applied to my parents' yard — that, too, should be required of the applicator—but I suspect that any rotational crop restrictions on those labels don't make it abundantly clear that the application would prevent us from planting many species we might enjoy. We probably would be no wiser about how long we should wait.

Last Thanksgiving, two years after I angrily canceled their lawn service, I raked their lawn. Partly, I wanted to help out, though they have a new yard man who knew me from graduate school and who knows that killing violets and dandelions is not part of the job. But mostly, I wanted to see what's grown back over time. I was out of ideas for Christmas gifts—my mom truly has everything—and I was almost ready to plant some more bulbs for her.

In the patch where the violets used to thrive, I noticed that there were still none, but I might not expect them there, because the hemlock shade they loved is long gone. However, around the edges of the flower beds, and near the property line where the herbicide rates were probably a bit lower, a few violet leaves were present. Under a new sweet gum they've planted, a lone violet was actually blooming—on November 25, easily six months out of season. Call it a mutant or a miracle, but either way I've made peace with my mom, because the violets told me it was time.

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