Monday, December 3, 2012

A Nation Sown by Gardeners
"Founding Gardeners"
Reviewed by BEL MILLS

George Washington was an obsessive gardener; Thomas Jefferson, a stealthy seed smuggler; and John Adams, so taken with manure, he once examined a pile of it while on a diplomatic excursion in Europe.

These are just some of the amusing revelations awaiting readers of “Founding Gardeners,” Andrea Wulf’s engrossing follow-up to her award-winning book, The Brother Gardeners. Here Andrea Wulf makes the case that we can’t understand the first four presidents, and the nation they envisioned, unless we understand how these men saw themselves: as gardeners, first and foremost.

Take George Washington, Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president. When 32,000 British troops prepared to invade New York the summer of 1776, General Washington rallied his men, reminding them they were “Freemen fighting for the blessings of liberty.” Washington knew his men were not only inexperienced but also woefully outnumbered and weakened by smallpox. With these facts no doubt weighing on his mind, Washington made certain, before he slept, to write a long letter to the manager of his Virginia plantation, pondering, Wulf wrote, “’the voluptuous blossom of rhododendron, the sculptural flowers of mountain laurel and the perfect pink of crabapple.’”

On the brink of war, Washington was busy planning two groves to be planted on either side of his home.

While this scene will ring true for any gardener who has obsessed about their hobby at an inopportune moment, Wulf says Washington’s timing was not altogether inappropriate. He was, in fact, planning a garden planted with trees native only to America, with no British trees allowed. At a time when British landscape design was all the rage among colonists—Washington was planning the first all-American ornamental garden.

These overlaps between plants and politics are everywhere in Wulf’s book, and for good reason. For America’s Founders, she writes, politics and plants were a single patriotic endeavor. In fact, even though every one of them, except for Adams, used slaves in their farming operations, they nonetheless believed that self-sufficient farmers were the guardians of liberty and the key to America’s future as an independent agrarian nation.

So it should come as no surprise that Jefferson, during his early trips to Europe, not only assisted Adams in trade negotiations, but also toured British gardens, and risked death to fill his coat pockets with Italian rice grains to distribute to green-thumb friends back home. Indeed, despite having penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson insisted that the “greatest service that can be rendered any country, is to add an useful plant to it’s culture.” True to his word, after he retired from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson devoted the crowning glory of his Monticello estate-- his 1,000 foot-long vegetable terrace-- not to feeding his own family, but to experimenting with new crops for American farmers.

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that the Founders were also fascinated with manure.  Jefferson declared a British pamphlet on the topic a “charming treatise,” and Washington went as far as to dream of a farm manager who “Midas like,” could “convert every thing he touches into manure.” Adams mixed his manure with mud, lime, and seaweed, and once --while serving as the American Minister to the court at St. James’s Palace-- even hopped into a  pile on the outskirts of London, “teasing apart the straw from the dung…before announcing with glee that it was ‘not equal to mine.’” Madison’s appreciation of animal waste was perhaps the most advanced of the four. Though soil chemistry was still in its infancy-- and the carbon and nitrogen cycles had yet to be understood-- he argued that vegetable matter that springs from the earth must return there. This, together with his arguments against exploiting nature for our own purposes, Wulf points out, marks him as the first pioneer of the American environmental movement, predating both John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

Some of Wulf’s claims, to be sure, are overambitious. Her suggestion that a fortuitously timed garden tour helped the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia overcome a political stalemate, for example, is speculative at best. But her insistence that America’s Founders saw themselves as gardeners at heart has evidence on its side. In no other person is this more poignantly clear than in Washington, who fell ill after spending hours inspecting his farms during an icy storm in 1799. He ventured out again the following day nonetheless, marking trees he wanted removed to improve the appearance of his back lawn. He would die just a few days later, but not before he’d penned one last, nineteen page letter to his estate manager with instructions on crop rotations and manures.

History buffs, for sure, will find bushels of insights in Wulf’s new book. But gardeners, I have no doubt, will be this book’s most grateful audience. For us, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison will no longer be just Founding Fathers, but kindred spirits as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Weed Diaries

My husband discovered it first. Waving me into our bedroom with a look of growing alarm on his face, he pointed at something on the floor. From across the room, it resembled an unnaturally long carpet fiber near the air register. I remember thinking I’d have to fetch some scissors to trim it. When I approached for a closer look, here’s what I saw:

By Bel Mills

Yep. It was a weed. Growing into our bedroom. Suffice it to say, this was the moment I realized we had a spectacular weed problem at our new house.
Funny thing is, I thought we had a weed problem at our old house. Boy, was I wrong. Now that I’ve met the weed pictured above, I can tell you our former weeds were cake. Total amateurs.  One firm tug, and they’d release their grip on the soil with a satisfying ripping sound, all roots present and accounted for. End of story. 
This current weed, on the other hand, is an actual thug of the weed world. A professional.  Master gardeners call it a perennial weed because it returns from the roots every year, whether it drops seed or not. Known as Convolvulus arvensis, or field bindweed, it grows in all 50 states, and considered noxious in 20—though not here in Nevada. My Rodale’s guide to weeds gives a stern warning to “not let it remain in the garden long enough to gain a foothold…because the roots are extensive and can grow 10 feet below the soil surface.”
So much for not giving it a foothold. By the time we moved in, it was practically the only plant thriving in the neglected yard, happily winding itself amongst half-dead roses in the front, and sprawling along the foundation in the back.  I remember being charmed by its pale, morning glory-like blooms.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

With more than a twinge of regret, I methodically ripped it out. I knew nothing about different types of weeds at the time, and I thought once we pulled it—and installed new pavers, turf, and planting beds-- we’d be rid of it. I certainly didn’t know the roots, which snapped when tugged, would spawn new plants from every fragment left behind.

In no time, we found shoots growing through our new pavers,

By Bel Mills
into our new grass,

By Bel Mills

and filling our new planting beds.

By Bel Mills

Eventually it even emerged between the foundation of the house and the concrete in the side yard.

By Bel Mills

Then, spectacularly, it moved into the bedroom.  At that point, we knew more investigation was required. Removing the air register in our bedroom, I saw the plant had grown into the house from the crawl space by wedging its way between the edge of the metal air duct and the subfloor. When I pulled the duct aside, I saw the remains of the shoot—which I’d impulsively yanked on sight: several telltale winding brown stems.

By Bel Mills

They look thoroughly dead, and yet they’d managed to produce one very alive shoot.

At this point my husband put on his brave pants and ventured under our house with a garbage bag to do battle, the chorus from Little Shop of Horrors no doubt ringing in his ears.  He made his way through the cramped crawl space, to the ground underneath our bedroom. He emerged about fifteen minutes later…
By Bel Mills

…with his bag full of this:
By Bel Mills


After that, we were certain we’d eliminated the section of weed growing into, or through, the house. But this spring, we found another shoot between the wooden trim of an exterior door and the stucco of the house.
By Bel Mills


What happened to that one, you ask? Officially, it’s known as acute glyphosate damage. In other words, my husband sprayed the heck out of it with Roundup.  The chemical route was a no-brainer in cases where the weed was growing through construction material. But when my husband eyed the lawn, I balked. Not wanting to disturb the precious circle of life I’d read about in Teaming with Microbes: the organic gardener’s guide to the soil food web, I insisted on just pulling it out. And pulling it again. And then pulling some more.

You can imagine how happy I was to learn, during master gardener training this year, that Round Up breaks down readily in the soil, as does 2,4-D (which will kill the weed in your lawn without killing the lawn.) I also learned it can take up to five years of consistent pulling to successfully eradicate a perennial weed.
No thank you.
Since then, my husband and I have unleashed round after round of chemical fury. We use Roundup where no other plants are present, and a product containing 2,4-D, which won't kill grasses, in the lawn. We are making progress, though some patches are proving remarkably resistant.

By Bel Mills


We will prevail!  Um, I think. Wish us luck.