Weeding is a profitable pleasure

Posted July 16, 2010, at 5:37 p.m.

Pulling weeds and pickin’ stones

Man is made from dreams and bones

Feel the need to grow my own

’Cause the time is close at hand

Grain for grain, sun and rain

Find my way in nature’s chain

Tune my body and my brain

To the music from the land

Inch by inch, row by row

Gonna make this garden grow

All it takes is a rake and a hoe

And a piece of fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row

Someone bless these seeds I sow

Someone warm them from below

’Til the rain comes tumbling down

Plant your rows straight and long

Thicker than with pray’r and song

Mother Earth will make you strong

If you give her love and care

Old crow watchin’ hungrily

From his perch in yonder tree

In my garden I’m as free

As that feathered thief up there

— From “The Garden Song,” written by David Mallett, sung, I recall, by John Denver on “The Muppet Show”

I do not strive to have a weed-free garden. In fact, I encourage certain “weeds” in some garden spots, calling each plant by name before I decide if it is a “weed,” a plant growing where I do not want it, or if it is a plant worth nurturing. This close scrutiny of every plant slows down the process of weeding and demands that most plants doomed as weeds be pulled by hand, not by any weapon of mass destruction, mechanical or chemical.

Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, for example, is a common summer weedy plant in most of our gardens. Seeds produced last year germinate in July’s warm soil and the dirt-colored seedlings go unnoticed until suddenly one day they have become red-stemmed rosettes of succulent, paddle-shaped, dark-green leaves. Everywhere. The rosettes coalesce into large colonies that, left alone, will quickly fill every open spot of cultivated soil.

Purslane is an easy weed to pull or hoe out of existence, but before you decide to annihilate it, give it a taste. It has been used as a tasty and nutritious warm-weather salad green for hundreds of years. American Indian tribes were fond of the greens and used the seeds for cereal and bread. And recently, due to development of cultivated forms by European breeders, purslane has achieved gourmet status.

Numerous recipes are available on the Internet, but you might start with Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 recipe from “Walden”:

“I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner … simply off a dish of purslane which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. … Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries but for want of luxuries.”

The wild type suits my taste as well, with a flavor that resembles the best lettuce, perhaps a bit more peppery. And the nutritional value is greater in wild plants. Purslane is rich in vitamins E and C and beta carotene, quite high in protein, and considered a better source of essential omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy plant. I wonder how many of us are paying high prices for sources of these nutrients in pill form while waging war against the purslane in our gardens?

Knowing all of this, I manage purslane in Marjorie’s garden, pulling it out where it competes with the planted crops, encouraging and harvesting it where it colonizes open space. It makes an attractive groundcover, particularly growing along the edge of a steppingstone.

’Tis the weeding season, for sure. I suspect that there are as many approaches to weeding as there are gardeners. For this gardener, weeding is a leisurely start and satisfying end to every summer day in the garden, and the punctuation necessary for completion of every garden task.

Bent over, fingers in the soil, I sing “The Garden Song” along with the bumblebees.

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