Late-September days are perfect for putting in arrays of tulip and crocus bulbs here, tiny round black columbine seeds there. I spend warm afternoon hours on my hands and knees, digging in the soil. Some seeds I bury half an inch deep, protecting them from sharp-eyed birds. I scatter others over the surface the way wind gusts scatter dry pods’ offerings. Bulbs prefer various depths as well. Crocuses, tulips, alliums, and grape hyacinth: four inches. Midspring daffodils: five. Summer-blooming bearded iris: two. Savvy gardeners layer varieties of bulbs and seeds to enjoy continuous blooms.
In late summer and through the fall, it’s easy for me to duck into a nursery for a plant stake or trowel, walk past racks of seeds and bins of bulbs with their bright illustrations of future flowerheads, and find fifteen dollars’ worth of seed packets and bulbs in my handbasket by the time I reach the checkout. And it’s free to collect seeds from my yard and from friends. Cosmo seeds, like tiny pencil leads. Sunflower seeds in all sizes, looking just like the ones people eat.
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The big stand of sunflowers in our front yard sometimes spills over the sidewalk. I should prune the seedy three- and four-inch diameter deadheads so they don’t block the walkway as they pull the plants down. After helping Callie with a math assignment and putting dinner in the crockpot one September afternoon, I approached the sunflowers, shears in hand. A flock of pine siskins rose from the stalks. To be honest, I didn’t learn they were pine siskins until the encounter drove me to our bird books. I had noticed only goldfinches around the sunflowers before. Less showy than their goldfinch cousins, and no bigger than goose eggs, these little pine siskins have streaked-brown plumage that blends into the browning stand of autumn sunflower stalks.
One stayed to assess how close I might come. Saving the energy others spent on fleeing.
“It’s okay, little bird,” I whispered. “Keep eating.”
As soon as I stepped away, the flock returned to the seed-rich sunflower bed.
I didn’t know, when we chose not to use chemicals in our yard, that glyphosate, one of the main components in the weed killers the former residents preferred, disrupts serotonin uptake in animals, thus suppressing the beneficial powers of getting my hands dirty. I knew only that much of what I want to grow would be considered, by those herbicides, to be some kind of weed.
Purple prairie clover, whose pen-cap-size tubular heads are ringed in seeds small as the dots on strawberries. Prairie dropseed, a mounding native grass with bursts of panicles—branched clusters of flowers from which drop the plant’s popcorn-scented seed. Monarda, sometimes called bee balm, draws many flying creatures in addition to bees. It makes me happy to see these plants coming up, sometimes willynilly, throughout the yard. I am happier still encountering the community of life that visits.
The long-horned sunflower bee (Svastra obliqua) that looks like a stretched-out European honeybee with extra-long antennae. The white-shouldered bumblebee. The plainer Bombus nevadensis and Bombus occidentalis. Also Bombus centralis and Bombus huntii—bombastic black-, yellow-, and orange-striped native bumblebees. Goldfinches, dragonflies, rabbits, pine siskins. Learning all these names took me years. Learning a name for the joy of this grounding may take a lifetime.
Many of the plants that grow in what might have once been called the wilderness of my garden are scraggily. Rangy and wild. Some have furlike thorns that make them more difficult to manage than the most touch-resistant rose. If they carry a scent, it might be the scent of skunk or a cud of brittle grass. Their little flowers die the moment I cut them from the stem, rendering them useless for the vase. Weed, from the Old Saxon weód: “a useless or injurious plant.”
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One fall, trying to gather up all the beauty I could before an early freeze, I cut a bouquet of snapdragons only to find the small, dragon-like mouths of every flower filled with tiny mites. Until I cut the flowers, I’d never noticed these mites. Now, before I share the tiny black snapdragon seeds with friends or scatter them in my parents’ garden or my own, I empty the dried pods over a mesh screen to sift out the minuscule bugs.
A delicate larkspur, called Nuttall’s larkspur, grows in clusters near the snapdragon. I love that little flower. Several bluish, purplish starfish, each with a dark tail, like a spur, bob off the plants’ light green branches. All winter, I look forward to clusters of these blue-purple flowers returning to patches around the yard in the spring.
I don’t keep cattle, to whom Nuttall’s larkspur can be toxic. This helps explain why I am not bothered to see it on my land. I would rather foster the larkspur’s growth than treat it as an injurious plant. Cattle ranchers also list as undesirable the mint-green shrubby stalks of rabbitbrush I cultivate in our yard. And the low-growing white flower some call locoweed, which is said to drive cattle crazy. Also swamp and showy and western whorled milkweeds, with pods that split and scatter cotton-tailed seeds far and wide. Though they are native to this landscape, these plants interfere with commerce and often show up on lists of undesirable weeds. Walking her daughter to my door, the mother of one of Callie’s friends stopped near our milkweed’s rowdy pinkish flowerheads. “I got rid of so much of that when I was a kid on the farm,” the woman said.
I showed my father our brilliant yellow-flowered rabbitbrush once, pouting about seeing the plant listed in a book called Weeds of the West—a catalog that also sweeps into its pages Nuttall’s larkspur, locoweed, and all those varieties of milkweed.
“A weed,” Dad said, “is a plant that is growing in a place or a way you don’t want it to grow. That’s all that word means.”
Along the rocky margins near our house’s south wall grow plants that stick to my clothes like the burrs in the hills of my childhood.
I find them troublesome and unattractive. One grass, hare barley, is nearly impossible to extract once it catches a hem. The needle-sharp sections of a mature plant’s two-inch bristly spikes break off easily and stick to anything they touch. According to Weeds of the West, this includes the soft mouths and nostrils of grazing livestock. Year after year, I pull hare barley from the rocky section where it grows. But, as I prefer to concentrate on what I want to see growing than what I want to see gone, my efforts are halfhearted, and the hare never entirely disappears.
The page in the weed book that listed Rocky Mountain iris reinforced my hesitancy to call a weed a weed. Rocky Mountain iris is indigenous to this region. It comes up in gardens as well as along trails. Rising from weathered soil like a purple flag—some call it the blue flag iris—its white- and yellow-tongued mouth opens along with my rising excitement for spring and summer’s blooms.
Synonyms for wild include: natural, undomesticated, savage, desolate, uncultivated, unbroken, uncontrolled, impractical, disorderly, rowdy, ill advised, waste. Blue flag iris doesn’t work well in bouquets. Cattle shouldn’t eat them. Their blooms don’t last long in the garden. Still, I welcome the blue flag irises’ ephemeral upheaval each June. I cheer when their blades push aside soil.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden”. Dungy has published four books of poetry and edited three anthologies, including “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.” Her honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Colorado Book Award, and an American Book Award. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.