At War With a Weed

This past weekend I mounted an overdue, all-out attack on an enemy weed. Dressed in long pants and a long-sleeve dri-FIT shirt so as to avoid another bout of poison ivy, I sat down on my gardening stool, dialed an old friend, Travis, and started yanking nutsedge, my garden nemesis. I had hoped talking to Travis would mitigate my weeding misery, and it did for the most part, but I had some trouble focusing on what Travis was saying. The mindless task of pulling nutsedge takes more attention than one might think. Pull too hard or too fast or too high up and the shoot will break off. But when the soil is wet enough and the pull angle and tension and hand placement are just right, one can extract an entire nutrient-robbing plant–rhizome, tuber, nodules and multiple shoots–with one tug. Vindication is sweet, but short; there’s always the next plant to pull. 

July and August are the hottest months of the year in the northern hemisphere, and in southeast Texas, near the Gulf Coast it’s especially brutal. And it’s getting worse. This year, July was the hottest month on record, ever. Houston is infamously known as the most air-conditioned city in the world. Those of us who live here wonder just how the hell anyone lived here before air conditioning. As I do every year at this time I’ve gone from spending as many hours as I can in the garden to spending most of my time indoors. We got above average rainfall through June and July. The tomatoes are finished and the peppers are slowing down, but the gluttonous nutsedge is loving the moist, warm soil, and is impervious to the extreme, above-ground heat. 

I saw a sign recently, an artifact of the civil unrest currently engulfing us that said, “LOVE, NOT HATE”. But of course there are limits to what we can love, and we can’t eradicate hate entirely. Even if we hate hate, we’re still hating. Hate can be quite a useful motivator if it’s aimed at things worthy of it. Naturalists will remind us that “weed” is a human construct, a category we create for the unwanted. I don’t disagree, but I don’t care: I hate nutsedge. 

I’ve worked for the last few years to turn our native gumbo clay in to a rich, black loam. But one irony of cultivating quality soil that plants love is that weeds are plants, too. Nutsedge’s tubers and rhizomes grow rapidly, exponentially, deep underground, even in poor, dry soil. This year’s trifecta of good soil, lots of rain and high heat have helped it take over the garden. A sea of two-foot high shoots are now spread across the beds and mulched walkways. I can’t use poisonous herbicides, and from everything I’ve read organic solutions don’t work. Pulling the weed by hand activates the subterranean rhizomes so that within a day or two new shoots cover the area just cleaned. The only solution is to stay ahead of them, to pull frequently enough that the plants eventually run out of energy.

When we first started seriously gardening vegetables, my wife and I did it together. But eventually we divided the garden so that we could each have control over our own pieces of turf. She’ll occasionally look out over my section of the garden and say, “we really need to weed.” By we she means me.

Travis is a good talker and was lonely, so I mostly listened. He and his wife, Sophie are isolated, living in the sticks north of Houston. Last August, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sophie’s cancer returned, making their need for isolation all the more crucial. We talked music, mostly, the basis of our teenage friendship, and cancer, of course. Sophie was responding well to the chemo, but it’s a battle she’ll eventually lose. I listened as Travis stoically said, more than once, “It is what it is.”

We’re now in the fourth surge of COVID-19, the Delta variant spreading through the unvaccinated like the wildfires in the West, the cancer in Sophie’s body and the nutsedge in my garden. At the hospital system where I work, the emergency departments are overflowing. Those of us who are vaccinated are struggling to understand those refusing the vaccine. Those on the front lines are especially frustrated. And with school about to start, a debate is raging over whether or not kids, who can’t yet get vaccinated, should be forced to wear masks. Our governor, playing to his base, has declared they cannot; school administrators are defying him.

Sitting alone in the garden, pulling one nutsedge plant after another, I know this is my own fault. Full of enthusiasm, I built a garden that is too large given the amount of time I currently have to tend it. Part of me, though, is happy to have this mindless but safe task to do. Even in the miserable heat the repetitive motion leads me to a nearly-zen state. I’m considering how I can downsize the garden, which parts to turn back to Bermuda grass, a weed we happen to cultivate. When the weather finally cools, the nutsedge will retreat. But it will still be there, lurking below the surface, waiting to return with a vengeance.