Dig We Must

Weeding is fundamental. So is showing up.

And then the Russian thistle shot up out of the arms of some donated xeriscape shrubbery. A few volunteers and I tried to dig it out from between rows of corn, and then we said the hell with it and chopped the evil weeds off at the surface -- the worst kind of cheating, and we knew it.

In August, Judy sent over reinforcements. A van pulled up and disgorged a dozen Y Camp teens, sullen and wondering how this was any substitute for Water World. A church group was willing, but its flesh, repeatedly lacerated by thistle needles, was weak. We never had enough tough gloves to go around, and the thistle multiplied and spread. I went out to lunch with Judy, and she patiently explained that these neighborhood gardens took years to develop, that showing up had always been the thing to do, and always would be. Even better than showing up, she suggested, is getting involved -- making phone calls, enlisting help, empowering specific people.

But I was lost in my war with the thistle. By now, everyone in the neighborhood rebelled at the thought of pulling weeds, and I made a radical decision: We would mulch. I found a tree company that would dump a giant load of chipped branches, and we could spread the mulch over the thistles in a layer so deep that the weeds would neither see the sun nor feel the cooling waters of the Denver Water Department. They would wither and die, and I would watch, with vicious detachment.

In September, the mulch arrived. It was already breaking down into what is called anaerobic compost, and as I pawed through the pile, a bandanna over my face, it emitted fumes of mold and ammonia. I found a friend and a wheelbarrow, and we began spreading yards and yards of mulch out over the landscape. It was like something out of the Grimmest Fairy Tale: Once a week we met to distribute mulch, but by the end of the day, the pile was no smaller and no disadvantaged kids had turned to gold.

In October, Judy found a mother and two children rooting through their weedy plot in the rain. "I helped them look through all that jungle," she told me, "and we found two whole grocery bags full of tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeños. It made it all worthwhile. They were so excited, going home with all that food."

Later that month, the first snow fell, covering my massive chip pile and freezing it solid. I took this as a welcome signal that it was time to quit showing up. The Russian thistle, meanwhile, had decided to get involved.

I know the weed survived the winter. I went back to the garden last week and could have sworn I saw its seedlings poking through dirty snow. But someone had curled up the hoses, and the flagstone path had been swept clean, and now the days are lengthening. At home I have exactly 43 extra tomato plants on the windowsill, and I know how this works by now. The soil will warm, the seeds will sprout, and something -- something located between bad and good -- will grow.

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