Dig We Must

The Russian thistle is the worst of weeds. Brought over in the trouser cuff of a clueless immigrant, it buried its evil seed in the Nebraska sand more than a century ago and soon took over. Today the Russian thistle's empire stretches well into the Rocky Mountains.

Although the thistle's leaves are covered with tiny needles, you can grab them anyway and try to yank the weed out by its enormous root. But even as you dispose of the dead weed, its purple flower will dislodge a seed, and the cycle will start all over. Or you can hack away at the root with a shovel, but each chunk of weed will be reborn as a brand-new plant. The Russian thistle even enjoys a good burn. It lifts up flagstones and brings down roses.

I hate this weed.

Last spring, I graduated from Master Composter training, a program run jointly by Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) and the Denver Department of Solid Waste, and began casting around for an official assignment. I'd been issued a uniform -- a compost-themed T-shirt, a name tag and a baseball cap -- and had a zippered case full of helpful handouts. For the first time in my life, I was a public servant, if an unpaid one, loosed in the world to sort through other people's garbage, to stack it in steaming piles, and to turn it into wonderful, eco-friendly, floor-of-the-woods-smelling compost.

Despite my skills and training, opportunities were limited. I tried manning a booth at a street fair, then at a farmers' market. I sat below a banner with a Tupperware container full of grade-A worm compost while all day long, people asked if compost smelled bad. I said no -- I let them smell for themselves -- but I wasn't sure they ever trusted me. I was itching to get back to the garden, to make dirt with my own two hands and do good at the same time. My reasoning was utterly uncomplex: Gardening is good, dirt is good; therefore, it would be good for people who were doing not so good to garden with good dirt. And I, given the chance, would show them how.

In mid-June, DUG's Judy Elliott, who oversees the urban gardening program, moved me to an inner-city community garden: 1,500 square feet of rubble and weeds, flanked by an elementary school and a high-rise apartment complex for lower-income women and kids. Down the center of the garden ran a heaved-up flagstone path. Down the center of the path ran a stream of Denver Water Department water from a faucet that seemed to run all day and night. A compost frame held a pile of weeds. A raised bed held a few plants -- planted by whom?

Judy helped me work out a deceptively simple plan. I would show up, pull weeds and wait for a flicker of interest from the neighbors. Maybe from the grandmother who turned out to be the force behind the raised bed, or from the welfare moms and dads who walked slowly, many times a day, back and forth between the corner store and subsidized housing. More probably from all of the children whose names I was determined to memorize: Maria and Carlos and Zippy and Angela and Maria and J.T. and Maria. And Maria.

By the end of June, Maria, who was eleven, had organized her part of the neighborhood with the tangential help of one of her homeroom teachers and his retired dad. A third of the plot was strung out into square planting beds, into which we thrust 300 donated jalapeño plants, tomatoes and any flower Judy could get for free. During one spectacular Friday, Maria and I supervised a miraculous corps of toddlers, off-duty teachers, grandparents who actually knew that peppers came from the ground, the janitor from the high-rise, and nearly a dozen moms who'd moved out from under the raggedy tree shade and were now digging and sweating with the rest of us. A very large man named Marcus, two weeks out of the county jail, found that he was able to pickax a ten-by-ten-foot plot in five minutes flat. At high noon, he suddenly turned to me and said, "Do you think this will make me a man?"

I must have looked blank, because he continued, "I mean, because I screwed up with my wife and my girlfriend and my job...If I had kids, I would have screwed them up. My grandfather was a man, but I'm not. Maybe this will make me into a man."

This is where the director usually yells CUT! But while I stood there thinking I had done some good -- been influential, even! -- and dreamed of a group outing to the landfill, life in the garden continued. Marcus went down to the store for a Sprite, a small girl got yelled at for sliding down the compost pile in her communion dress, and the celosia we'd planted half-dead suddenly perked up.

July was hotter. Watching the soaps at midday made more sense than standing in the sun, tending beds that still looked stunted. But I continued to show up, as did Maria, although she had her hands full with four younger siblings. Marcus came by, although only to chat -- and two weeks later he disappeared. I heard something about bad checks, but that's the kind of thing you don't traditionally discuss with your Master Composter. The janitor from across the street busted one of the battered women for stealing lettuce from another victim of domestic violence. I learned that this neighborhood was the only one in the city that boom times had passed by: Here, crime and poverty and neglected kids were all on the rise.

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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