Weeds in the Vegetable Garden: Whacking Our Way to Sustainability


Multiple choice question for the Department of Homeland Security concerning some recent suspicious incidents in the College vegetable garden:

Are we the innocent victims of a) an epidemic of “Plant identification deficit disorder?” b)  “Give a person a hammer Syndrome?”  c) Pella Dutch Clean “clear-cut landscape maintenance mania?” d) too much reliance on technology? e) all of the above?

 This spring and summer we have had a couple of strange incidents occur along the outer beds and perimeter of the College Organic Garden.  The first one happened in May.  Beginning in early March, with a warm early spring, we had been watching one of our student-initiated projects approach success, a new asparagus bed.  To establish a bed, you generally don’t cut any spears the first two years. When spears are left uncut they shoot up and open out into tall (2-3 feet) wispy, light green stems.  These stems perform the task of photosynthesis, thereby strengthening the roots, which is what you want to happen, so that you can eventually cut asparagus without weakening the plant. 


One Friday afternoon on a stroll from my office to the garden, I made a sickening discovery. Someone had inexplicably weed-whacked our asparagus bed, down to the ground; whoever it might have been was very thorough and meticulous: she or he managed to whack every single stem right down to about two-inches from the ground.  This person then very graciously hauled the bundle over to our compost bin and placed them on top of the pile. On investigation I learned that the person thought these were weeds and was simply trying to do their job, as a member of the grounds crew.

 Fast-forward to two weeks ago, early June.  This time someone weed-whacked a corner patch of College Garden potatoes. 

This is not a weed

A few calls and e-mails later and it became clear that one of the summer student workers had innocently done the deed.  In both cases, the whackers thought they were whacking weeds, not vegetables. In both cases, the long-term damage will be minimal.  

Taken together, these incidents really got me thinking about what people today  know– or don’t know– about plants, specifically garden vegetables and herbs.  Five years ago we had another one of these garden capers:  students on the summer grounds crew, were asked to “dig and move the purple iris plants near the College Garden.”  Instead these hard-working young men managed to carefully dig and remove every single blooming– purple– chive plant (10 at least) from the College Garden, leaving a series of holes and causing me to be on the lookout for “chive thieves.” 

These are not purple Iris

It turned out there was no black market in chives in Pella.  The students were mortified but we all laughed about it in the end. 

Purple Iris

What would people like Michael Pollen, or Wendell Berry, or my faculty colleagues, make of this?  According to Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating , the bulk of what she refers to as our “food literacy” comes from our families. Since the end of home economics courses and the two-career family came on the scene, parents’ ability to teach us about cooking, eating, even buying, food shrank dramatically.  We began leaving learning these vital skills up to chance.  Clearly our national  cooking literacy has declines markedly. Mc Millan cites a 1996 study that reported that “two-thirds of 18-24 year olds said they could not fix a meal.” Eating few meals together as families, eating processed convenience or fast foods, and just plain meal-skipping are all epidemic among young people.  I definitely need to do more with food literacy in my courses and in finding other ways to bring up food shopping, cooking, growing, and basic vegetable plant identification exercises in the College Garden with my Global Sustainability students this fall.  But what about the idea of weed whackers in a garden?

Back in the 1960s, when I was a child growing up in Milwaukee, if my dad spotted weeds or tall grass sprouting up around the tomatoes, beans, peppers, and zuchini in our garden,  he had the following options:  1) bend down and pull them; 2) dig them out with a dandelion  digger of trowel; 3) for really big, deep-rooted ones, dig them out with a 3-pronged metal garden fork; 4) invite me to earn some money by performing 1-3 (generally I was paid by the bucket, 25 cents). 

Weeder-Grass Trimmer circa 1960

After he mowed the lawn, I was also expected to trim around the edges of the garden and flower beds with our old black and silver, blister-inducing, hand-squeeze style metal grass sheers.  I hated that job. 

One option we did not have was to haul out a noisy, gasoline-powered, industrial strength weed-wackier and buzz-cut those suckers to ground level with nylon line.  Back then nylon line was used for more fun purposes: in my rod and reel, with a 20-pound test metal leader attached and a big red and white spoon lure, to catch the muskies and northerns I dreamed about at night.

We moved to the suburbs during my teen years and we suddenly had a bigger garden and a lot more grass to mow.  This also meant more trimming.  We still had the old trimmers, by now dull, sticky, and increasingly unfun for me to use.  as the decade of the 70s hit, I began to notice that our neighbors had orange plastic, hand-held, electric grass trimmers.  When I asked, my dad (of course) said: “forget it.”  He sharpened and oiled our old black ones.

Somewhere in the late 70s, early 80s, a new technology arrived in suburban neighborhoods, including ours: weed whackers.  They were noisy and smelly but boy, could they trim a large area in a very short time!  When he got his whacker, sometime during the late Nixon-early Ford years, Mr. Larson, one of our neighbors paraded it around his yard like a kid with a hammer; just looking for more edges, corners, and crevices to whack. I cringed at how they actually seemed to shred and tear the grass and weeds, rather than neatly slice them, as I had learned to do– and sometimes even take pride in– wth my more simple, non-gasoline powered tool.   Soon weed whackers, riding lawnmovers, leaf blowers, and a variety of other gas-sucking yard tools became basic equipment across America. 

 As a now forgotten, non-gardening political activist used to say: What is to be done? I must be careful about the assumptions I make concerning what “everyone” knows when it comes to plants and weeds.  Young people– and some older ones too, need to spend more time in nature. 

This is a weed you can eat

There is something deeply troubling about our education system and family life when young people can’t tell a potato or asparagus top or chive plant from a weed.  I still use hand trimmers to cut tall grass and I pull or dig weeds.  I don’t expect the world to follow but I have a healthier respect for the destructive power of technology when paired with ignorance.


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3 responses to “Weeds in the Vegetable Garden: Whacking Our Way to Sustainability”

  1. Paul Weihe says:

    THANKS for this excellent entry. The potato fiasco is doubly-tragic, since those were planted by helpful volunteers on Service Day!

    Anyway, I’ve been having conversations recently with students, fellow faculty, and folks outsode the College about the need for us to encourage each other, and perhaps more deliberately teach, some hands-on life skills. They’re really empowering in many ways.

    Anyone have ideas on how to make it happen…?

  2. Don Huffman says:

    Well, I’m a bit more aged than either of you. As one of 7 children I was taught to pull weeds in our 1.5 acres of garden before they became large, and I think I knew the weeds from the crops before ever being entrusted with the weeding process. My younger brother and I were paid $0.05 per hour for garden work, and we did the job because my parents were opposed to allowances, we liked a bit of spending money, and thus they had a good labor supply during those years.
    We also had a sythe and a couple of old hand sickles with which we cut the grass at the edge of the garden so that we could have hay each week when we cleaned out the chicken-house to keep our 200+ laying hens clean and comfortable. The chicken house waste was spread on the garden in a systematic plan.
    So, yes, I could tell plant types from one another and knew how and when to harvest them.
    As a result of this early sustainability learning I developed a deep-seeded dislike of gardening, but have to admit that when I felt like doing it -my wife was then my boss so that usually meant I did it!- I kept a small garden in Pella with those plants easier to maintain -peas, beans, tomato, squash along with a small asparagus bed and an equally small strawberry patch along with rhubarb.
    I totally agree with gardening as a sustainability activity, and agree that one has better control of keeping one’s garden free of pesticides and other toxic items of that sort. However, I still harbor a latent dislike of gardening -sorry for the negative attitude-, so I think I’ll stick to Farmer’s Markets for my fresh, in-season veggies and enjoy seeing younger people learn to garden.
    Been there, done that!!
    Don Huffman

  3. Ben Allen says:

    Knowing when it’s not a weed can often lead to getting ahead in spring. I’m fortunate to know what a potato plant looks like so I recognized it this spring and realized I hadn’t found all the potatoes last fall. It’s doing really well. In prior years I sometimes find volunteer tomatoes and I leave one or two. Of course, I can’t tell between my amish paste tomatoes and the sweet sherry tomatoes when they are young plants. But I’ve been known to leave a couple plants so I can be surprised.

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