“I hate ’em,” he said grimly, “and I’m gonna get every last one of ’em.”
My neighbor was usually calm and patient, but today he was clearly on the warpath. He pulled out the sprayer, pumped it twice and began the massacre of the violets in his lawn. It was a spring ritual he followed every year, and like the battle with the squirrels over his bird feeder, it seemed to be a losing one.
My own yard was beyond his understanding. Our neighborhood was developed in the 1870’s and there is plenty of legacy vegetation. His mind wanted green grass, mowed weekly, trim bushes and well-mannered trees. My yard is messy, mowed occasionally, with bushes and trees apparently having their own way. I mow less frequently than I should, and water primarily for the trees and shrubs, not the grass.
The people that had the house before us had six coon hounds that had pounded the backyard into hard dirt. The front was never watered and mowed at least annually. When we moved in nearly forty years ago, we knew it would be a challenge to get anything in order. However, while we were rototilling the packed dirt and laying sod, our next door neighbor told us over the fence that at one time, before the hounds, it had been quite a flower garden, a showcase that people came to see.
Sure enough, once we started watering, all kinds of strange plants popped up, usually in inconvenient places. I must have relocated a dozen rose bushes of various kinds, lilacs, currents, and an assortment of completely unidentified plants. I found strange things growing in my vegetable garden, some beautiful and some scary. With a friend’s help I was able to identify many of the invasive, non-native plants and quite a few of the ‘good’ ones that I had ignorantly destroyed.
I read up on native plants, was able to add quite a few over the years and to encourage the existing ones. The lilacs and chokecherries were moved to the sides of the yard, I found beds for the roses, and added some flowers to supplement the ancient grape hyacinths spread everywhere by the squirrels.
My neighbor watched my efforts skeptically. “I can clear out a lot of that old stuff for you,” he offered, tapping his sprayer affectionately. “Particularly all those violets,” he eyed my lawn greedily, where patches of blue dotted the brown and green of the emerging grass. I declined his neighborly offer, and to this day quite enjoy the bursts of blue in the green grass every spring.
In fact, my lawn is a melange of different grasses, violets, grape hyacinths, dandelions, clover and all kinds of weeds. I try to discourage the bindweed, wild geranium and anything prickly to bare feet, and I speak sharply to the ones I cannot pull. (I figure if talking nicely and singing to your plants makes them grow better, being mean to them should make them grow poorly. So far, nothing to report on that.) For the most part, the ‘weeds’ grow without much effort on my part, and seem to require less water. (Having dogs over the years, I’ve noticed that weeds always sprout where there was dog poop. I suspect a conspiracy between the dog food people and the herbicide industry to design dog food to plant only the weeds that the company has developed sprays for. A company spokesman said my theory was full of shit. I don’t consider that conclusive.)
My yard is a comfort to me, and to the various members of my community. The birds like the trees, many of which are old and unkempt, and the food provided by the shrubs and flowers. They enjoy the step down of the trees to the bushes to the lawn, providing various habitats, and the outdoor dog-water pan available for a drink. The trees provide nesting sites and food for birds and squirrels. The lawn attracts insects and makes hunting grounds for flickers, robins and ravens. Flower beds and flowering shrubs and trees attract all kind of insects and hummers (we had hummer nests a few years in a row). We’ve had honey bee nests in hollow trees and under our steps. The compost pile is home to some mice, lots of worms and grubs, and gets routine visits from the squirrels and occasional visits from a fox or the raccoons. There are garter snakes in the garden, most visible in the uncontrolled mint and lemon balm patch.
It’s chaos out there. Life and death every day, but beauty and song, as well. For me, it’s a sense that I am a part of the whole thing. Not an owner, not the alpha creature, just another grazer, existing for another day.
The violets remind me that I’m not in control, but that I can be a part of it if I’ll put down the sprayer and the clippers, and take it in. Maybe we all need some violets from time to time to remind us of our place in the world.