A Weed Is Just a Flower in The Wrong Place

yellow 2 (2)Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”

                                                                  A.A. Milne

“But these are weeds,” Melanie exclaimed, “We pull these up in our yard.”

“Yes, but this isn’t your yard.” Paul noted kindly, looking out over the prairie.

We were collecting native plant seeds on the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant site to be used for revegetation of the disturbed areas being reclaimed on the site and nearby properties. The volunteers were collecting seeds from native grasses and forbs. The grasses were abundant: big and little bluestem, three awn, mountain muhly and others; less abundant were the various forbs, or flowers as I thought of them, gone to seed, including various asters, buckwheat, purple blazing start, and others. It was a beautiful fall day, not too hot and clear with just a little breeze.

The revegetated areas looked pretty healthy, and the native plant people in the group proclaimed them in better shape than the surrounding areas. It makes me think that if we can reclaim sites like this former industrial site and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal to become valuable land for nature, what could we do elsewhere?

It seems that we need to find ways to integrate nature into our lives more, and conversely, we need ways to make nature more accessible to ourselves. Segregating humans and nature is not a sustainable approach. Converting places like Rocky Flats and the Arsenal into nature preserves are great accomplishments, but are premised on the idea of a zoo and become places primarily for nature not man. We’ll create a place where nature can be, and we’ll mostly keep people away. That’s the foundation of wilderness areas, and to some extent, the national parks. Other programs, national forests and national grasslands, for example, encourage a more multi-use approach to allow people more interaction with the natural world.

We can find ways to integrate nature into human activity. We already know how to make agriculture more nature-friendly by maintaining hedgerows and fence lines in a natural condition, managing the timing of plowing and haying to protect nesting birds, fencing cattle and sheep out of waterways, etc. We can implement these practices through conservation easements and other mechanisms with the cooperation of landowners.

I’m a proponent of encouraging a little unkempt nature in my yard to make it friendlier to wildlife, particularly birds and pollinators. There are quite a few good sources that offer guidance on how to do that: plant native plants, provide access to water, and create a mix of lawn, shrubs and trees. In most suburban areas, these steps are easy to implement, sometimes without any extra effort. I keep a short tub of water on my patio for our dogs to drink, and it becomes an attraction for the birds, insects, squirrels, neighborhood cats and, as evidenced by the wet splashes around it every morning, the local raccoons.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how these simple concepts can be expanded to other kinds of areas. We’re already putting vegetation in the road medians, which will incidentally provide some uses for birds, insects and small critters. There are a lot of unused areas that could benefit from a little care in adding the appropriate native shrubs and other plantings that require little maintenance. I’ve noticed several highway interchange loops encompassing an acre or more where low-maintenance trees and shrubs have been planted to a positive effect. Roadway margins represent another opportunity, and since most of our highways have extremely large right-of-ways (ROWs), there is plenty of room to work with. Likewise, railway, power line and ditch system ROWs could contribute to the effort. Greenbelts enhance waterways and drainages through most urban areas.

We’ve also got lots of places where large expanses are covered in lawn, carefully watered, fertilized and mowed. Maybe we need to revisit that use, and see if maybe there’s something a little more wild we could do there that would ultimately take fewer resources and add a little more nature. We’re not talking about creating places where elk herds will roam free, but places friendly to birds, insects and maybe small mammals and reptiles. I know that an office park where I used to work had little vegetation on the grounds, but bunnies were nearly always present on the edges of the parking lot. It gave me a shot of joy to encounter them, particularly after several hours of computers, phone calls and meetings. (Of course I also enjoy watching squirrels and geese, so maybe I’m a little twisted?)

Not everyone wants nature to be that close. Some people like their nature orderly and well-groomed, and preferably on the other side of a fence. Finding the right balance with nature in your own yard is difficult, but trying to achieve agreement over a neighborhood or larger community can be much harder. I personally don’t mind the bird poop on my car or the leaves to be raked in the fall, but others see those as avoidable annoyances that could be eliminated by getting rid of “those pesky trees”. The buzzing of bees is music to my ears, but annoying or scary to neighbors with children or allergies. I’ve awakened to the pungent skunk smell drifting into our bedroom windows, and am glad we keep the dog inside, but don’t begrudge an occasional night time visit.

And I have to agree with Melanie on one thing, I often pull those weeds when they show up in the wrong places in my yard. I am a little civilized after all.

Suggested reading: Welcome to Subirdia, John Marzluff; Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams; The Human Age, Diane Ackerman; Feral, George Monbiot

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