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Small wonders

July 18, 2005|by Dorry Baird Norris

Last weekend, the barren lawn looked like an old sepia print. Yet springing up amidst the brown, dock, dandelions, thistles, plantain were growing. Their long taproots were doing their job by pushing down into the depths of the dry soil to survive in the bleak moonscape of the lawn.

Naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) got it right when he perceptively wrote in "Pepacton," "But weeds have this virtue; they are not easily discouraged; they never lose heart entirely; they die game. If they cannot have the best, they will take up with the poorest; if fortune is unkind to them to-day, they hope for better luck to-morrow; if they cannot lord it over a corn-hill, they will sit humbly at its foot and accept what comes; in all cases they make the most of their opportunities."

Burroughs said it all - weeds are opportunists. In "Second Nature," Michael Pollan wrote, "A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule." Weeds defy that regimen. But when Mother Nature cooperates, dictatorial rule is restored.


I'm no fan of totalitarian regimes, but I do like a bit of green lawn to set off the flower beds. My lawn policy is best described as benevolent tyranny. The weeds grow, they get mowed, so long as they are green they are allowed to stay. Unless, of course, like thistles, they are a hazard to bare feet.

What a difference a good rain makes! Hurricane Cindy doused the Washington area with 1 to 4 inches of welcome rain; more has been waiting in the wings this week.

On Tuesday, I felt like Dorothy blowing into Oz from Kansas. The lawn that on Sunday was a "brownsward" was, with the magic of two inches of rain, turning green before my eyes. And I can almost see it growing.

As the rains soaked the soil, weeds also took heart, still trying to overrun the flowerbeds, but dispatching them is easier now that the ground is wet.

Last week I harvested three dozen 4-foot stalks from my one yarrow plant. Half are hung upside down to dry. Half are laid on a flat surface with the flower heads hanging over the edge - this causes them to bend slightly, making for more variety in the shape of winter bouquets.

Mid-July is the best time to harvest the herbs for making moth bags. These will cover up the scent of wool and reportedly deceive moths. Use, in any combination, camphor basil (Ocimum kilmandscharicum), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris,) rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis,) wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia), santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus), and southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum).

Cut long stems of the various herbs and hang in a warm dry place to dry. When completely dry, pull the leaves off the stems. Combine leaves and put into 6-inch-square cloth bags you have made for this purpose or simply tie them up in a 12" square of cloth with a ribbon. Use the leaves in big pieces; as the season goes on, crush them gently to release additional scent. You can also add cedar shavings (available in pet stores) to the mix. Does it really work? I don't know, but it does make your closet smell grand.

I hope you found a good, sunny outside place for your potted amaryllis. If you want winter blooms, amaryllises need plenty of sun to nourish the bulb that will produce next year's blooms. After watering the plants, use fish emulsion - diluted to half strength - on the potted bulbs every two weeks. Fish emulsion is still my favorite organic food for potted plants.

Everything in pots wants regular attention in the water and food department. They need lots of water. But because they must be watered so often, the nutrients leach out of the soil, so they need regular doses of fertilizer.

If you're going away, and can't find anyone to take care of your pots, water them thoroughly and put them in the shadiest spot you can find. This may keep them from frying as my basket of petunias did when I left it, unattended, for three days.

Weed, water and feed - that's what summer is all about. But there's more pleasure. I just looked out and two hummingbirds are battling for supremacy over the butterfly bush. Now one is staring at me through the office window.

All that work really is worthwhile!

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