Saturday, October 10, 2009

virtues of a messy lawn!

(Review from the September/October 2009 issue of E Magazine)

The technical definition of a weed is “a plant out of place.” But who determines the place and what belongs there? Why is a cacophony of color welcome when cultivated but otherwise considered unsightly? In A Weed by Any Other Name (Beacon Press, $23.95), author Nancy Gift offers a season-by-season meditation on the plants we call weeds, sharing her professional knowledge as a weed specialist, her fond memories of wild flora on her childhood playgrounds, and her sometimes contradictory approaches to them on her own suburban property.

Gift is the acting director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and refers often to Carson’s teachings—and to the campaigns waged by chemical companies to disparage the famous naturalist’s ideas. Gift writes, “though I am deeply skeptical of pesticides in general, I believe Rachel Carson advocated limiting—not eliminating—pesticide use.” Gift reluctantly uses Roundup to eradicate a patch of poison ivy, seeing no other means of its removal that won’t subject someone to its rashy wrath. But she also goes into detail about the dangers of this common herbicide, calling to task its maker, Monsanto, and the government, for not requiring companies to reveal the contents and dangers of their products’ “inert” ingredients, one of which is deadly to amphibians.

Gift doesn’t rally for everyone to transform their lawns into vegetable gardens or let them sprout into mini-prairies. But she does urge homeowners, gardeners and anyone with land to scape to view weeds in light of all the ecological services they provide—soaking up storm water, reducing greenhouse gases, preventing soil erosion, absorbing ground contaminants, as messengers about soil quality, and as a food source for wildlife, honeybees and even ourselves—recipes for rose hip tea, dandelion wine and wild garlic pesto included. —Jessica Rae Patton