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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Love your weed

By Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer

The introduction to “Edible Weeds on Farms:  NE Farmer’s Guide to Self-Growing Vegetables” by Tusha Yakovleva caught my attention.  “I wish we didn’t live in a world where nonhuman beings are treated as currency for fulfilling human wants rather than as creatures with whom we share a home.”

Home is our safe place, but not for the wild ones.  The Covid-19 pandemic situation is directly linked to our current perspective on wildlife. Industrial agriculture has led to habitat loss and created conditions that enable viruses to emerge and spread (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems IPES-Food).  Combined with our short-sighted plundering of natural resources for cheap energy, food and an out-of-control human population, we have created ticking time bombs now going off.  

What to do.  Begin with gratitude.  Appreciation for what you already have. Take the approach of Rev. Galen Guengerich.  His gratitude goal is “….. to ensure the various ecosystems in the natural and human world can survive and flourish…..which makes even more sense in light of the Covid19 pandemic.”  

Sunrise over pond

Take my muscadine vine for example.  This year’s harvest was exactly four grapes.  I’m thrilled.  The native ‘Vitus rotundifolia’ plant was a self-fertile variety and climbs along the trellis with the kiwi plant which has never produced a single fruit, but boy do those vines look healthy and robust.  Muscadines were the very first native grapes cultivated in our country.  The thick-skinned grapes have an intense, rich flavor unlike that of the native Concord or

European Thompson seedless grapes. Some think Muscadines taste like Brazilian Jaboticaba fruit.  The Jaboticaba is an evergreen shrub with thick-skinned fruits similar to grapes produced all along the trunk and branches.  They have a subacid flavor reminiscent of muscadines.  

Muscadine grape skins have the highest levels of antioxidant polyphenols.  The plant over time has adapted to produce sticky deposits which repel pests and diseases, thus can live in the south very well despite heat and humidity.  Muscadines appealed to my Oklahoma grandmother as well.  When we lived in North Carolina, she came for one visit.  From time to time grandma would disappear.  We’d find her in the grape arbor picking and eating muscadines.  

Gaura blooms

Sharpen your awareness.  What kind of impact was made by growing and harvesting the food you eat?  Lots of people drink coffee.  Did you know coffee plants grown in the understory of tree canopies helps sustain migratory bird habitats?  Coffee grown in direct sunlight drives deforestation and decreases habitats.  ‘Bird Friendly’ label farmers opt for the shade coffee to conserve habitats for overwintering migratory bird populations. 

The ‘Bird Friendly’ label comes at a cost. Forest land must not have been cut in at least10 years.  There must be 10 native tree species that provide 40% shade coverage.  The coffee must be USDA-certified organic.  The Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification program began in the late 1990’s.  Forty-five farms in Central and South America currently participate (Smithsonian Magazine April 2020 Issue).

Reduce, reuse and recycle.  How are your goods packaged?  Diaper Awareness Week ends September 27th.  The disposable diaper has created a dilemma.  Toss away diapers has grown into a $65 billion a year industry.  Dirty diapers at most will biodegrade 40%.  Besides human waste, they contain nonrecyclable polyethylene plastic and release several different chemicals such as dioxin in trace amounts while on babies or in landfills. Thirty billion diapers, over four billion tons of baby waste, contribute a third of the waste dumped in landfills.

Indian Grass in flower

If there be a lack of diapers in your household, consider cloth and compostable diapers.  Lots of sites offer cotton diapers and accessories.  One do-it-yourself type says make your own from sweaters and t-shirts and use with biodegradable paper liners.  Several biodegradable diapers are now on the market made of bamboo and plant-based materials.  

With highly allergic babies, cloth diapers were standard in my house.  The whole nine yards with the diaper pail, huge safety pins (which I still have a few), and a total awareness of the impact a tiny little baby can make.  Nothing says love like washing dirty diapers in the toilet, but from an environmental point of view, cloth diapers don’t fill up landfills!  

Fall Webworms wrapping up persimmon tree

Bring back nature. Land is cleared to bare earth for house or commercial development, regardless of what was growing there.  Nature be damned.  Some enlightened folk have carved their homesteads out of a minimum of wilderness, keeping intact the surrounding trees and plants.  We moved into a scorched earth situation with all the topsoil removed, leaving a gummy clay base, but proceeded to plant over 500 saplings.  One in three may have survived.  Our neighbor’s pines contributed offspring in the northern section.  Over time, a young Cross Timbers has become re-established along with some aggressive Japanese honeysuckle vines and shrubs.  Native plants are returning.  It’s a slow process.

Early Maximilian sunflowers

Revel in autumn.  See those plants in bloom along fences, roads and fields? That’s nature in action.  Her last hurrah before winter.  She has to produce enough sustenance and cover to assure the survival of her own.  People had nothing to do with this beautiful natural display.  These plants are alive despite human activities to the contrary.  The irony is these uncultivated weeds, trees and shrubs keep us alive by involving complicated, complex systems of which we know little about, yet large tracts of wilderness continue to be destroyed.

If you can’t identify the weed that sprung up between your box store plants, think before you pull.  Learn its name.  Perhaps it serves a greater good.  Many weeds are vital to the existence of other forms of life.  Our own lives are dependent on cultivated weeds such as corn, potato, wheat, rice and even sugarcane that resulted from centuries of hybridization and perseverance.

Common Sunflowers

Try something different. Research edible weeds, then use your new skills to create a garden of nutritious weeds. Some may be living in your yard.  Watch how your weeds grow.  Do they need lots of water or fertilizer?  Take notes and pictures of who comes to visit.   It may surprise you.

Possible candidates:  Purslane, dandelion, Lamb’s quarters, chickweed, sumac and amaranth.  While you’re at it, admire the yellow sunflowers, purple Liatris, fall webworms in action, white and pink Gaura and all the native grasses in their prime!

Amaranth crackers:  Boil 1 cup amaranth seeds in 3 cups water until amaranth becomes thick and sticky.  Stir in one T of oil, add pinch of salt, place small mounds on parchment paper, flatten to 1/8th inch thick and bake at 300 degrees until firm (1 hour).  24 crackers.  Have with cheese of hummus.

The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man. (unknown)