Category Archives: Wondering about Weeds

Bermudagrass Lessons

By Anna Van Devender

“I need to keep digging to find that leak,” I updated my school gardening colleague. “There’s a leak?” he asked, surprised. I remembered he’d been off campus for a week and had seen neither my new dirt pile or the trail of bermudagrass, purslane, and mallow that had suddenly appeared on a soil slope with no known irrigation emitter. It was the trail of weeds that led me to discover water seeping up from underground. A cheerful pink penstemon and a fledgling Texas Ranger had appeared about the same time, so I wasn’t in too big of a rush to remedy the situation. Still, I needed to get two crisscrossing irrigation systems in order before Summer Break. Thank you, bermudagrass, for showing me where to dig.

Bermudagrass has been to me over the years: a front yard lawn to play in, a school field to lunch on, a school garden nemesis to take on, an excuse for exercise, a form of meditation, a topic to educate about, and a red flag for water out of place. Bermudagrass is an amazingly drought resistant, rapidly spreading, commonly planted turf grass in the Desert Southwest. Where it’s wanted, great. Where it’s not wanted, it’s a weed. In fact, bermudagrass is the weed that taught me to love pulling weeds.

Rewind to fall of 2000. I returned to the U of A after interning for 12 weeks in remote Badlands National Park. A senior Honors Thesis project, as yet undecided, loomed ahead. A yearning for the freedom and undeveloped openness of my summer home tugged at me also. Plus I had tests to tackle and romantic drama to reckon with. So, I started a school garden. It wasn’t quite that simple, but it was exactly what I found out I wanted to do.

Among the necessary tasks? The bermudagrass in the corner of the school playground would have to go. Each Wednesday, I fidgeted like a little kid through my Anthropology class until I could help elementary students learn about desert plants and animals and plan our garden. To prepare the way, I went on weekends to dig up the incredibly tough, sneaky, regrowing grass. This became my physical exercise: stabbing a shovel in and grabbing chopped out grass with my hands. It became my time alone in nature, in the middle of a bustling city. It became a way to both think and forget, to cleanse my brain with something like meditation were it not for the accompanying glee at destroying something.

Back in my current school garden, I finally found the responsible uncapped emitter. I had to dig deep, and imagine the removed tree that water used to sustain. I had to take a good look around, finding that bermudagrass on a spectrum – from tan to yellow to pale spring green to deep summer green – persisted all along the ridge where I stood. Add some extra water, and green bursts from tan. Now, the cap is in place, but still I dig. Thank you, bermudagrass, for keeping me alert, for keeping me fit, and for being a living thread from past to present.

A Grand Tree

 By Anna Van Devender

Grandpa with his coffee – the inviting shade of the tree was a natural place to relax.

We got to use loppers. Chomping the moist flesh of African Sumac shoots had a satisfaction all its own. Weighing choices of which branches need to go and which should grow – that felt big. The tree was big, its two main limbs easily holding 3 of us cousins. The rough bark steadied our hold as we shimmied, stepped, sat, or straddled. Wispy leaves shrouded us slightly from our families below. Leaves became dolls, crowns, brooms. An overabundance of leaves, of branches, of growth, impeded our climbs and crowded the house we called ours. So we pinched off the newest shoots, feeling sticky with fluorescent green tree juice and sure in our work. And Granny lent us her loppers, the prize tool, for the older growth. We were blissfully recruited into trimming her tree.

Were it not for the weedy nature of that African Sumac tree, I may not have grown to love tending my landscape. I love weeds for nudging me to pay attention, be diligent, get outside. I love weeds for not being tidy, for giving me satisfying work to do. As a young teenager, I played regularly in a giant weed. It fed my imagination, my connection with my cousins, my pride in literally reaching new heights.

In 9th grade biology, I picked African Sumac about which to write a report on a favorite plant. The source available to me may have been a book about Arizona plants, or about North American landscape trees. It did not, I discovered, include my favorite tree. I switched subjects to a houseplant I admired instead. In which book might I locate African Sumac now? Of all my own plant books, of natives and not, I only find brief mention of my former favorite in a Sunset guide. The on-line resources I now have at my fingertips would have both satisfied my research and surprised my naïve enjoyment: objective database listings and recommendations for this easily grown shade tree, as well as admonitions against this invasive non-native: a plant to not plant, a plant to contend with.

Granny showcased her flowers in the center of the yard. The tree played practical roles – shade, screen, and playspace – in the background.

Weeds come in all sizes and forms, as do children’s relationships with the outdoors. The hours upon months upon years I spent in my grandparents’ yard in central Phoenix, combined with the trusting relationships fostered there, helped me love stewardship of natural places. My own adult yard looks nothing like that green paradise – xeriscaped not irrigated, wildflowers not rose gardens. It’s a product of a different city, a different time, and different choices. But it has ample places for my kids to play and come up with their own favorite features. Some days they adopt brittlebush seedlings, and other days they beat back brittlebush armies with light sabers. And I enjoy pulling weeds within earshot of their imaginings.