Tag Archives: prairie restoration

Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride. It is available in print form on Amazon.com. 

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The real meaning of prairie

ConeflowerIn 1973 our high school biology Robert Horlock put the word out to students that he would like to have help on a visionary project to re-establish a prairie at the Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles, Illinois. The project began with humble scratching in the dirt. Each of us was assigned a 15′ X 15′ plot from which we removed all grass and weeds. We worked in summer’s heat and then turned the soil enough to make way for a seed stock of prairie plants that our teacher had gleaned with permission from remnant prairies.

These were precious tools and a vision that was both far ahead of its time and far too late to recover the true scope and scale of the Illinois prairie. What remained of that once massive ecosystem was 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie. The wet and tallgrass prairie had once flowed west from the dunes of Chicago beyond the Mississippi all the way to eastern Colorado. Settlers described it as an ocean of grass, but it was more than that. It was flowers blooming from June through October. Tough flowers with deep roots and flame tolerance.

The prairie was indeed both a beautiful and unforgiving place. It was filled with snakes that bit and wolves that roamed. Reaching back 10-15,000 years in earth’s geological history, the prairie grew on soils crumbled and dumped by retreating glaciers. Onto this expanse roamed large animals and small ones too. The diversity was enormous, and prairie chickens were common as hens.

Rattlesnake masterBut it was all gone thanks to development and the fertile soils created by the prairies. These riches were sectioned and cordoned by barbed wire and agribusiness. The prairie was shoved into tiny corners next to railroad tracks.

Our teacher Bob Horlock ushered us to these treasured remnants. We stared in awe at lilies taller than our heads, and sensitive plants that recoiled when touched. We learned about prairie dock and compass plant, coneflowers and shooting stars. These we saw in pictures, for the most part.

But then we planted, and waited. Within a year the first nibs of real prairie plants came up. We had to weed to keep the ugly plants at bay. But our plots bore prairie plants that had not seen the light of day in that part of Illinois for 150 years. And we were proud.

We learned the different between big bluestem and little bluestem. We watched as those greenish blue stems turned to russet red in fall. From a distance the prairie in autumn is a rusty orange, The husks of dark prairie dock leaves are speckled like aging skin.

In spring, we burned the prairie to knock back weedy plants and allow the prairie its full strength in competition.

One year’s efforts was followed by another. The “prairie” we were growing expanded in size and depth. Treasured rare species of plants like cream and blue wild indigo were brought in. Many Butterfly weedof these were negotiated for introduction by Horlock and his cohorts at the Morton Arboretum and Fermi Lab. Ray Schulenberg and Gerould Wilhelm were instrumental in this new prairie movement. So was the peripatetic plant specialist Dick Young, whose book about wild plants in Kane County is considered a bible for many to this day.

Bob Horlock was a visionary who motivated many young people to enter the sciences. I tried that path myself before recognizing that my lack of aptitude in the study of genetics and chemistry would likely be a  problem. But our many birding jaunts with Bob Horlock fueled that interest and my pursuit of art in college combined to turn me into a wildlife artist.

To this day while walking through a prairie I cannot help thinking of Bob Horlock. He actually passed away from a heart attack doing what he loved. He was supervising the burn of the Garfield Farm Prairie when his heart gave out. Unfortunately Bob was a smoker for years. But despite the fact that the physical presence of Bob Horlock left this world in 1993, when he was just over 50 years old, his legacy exists in every prairie plant that graces today’s gardens throughout the Midwest. Men like Bob Horlock popularized the use of native plants in Illinois and beyond. Entire nurseries are now dedicated to perennials that grow in urban and suburban gardens. We see them in planting beds in the City of Chicago. We see them at the entryway to golf courses, and on the golf courses themselves. The prairie may be a whisper of what it once was, but it is still talking to us.

But I loved the man Bob Horlock because his voice was not always a whisper. At his funeral many great stories of his leadership were told, and I learned that he was an avid singer in his church choir. He had a deep base voice and he used it to good effect while teaching and instructing. You knew he was a man of both authority and good judgment. His students respected the fact that he fully expected them to learn what he shared with them.

Cardinal FlowerAnd yet he knew when the learning was through. During one afternoon field trip our class had worked in the sun and heat for three hours when one of the more raucous boys in our class pushed a female classmate into a cold running stream. She emerged with a see-through shirt and Bob turned on his heel and told me, “You tell everyone to come back to the bus. I have to leave right now. Go find that girl an extra shirt.” We did what he told us.

Yet Bob was no phony saint. During his funeral one former student stood up and said, “Well, Mrs. Horlock, I agree with all the great things these people have said about your husband Bob. But I have to say that every dirty joke I ever learned was from your husband.”

The entire crowd of people roared at that anecdote. Because it was true. In fact I always knew our birding trip was through for the day when Bob turned his head with a grin on his face and said, “Say, did you the hear the one about the…” and from there it was all laughter and relaxation.

There is a stone commemorating Bob’s life at the Horlock Hill Prairie in St. Charles. I speak to it every time I run or ride by, for it sits at the head of the Great Western Trail, a converted railroad bed that runs from St. Charles to Sycamore 17 miles west.

And I walk by my personal prairie plot and think of how deep those roots now fun into the ground. It has been 40 years since they were planted. So many spring and summer and fall days those plants have faced the sky. And winter’s too. The prairie will never be what it once was, but for me, it will always be what it became again. A place to sink down roots, and to remember: All great things start with an idea and a vision.

Yet the prairie is truly a community. It is not one plant or one thing. It is many plants and many things working together. That’s the most important lesson of all.