I don’t drink beer. Not because I have anything against beer – on the contrary. Beer has saved many lives throughout history when people otherwise would have drunk dirty water sure to make them sick. To make beer, the water is heated to germ-killing temperatures. They didn’t know about germs before Pasteur, but for beer the water was boiled anyway. However, due to a genetic disorder with a very long name I don’t process alcohol well. So, no beer for me.
Nevertheless, I do know the word “Reinheitsgebot”. Since before Columbus sailed West, German laws have prohibited anything but a few ingredients to be used when making beer. This word keeps popping into my head whenever I remove weeds from my lawn. So, this chapter could just as well have been called “dandelions” or “clover” or… But regardless which unwanted greens keep appearing, the word that keeps appearing is “Reinheitsgebot” – cleanliness decree.
It makes me feel bad.
I feel bad for several reasons. The first reason is that dandelions are beautiful. I look out the window and see this sprinkle of small suns dot the lawn. Yellow flowers are invigorating. But I know those buggers. In my native language, their name is “Milk Pail” because of the white sap that leaves spots all over the carpet if you drag it in on your feet – and on your clothes, if you rest on the lawn.
Another reason for feeling bad is because I constantly have this notion of “who am I that I have the right to decide what is to grow here?” It is a pretty stupid question. It is my lawn; naturally, I have a right to decide. I am already politically correct by not spraying for weeds but removing the invaders by hand and asparagus knife.
But I am also an immigrant – a proverbial dandelion among the grasses – so it feels personal to me. If I keep my head down, I may blend in and you may not notice me. But should I burst into full flowering – who knows if somebody will come with a spray of Round Up or an asparagus knife? I know it is not likely to happen. After all, this is the USA and not the home of The Tall Poppy Syndrome. Keeping your head down is something I learned back in “ye ole country”. You can take a Dane out of Denmark, but it is hard to take Denmark out of Danes.
A third reason it makes me feel bad is that this “herbicide”, this elimination of one species for the sake of another, keeps associating with a German word. It should be superfluous to go into details about why this association. But it feels unfair. Particularly since the German people seem to have taken responsibility for the atrocities of their ancestors and have tried to make amends.
Allow me to digress: I once tried to grow asparagus. It didn’t turn out so well. Not because the plants didn’t grow but because we were “taken over by science”: between building a veg bed and harvesting anything from said bed, we learned that it was so easy to get old wooden railway sleepers because they were painted with carcinogenic tar. So, probably not the best material for building a veg bed.
Still, I have an asparagus knife. It is a handle with a foot-long metal rod ending in a small prong. The idea when harvesting asparagus is that you can cut the stem far down in the middle of the soil which, if you want to grow white asparagus, has been heaved up around the growing plant. Consequently, this knife is excellent if you want to cut something deep down in the ground – like a dandelion root.
I think I may have mentioned my ambivalent relationship with dandelions?
Some plants have a tap root – carrots being a well-known example – and some plants can regenerate if the top of the plant is severed as long as the root is still there. Consequently, if you want to assure that you don’t have to weed out the same plant more than once, you must get the root out.
The asparagus knife is excellent for this purpose: Down in the ground next to the plant at an angle, a slight twist, and snap, crackle, and pop, up comes the whole plant with usually most of the root attached. It is important to get the sound because that means that the root has let go. Regrettably, your lawn may have a few pox marks afterwards – but they say aeration is good for the soil.
Weeding is a strange waste of time. I can pull out every plant with a flower and when I turn around there is just one more. Where did that come from? Am I going blind? Is it a game the plants are playing where they keep the flower closed until I have passed by and puff, they unfold? I go back to pull out the straggler and puff, out of the corner of my eye there comes another. I have read that our peripherical sight is really lousy and that the brain makes up all sorts of “this is probably what you see out there” scenarios based on what it believes to be most likely. That explains a lot. Because after all there is more green than yellow – at least when I have pulled 50 dandelions out. I have started to cheat and pull out anything looking remotely like a dandelion, regardless of whether it is flowering or not.
I have noticed a difference between the plants in my backyard and those in my front yard. The backyard dandelions are sorry excuses for themselves. They have 3-5 small leaves and typically one flower. When I get them out, they have a 1” root the thickness of spaghetti. This is the lawn that gets watered and cut regularly. The front yard dandelions show a totally different kind of majesty. Many of them have 3-4 flowers in various stages of blooming on the same plant, a dozen leaves, and a root like a pencil. This lawn is a meadow where for years only the good Lord watered the dandelions, clover, … but no tall poppies.
I am sure some can find a lesson or two hidden in here somewhere about the quality of our drinking/irrigation water compared to what the good Lord provides; about the advantages of growing up uncoddled in an age where grit seems a much-lauded personality trait; about monoculture – the backyard lawn – vs the diversity of the front yard meadow.
The more – and in this case quite literally – down-to-earth explanation is probably that I look into my backyard more often and see the plants the first time they have a flower.
Out comes the asparagus knife and snap, crackle, and pop – twenty dandelions later my back makes funny sounds.