Weeds are an evil that cannot be altogether contained in a place like New Orleans in a time like July. They will exist despite your best efforts to stifle them with fresh dirt and any or all of the mulches, be they cardboard, plastic, landscape fabric, or wood chips. Even if you lay concrete over your gardens, it’s going to crack before long, or a bit of dirt will accumulate in that not quite even spot, and there will be weeds. There will be weeds.
And you must weed them. And if you want to weed them less later, weed them better now.
I heard tell from a certain celebrity chef in New Orleans of a yardman who defined weeding as the spraying of weeds with Round-Up. He also swore up and down that Round-Up was totally organic. I am certain this yardman was being honest to the best of his knowledge on both fronts, though whether one should consider themselves a yardman if their knowledge is so limited as this is very questionable.
Weeding does not happen with round-up. Weeds are killed, but so is everything else you love about your garden, especially its heart. Also, Round-up is extremely not organic. It is far less organic than genetically modified foodstuffs. Leave it alone if you care about your soul, or the soul of the universe, which your soul is arguably a part of if you go for that all one Gaia principle on a cosmic scale stuff.
You can plow and rip at the soil to take care of your weeds if you like, till hard, turn the soil, refresh the earth. It will look gorgeous for a few days, but a few days after that you will likely find more weeds than you had the first time around, for you will have unearthed millions upon millions of weed seeds that had lay dormant beneath your garden soil before.
What then, if you cannot till and you cannot spray, can you possibly do? Get on your hands and knees and pull. Pull the weeds up, grab them close to the soil, tug gently but firmly, learn to feel for the loosening of the roots underground so that you may release the entire plant from its mortal coil rather than give it a measly haircut. It is an art form at least as subtle as fly-fishing, and its rewards are many, if less immediately tangible than a filet on the dinner plate.
Pull with your hands and know the soil, learn what lies there, learn what thrives and what withers, and learn how to make what you want to thrive do it’s very best by being there next to it.
Weed frequently. If you allow your weeds to grow tall and put out seed, you will have to conquer their children who will be many and ever so slightly more adapted to your garden. Weed before you allow your weeds to plant their roots so deep that you cannot pull them out with a firm flick of the wrist, or even a bodily tug. Weed often and you will find that as the seasons go on you will not have to weed so often. This is an IRA for your garden, invest now.
And finally, if you have been to the Urban Farmstead or any of our other gardens, remember to do as I say, not as I do.
Lead poisoning will make you stupid. Lead poisoning will make you violent. Lead poisoning will make you sick. Lead poisoning will ruin children and communities and just might be the main cause and perpetuity of systemic urban poverty in this fair city and our great nation. I mean, it’s not, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possibly more than a tiny part of the problem.
Lead is everywhere in New Orleans. We have a storied history of shitty contractors coming around and half-assedly repairing and remodeling homes, especially post Katrina. In terms of lead and dirt this is significant because painters and such frequently scrape paint off of our old houses and leave the chips and debris on the ground to commingle with our topsoil or children’s faces or whatever. That old paint is often lead paint. At least that old paint was often lead paint until a few years ago. Most of it’s in the dirt now, left to commingle with our plants or our children’s faces or whatever.
Keep your children’s faces out of the dirt. They will grow up violent and stupid if you allow them New Orleanian mud pies. Or they’ll die. Keep their faces out of the dirt if you live in any urban space. That lead is everywhere. However, if you don’t live in an urban space, get your kids faces all up in that dirt. It’s probably really good for them. Beneficial microbes and micronutrients and all that.
So I spoke at a farm to table symposium a few months ago as part of a panel on lead poisoning in the city and growing food in the soil here. I butchered it. In a bad way. I stuttered and disregarded my notes completely and gave halted explanations and three word answers to questions, even though I knew exactly what I was talking about and really didn’t feel particularly nervous or any other such public speaking destructive sensation. I don’t know what happened, but it was bad. This here is my attempt at salvation, one I meant to dish up to the universe way back in August when I failed the world with my words. I hope I can offer recompense unto you as well now with these words.
The poison leaded soil that surrounds us is actually safe for you to grow your food in.
Plants that are grown in leaden soil actually take up only a tiny percentage of the lead found in said soil, less than one percent in most cases. There are certain plants, known to some savvy garden types and/or scientists as heavy bio-accumulators and/or phyto-remediators, which actually take up larger portions of heavy metals and other undesirable elements in your dirt. Food that should be avoided in toxic lead soil because of their magnificent nutrient uptake abilities include mustard greens, vetiver, and lemongrass. That’s about it. Sunflowers are known bio-accumulators as well, but we only eat their seed and as such are safe from death and stupidity.
What’s this about seeds? That tiny percentage of lead that plants take into them from the soil, heavy bio-accumulator or no, it goes into any given plant’s stalks and leaves where it is stored, and never finds its way into the plant’s fruits or seed. This means any vegetable or fruit that you eat that is not a leaf is completely all the way safe. Tomatoes, peppers, avocados, persimmons (they’re gross though), ground cherries, whatever. It’s all safe all the way.
All that said, what one must truly fear when gardening in toxic soil is the loose dirt. The lead is in the dirt and it stays in the dirt. Wash your greens and fruits very well, extremely well, when you are ready to eat. Otherwise you will develop ulcers and murderous tendencies.
Also avoid root vegetables if you are growing in toxic soil. There will be soil particles on your root vegetables no matter what. Nobody has the power to clean all of those little nooks and crannies. Nobody. Just leave them alone.
If you’re still scared of the lead, you can bring the pH of your soil up past 6.5 and the lead becomes pretty much unavailable to plants. Unfortunately this is not ideal for most food plants so you might as well give up and as such I’m not going to tell you how to do it. While a pH higher than 6.5 makes lead unavailable, it also makes it hard for most of your veggies to dredge up other much more exciting and healthy, necessary even, nutrients.
If your still scared of the lead after that, put some cardboard down over your compacted, gross, weed seed infested soil and bring in some fresh healthy dirt. It’s what you should’ve done in the first place anyway silly. It’s pretty cheap and it’s really a lot less work in the long run. If you’re here in New Orleans, you’ve got a few cheap bulk options around town. I’m not going to tell you what they are because brand loyalty or something.
So maybe you are wondering now ‘how do I know if there is lead in my soil?’? And I am wondering now how to grammatically deal with me asking you a question wherein you ask me a question. As per your question, the LSU cooperative extension provides this service for a pittance, I think $12 these days but don’t quote me on that, I didn’t do the research. They will test your soil for lead, arsenic, and all manner of dangerous toxic things very accurately. If you look up something like ‘LSU cooperative extension lead test’ online you will find all you need to know. It’s quick and easy and probably important.
(update, I did the research. Go here: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/en/our_offices/departments/SPESS/ServiceLabs/soil_testing_lab/test_schedule/index.htm#SoilSamples. It’s only $5 to test, you will want to purchase a ‘heavy metal test’.)
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.