Sun and weeds begin the garden cycle anew

These days, before the trees fully leaf out, the sun's unabashed rays fill the creek valley with spring's bright light. The place glows with a certain timbre, like the soft glare off old gold. The steaming, humus-rich soil of the woodland is festooned with the early risers, the plants that will mature and set seed before the canopy forms.

Until the garden grows and mulches the soil with its own shady cover, there's an inordinate amount of weeding to do. Today the soil is moist and crumbly after the night's light rain, and the weeds come out easily. I grasp stem and leaves at ground level, rock the plant slightly to one side with a slight pull just barely beyond the point that the plant resists, and the root pops free. I shake it to free the soil still clinging to its roots.

It's good to have dirt under my fingernails again!

Wild mustards dominate the assemblage of weeds now. Garlic mustard fills the borders and shady spots. Peppergrass, pennycress, and rock cress thrive along the roadside. Winter cress prefers open places: its overwintering rosette leaps up when weather conditions soften. It's nearly two feet high now, and waves of its garish yellow blooms cover the field. It invades the garden beds, too: Its taproot is thick but has very little hold; the plants are easily pulled. Those not gone to seed are tossed into the compost pile.

Weeds enjoy a success that's astounding. Our efforts to eradicate them are a little comical – there is no way we'll ever win. The weeding's not unpleasant, though. It's a chance to get a feel for things again, to check the soil's tilth, and to get new green matter into the compost.

You might be surprised at how much I think about that compost pile. The balance of nature's uncontrived give and take creates a balance that our plots don't usually enjoy.

What we ask of the garden is often more than we compensate it for, and then fertility declines. You can feel it: a thinness, even in heavy soil. The color is wan. Composting is essential.

A one-part to two-parts proportion between green materials and brown is a good rule: grass clippings, garden trimmings and weeds; brown leaves and hay. The addition of healthy garden soil and farm manure helps the composting process along. The vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, and other miscellaneous kitchen waste I put in seem to amount to nearly nothing. Adding them to the pile seems hardly worth the effort.

Every couple of days, though, I run the kitchen scraps through the food processor and put it in the bins. It's valuable for its minor nutrients and the microbial diversity it encourages. I push my garden fork into the pile once a week or so; When it seems to give, I turn it, move the dark, crumbly stuff into the garden, and return the rest to the pile.

Good compost can be slow in coming, and there's little we can do but attend to it.

The work nurtures me, though, maybe as much as it nurtures the plants – this giving back to the good earth. Shepherding the utterly common along its way to fostering new life offers a glimpse of the wondrous side.

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