Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Even untamed, Mother Nature yields an oasis

A monarch caterpillar munches on milkweed in the author’s backyard in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Alison Gowans/The Gazette)
A monarch caterpillar munches on milkweed in the author’s backyard in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Alison Gowans/The Gazette)
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There is little I find more satisfying than pulling weeds after the rain.

For four summers, I have been attempting to tame what I fondly refer to as my jungle — a/k/a my backyard. I bought my house in the middle of winter, when a thick blanket of snow masked the truth of the overwhelming green life lying dormant. When spring came, I discovered the former homeowner’s garden maintenance plan seemingly had been to just let every plant in existence take over the yard. Fully two thirds of it was overgrown.

The raspberry patch at the back of my property was more like a raspberry forest. As I pared it back, I found the short fencing that had marked its original boundary buried 10 feet or so back in the brambles.

Towering ornamental grass, which I now consider my personal nemesis, created a small prairie in one corner of the yard, with thick stalks and stubborn, long roots I spent a summer trying to eradicate. Other weeds had taken over what clearly were once carefully curated flower beds and spilled well into the middle of the grass.

I can tell there was once a plan to all this green madness, as I will occasionally find evidence, like that raspberry patch fencing, or the perennial ghosts of gardens past.

Asparagus, garlic and rhubarb all have emerged as I’ve pulled out the weeds, to my general delight. Someone planted rose bushes and a lilac tree and hydrangeas, which still flower.

I suppose it is a testament to the power of Mother Nature. Left to nature’s devices, this yard and house would soon be overtaken.

Creeping bindweed vines steadfastly are attacking the wooden fence at the back of my yard; I need to replace two slats that gave in to a coordinated assault by the vines and the weather and collapsed. More of that dratted ornamental grass grows up through the siding into my garage, and I have to continually cut back a small tree trying to push up through the steps of my back porch.

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It is a lesson in humility, trying to tame a garden. You cannot control the weather, or bugs (Japanese beetles are my other nemesis), or whether a rogue squirrel or chipmunk will dig up your seedlings. (It has happened.) If you neglect things for a week or even just a few days, plants may wither from lack of water, weeds will creep in, your basil will go to seed. Neglect things for a season, or several, and you get to stop calling it a garden and start calling it a jungle.

All you can do is patiently carry on, pruning here, weeding there, spreading some compost, putting down some mulch. For me, this is therapeutic. I spend most of my day in front of a computer, so getting up and outside and working with my hands in the fresh air in the evenings is a blessing.

Being plugged into the news cycle that blares forth as I sit at that computer can feel overwhelming. There are missing students and children separated from their parents, bombing victims in Syria and protesters shot in Zimbabwe. There are dire warnings about climate change and massive forest fires in California and worries about the disappearing bees. The actions we’re told to take — vote, donate, maybe recycle more — don’t feel like enough.

So when I head into my garden, after a deluge of rain, yanking out the encroaching weeds feels good. I try to translate that feeling into the world around me. Maybe the daily actions we take won’t ever stop the chaos around us from creeping in. But we can try, one planted seed and pulled weed at a time.

Three summers ago, I planted spindly milkweed seedlings in my yard, and this is the first summer they’ve grown fully and flowered. As I type this, sitting on my back porch, a monarch is fluttering around them, perhaps looking for a place to lay her eggs.

I like the thought that I’m doing all this work not just for me, but for her, and for the bees I see buzzing between my day lilies. Maybe things aren’t so overwhelming, after all.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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