Last week Chris and I were pulling out weeds that had come up by the peppers. In late May we transplanted the pepper plants into plastic mulch. The mulch stops the weeds from growing in the beds, but a few weeds always take advantage of the little bit of light that comes through the holes we make for the transplants. Any weeds growing up through those holes in the pepper rows, however, started out at a serious disadvantage because they had to grow from seed while the peppers went into the ground as vigorous foot tall transplants. Any fight for sunlight and nutrients and water would clearly seem to favor the larger plants. Granted, peppers are not exactly native to this climate, but we have had a lot of sun and heat recently, which should have made them feel at home enough to settle in and put down any attempts by upstart weeds to take over.
The peppers have grown in the past six weeks–a bit. They are seriously short of beingthe pepperplants I dream of (some day we will wander in the cool shade beneath our towering pepper bushes harvesting peppers without having to stoop). But theyhave good color and are branching out well enough and some of them might be a tad taller than when we transplanted.
The weeds grew rather a lot more. We pulled out a pigweed plant from right next to a pepper that was easily two feet tall and had a woody stem about as big around as a quarter. It is possible, I suppose, that the pepper had in fact managed to stunt this pigweed, and that but for the pepper we would have needed a chain saw to take it down. Even if that is the case, it had nonetheless produced a remarkable amount of vegetative material in very little time, and not under the most promising conditions.
If I had stuck a pepper seed under a foot tall pigweed plant six weeks ago I doubt, sadly, that I would now have a two foot tall pepper plant and a one foot tall pigweed. In fact, I doubt I would have any pepper plant at all. What, I cannot help wondering, does a pigweed know about growing that peppers don’t?
But it is not just pigweed and peppers. Just about all the plant life on the farm has this insatiable urge to grow. It is like a tropical rain forest–except for the rain. I spend a surprising amount of time keeping the edges of the fields mowed, beating back the lush vegetation. And where I don’t mow, shrubs and trees spring up and take over. I would not be surprised to find a boa lounging in the branches of a Sumac tree in a ditch or a rhino peeking out from a wild parsnip patch. Even now, with the top soil turned to dust and the streams dry, the wild plants keep growing out of control.
The cultivated plants, on the other hand, grow at a more decorous pace befitting their advanced
breeding. Not for them the crassly fecund rush upward and outward of your average hedgerow denizen. What they lack in low class vitality they make for in good taste. Oh, sure, you can eat plenty of weeds. I have tried a number of them: Lamb’s Quarters, Purslane, Burdock, Foxtail, Wood Sorrel, Wild Mustard. Shot down behind enemy lines, you might be grateful for them. But there’s a clear reason why we have chosen to cultivate the plants we do and weed out the rest. I have never eaten a weed remotely as tasty as beets or garlic.
But even beets and garlic and peppers must have started as wild plants and simply been improved by our intervention. Improved in the sense that we made them taste better, made the edible portion bigger, and made them come back the same year after year, all useful things for farmers and eaters. Somewhere along the line, however, we seem to have bred out that wildness, that unfettered growth, that irrepressible desire to make the most–at least, in terms of biomass–of sun and soil and water.
To be honest, I am not sure I really want my crops to grow so vigorously that I have to keep them in check with a flail mower. And to be fair to my vegetables (or most of them), given the right conditions they can put on some decent growth themselves. But sometimes I cannot help wishing our crops, challenged by their feral cousins, could dredge up some ancient memory of unchecked vitality and put that pigweed in its place. That would save us the job of having to pull up the pigweed, and it would help me get over my constant slight sense of guilt that the plants under my care are not growing like weeds because of something I have done. Which I suppose in a way–insofar as I represent a long line of farmers bent on taming plants–is true.