The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

My backyard skin

Are we inexorably drawn to the things we knew deeply and warmly when we were little?

arialIn Maji, Ethiopia, my backyard wasn’t neat or cozy.  It was full of frogs and bugs and plants that we pulled apart and stitched together in our games.  It stretched outward to that path that led to a waterfall, the one my sisters and I ran up and down telling stories abut the curled fern tips we called our water babies.  We were outside all the time.

1 bek751All too soon, my kids were young gardeners and our back yard had a big vegetable garden that gobbled up hours of spring and summer.

1 weeds (1)When I moved to Portland, I was less interested in a big vegetable garden than in plant choices that would support the lives of bees and butterflies and birds. I turned a patch of grass in front into ground cover and started looking around the scruffy back yard and trying to identify weeds.  This one, I thought, was a charmer.  That was before it started sending its roots crawling and its seeds flinging everywhere.  Oops!

(I must say I haven’t given up vegetables completely.  I’ve grown tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and some champion kale here.  This year it’s flowering–still good to eat.)


Last year, I was a weed dabbler.  This year, I’m obsessed.

In my quest to identify the Big Bad Bully weeds, I found a form on the web and filled it out.  This week, the Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon Society will send a volunteer to look at my back yard, help me identify the worst invaders, and come up with a plan for better backyard habitat.

???????????????????????????????I do already have BETTER backyard habitat than I once did.  But one of the big offenders–ivy–sprawls over the fence between our neighbors and us and climbs the neighbor’s trees.  I’d have to take care of that to even have a Silver Certified Backyard Habitat.  A Gold or Platinum means people have “taken heroic measures to remove invasive weeds, increased stormwater management on-site, and created beautiful habitat for local wildlife.”

???????????????????????????????(What is this weed??  I’ll find out!)

I am YEARS from silver.  Now I know Lanie was probably years from silver, too, even if I did give her a great yard.  But my outside genes pull me into the back yard almost every day identifying all kinds of weeds–and looking at them in my neighbors’ yards, too.  Alas.

???????????????????????????????I now know bindweed and toadflax (sigh…I thought it was snapdragon and had welcomed it) and pokeweed (can’t believe we let two specimens get HUGE and grow fat, fleshy roots), and weedy fennel (I proudly asked a master gardener at the farmers’ market what this aromatic herb was) and henbane and chickweed and a bunch of others.

???????????????????????????????And here’s the hopeful thing.  I spaded up a bunch of crabgrass and other scruff in this spot by the street and planted a few steppables last year.  (Have I said how much I love steppables??)

???????????????????????????????A year later, it already looks like this.  Friends of Trees also planted that tree, by the way.

maji514The best thing is that I feel like that shirtless kid again, loving the feel of the earth on my skin.

5 thoughts on “My backyard skin”

  1. Charming description of an earthy gardener. My chickweed, henbane, hen-bit, and that sticky weed grown quite well in my Kansas gardens.

    • Yes, LeAnn and I had a great time talking about plants when I was in Kansas doing my Ethiopia Reads events a few weeks ago–and I spent some time in the car reading her book of Kansas wildflowers–and it was pretty clear that the same invasive plants have probably traveled everywhere, including some of them on purpose. I was suspecting Star of Bethlehem had invited itself into my yard, and driving through Newton I hollered to Leonard, “Stop the car!” and got out and looked at a plant in a park and looked up Star of Bethlehem in the book–and, sure enough, that was it in the Kansas park and weeks later when it bloomed in my Portland yard that was also it :> Such a pretty plant but because of the teeny bulbs impossible to confine and keep from taking over.

    • It turns out a LOT of the invasive stuff is edible–in fact, some of it was spread across the US by settlers because of that. I ate chickweed in my salads this spring. But the pokeweed is too totally aggressive for my tastes, so I’ll only frown at it (for now, anyway). Hee hee.

  2. Hi Jane!

    I’m a representative for Scott’s Lawn Service and would like to introduce you to a great weed identification guide on our website. it has pictures of weeds, identification information, control methods etc. It should be pretty useful for identifying your weeds.

    If you have any questions at all don’t hesitate to contact me or ask!


    -Scotts Lawn Care Representative


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