If you can’t beat the weeds, eat them

How nature — and marmots — thwarted a plan for an urban garden.

 

One of the advantages of moving from Montana to Spokane, Washington, was the opportunity to grow my own food. The mild climate and rainfall would make gardening much easier, or so I believed. With this in mind, I purchased an old house on an acre lot in the middle of the city. The property had been neglected for years, and in clearing away the brush, I uncovered seven apple trees along with a cherry and a plum tree. 

With five small ponds on the property, I envisioned an urban permaculture project. I would collect rainwater off the roof, plant more fruit trees, and add strawberries and raspberries. The front yard would fill with herbs and perennials, while the back would become one vast vegetable garden. I had big plans.

But first, I needed to deal with the weeds. The hillside below the house, where I envisioned a flourishing orchard, was already covered by a fast-growing invader called “tree of heaven” (Ailanthus altissima). It felt more like hell as I spent the first year clearing out all of the trees and yanking up the knapweed. 

A mature garlic mustard plant.
Fletcher Wildlife Garden

Come spring, I noticed a vibrant green forb carpeting the now sunny hillside where the tree of heaven had once grown. I soon identified my new arrival as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). With a name like that, I thought, what’s not to like? Except that I received notice from the county weed board that it, too, was an invasive species that I was obligated to remove.

The good news was that I figured that, since I had to pull it, I might as well eat it, and garlic mustard soon appeared in my quiche, omelets, stir fry and pesto.

At last, with the backyard cleared, I enthusiastically planted onions, kale, carrots and lettuce, and watched in anticipation as they grew green in the warm April sun. Then the marmots arrived. 

I learned that Spokane is known for its urban marmots, aka “whistle pigs,” which tuck themselves into nearly every rock and cranny in this valley, which is underlain by basalt. Though these large plump rodents are native, marmots have adapted all too well to the city and its abundant food sources — including my garden. And the urban coyotes, it seems, prefer dumpsters and dog food to making an honest living keeping the marmots in check.

By the time I acquired a live-capture trap and found I could use the garlic mustard as bait, the marmots had completely decimated my garden. I now had a big yard, devoid of knapweed to be sure, but also of nearly everything else except for lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), another nutritious leafy green. Then a strange, ground-hugging plant began spreading across the entire yard. After many hours of pulling it out, I decided to look it up and found it was purslane (Portulaca oleracea), also edible. Another weed found its way into sandwich wraps and salads. 

All summer I’d also been actively sniping off an annoying spiky shrub that kept growing out of the stone wall lining my driveway. I noticed that this same plant formed an impenetrable briar patch in the gaps between the trees of heaven. But just like the tree of heaven, the more I cut it back, the more it grew. Then, come fall, I noticed the briar patch was full of small red berries — goji berries (Lycium barbarum) — which make a great addition to smoothies.  

Meanwhile, the marmots had eaten everything but the tomatoes and zucchini, birds had picked all the cherries, squirrels had feasted on all the plums, and my apple trees were infected with coddling moths. Oh, and duckweed and cattails took over the ponds. Nature, it seemed, was determined to thwart all my efforts at gardening.

As I stared at my yard, which was filled with plants and animals — albeit all the wrong species — it occurred to me that this city lot was not a blank canvas upon which I could paint my own version of a garden, but rather its own thriving, hybrid ecosystem. Native and exotic species were forging a relationship in the middle of a human-dominated cityscape. 

I conceded defeat. I gave up farming and embraced gathering. My harvest cycle now goes something like this: In the spring, I collect the leafy greens of garlic mustard, dandelions and lambs quarter. In summer, I collect purslane and cattails, whose young stalks are quite tasty. Come fall, I harvest goji berries and the leaves and seeds of mullein, another exotic species. I even discovered that the bark of tree of heaven can be used to treat malaria, should climate change bring the disease to eastern Washington. Still, I have to admit that I miss growing and harvesting lettuce, carrots and all the rest.

I wonder how marmots taste. 

Greg Gordon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Spokane, Washington.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.