Goutweed As an Ethic

Some of you may remember the ethical dilemma that goutweed posed for me last year, where I ended up compromising my organic principle in order to make my yard into something other than a goutweed farm.  I am now discovering, however, that even herbicide is not capable of eradicating goutweed completely.  Here and there, poking through the mulch or creeping up from around rocks and shrubs, those distinctive little leaves are beginning to emerge in my garden.

I was lamenting about this to a neighbourhood woman this morning.  She is an older but not elderly woman, retired, and she was taking her daily walk past our house.  She stopped to chat, as she does when anyone is out in their yard, and I explained to her about my goutweed woes.  Her reply took some time.  She never speaks quickly, and she has a deliberate way of laying a broad foundation for anything she is going to say, but her point was essentially this:  Goutweed is something that you fight but not something that you beat.

She told me that she had at one point actually planted goutweed in her yard, the variegated kind that has white edges to its green leaves.  She liked the look of it, and it was a fabulous groundcover that was tolerant of almost any conditions, shade or sun, wet or dry.  She soon noticed, however, that it was attacking her lawn and choking out some of the smaller flowers.  She first tried just digging it back, but it always seemed to sprout worse than before.  She then tried spraying it, but it came back the next year, only without the variegation.  She tried everything, but in the end, she was reduced to digging it out by hand, every spring, wherever she found it.  She does this still.  She waits until there has been a heavy rain, like last night, and then she looks for where there are sprouts, digs around them, and tries gently to pull out as much of the root with it as she can.

She has been at this for something like fifteen years, she says, and this year she has only found two sprouts.  She is hopeful that she will find none next year, though she is unwilling to make any wagers.  When I showed her the extent of my former goutweed plantation, she apologised and guessed that I might be at it as long as she has been, but she then said something quite profound.  She said, “By the time it’s gone, you’ll have been fighting it for so long you’ll almost miss it.”

Suddenly, the whole goutweed problem was changed for me.  It ceased to be something that needed an immediate solution.  It became a quality, however disgareeable, of this place where I live.  I did not lose any of my desire to root it out, but I gained a kind of appreciation for what it was.  The task of fighting it, in that moment, become part of the labour of my home, part of the ethic of my home, something to be undertaken and even to be enjoyed, no matter how difficult, because it is bound up in the labour and the ethic of the home.  It became something, even, perhaps, though I do not yet see how, that I might miss when it is gone, fifteen years from now.

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4 comments
  1. i think you should buy a flame-thrower and just set them ablaze once a week when they come up. then they will give you and your home the added joy of setting things on fire on a regular basis.

    p.s. yes i am commenting on this while on tour. im in Fredericton… everyone else is still sleeping and im bored as hell!

  2. Andy,

    I think igniting petroleum products as a weed killer might violate my organic principle. On the other hand, it might also give a certain smoky flavour to my vegetables.

  3. I’m in Nova Scotia, and on a mission to eradicate the goutweed that’s taking over the yard at my new home … although we’ve spent hours on digging out the flower bed at the side of the house, we’re not near the end … or the beginning of the end. It still feels like we’re at the beginning of the beginning. This is going to be a fight.

    I’m going to take on the back half of the yard with a weed whacker tonight … and blast the hell out of it with Roundup when it comes back.

    And, for the record, my first idea for handling it was “cover it with gas and set it on fire” … but, sadly, we’re not even allowed backyard bonfires in my neighbourhood.

  4. Bonfires are not permitted in my neighbourhood either, but I have had people tell me that the stuff will grow back from the roots even if the visible plants are burned, so it may not have helped anyway, except as therapy.

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