The weather this spring in Cambridge has been great for the garden, if not for us humans. Many of the plants that barely made it through the heat of last summer have re-emerged this spring looking lush, green and tall, even in the tiny sidewalk patches I’m trying to cultivate.
I made two major changes this spring:
First, we removed the boards from around the edges of the plots. These were built by one of my neighbors when we first moved to Cambridge Cohousing, around 1997, and served then as a visual notification that we cared about this property. Over the years, though, as they’ve gradually fallen apart, we decided not to maintain them and started taking them off, one by one. The partly boarded/partly not arrangement had started to look – to my eyes – kind of scraggly, and seemed to signal to passerby that it was fine to drop your trash or not pick up after your dog. We took off all the boards, and now, with softer dirt edges around all the plots, this has become a much friendlier and safer sidewalk for anyone with wheels – people using wheelchairs, people pushing strollers, and the occasional sidewalk bicycle rider (mostly children).
Second, I mulched all of the plots. With the boards off, I was concerned that the “natural” dirt edges would signal “nobody cares about these areas” and attract more trash. So when the commercial landscaper came to plant our main lawn fence border, we got extra mulch, and I used a bunch to mulch over the little plots. I didn’t realize what an impact this would have, but it’s made all of the beds look like they are “formal” gardens, and the plants are planned, not weeds. We’ve seen much less dog poop and litter in the plots since I made these two changes. I hope it continues, even when the rain stops!
Weeds grow up among the cracks in our sidewalks, along the edges of our driveway, in all the little odd bits of land we don’t tend, and, of course, in our gardens. I can’t take out all of the weeds, and truth be told, I really don’t want to. I know some of them are horribly invasive, and are blocking out our natives from their toehold in the sidewalk – or killing huge swaths of them out in larger wild areas. But I’m sure some of these weeds are native to this region and support insects and birds, while others, even though they may offer little to the local ecosystem, at least help with the carbon dioxide/oxygen balance.
I wish there was a list of urban weeds that are native to the US northeast. I’ve done some random searches, but haven’t turned up anything close to comprehensive. Any suggestions?
Last year, I got tired of looking at the two empty tree boxes out in front of our property, and decided to start gardening them. This was considered to be pure folly by most of my cohousing neighbors, but if I wanted to work on them, why not? I dug up both spots, sifted out buckets of rocks and debris, adding in buckets of compost, and then moved in a few plants. I planted them mostly with plants I scavenged from other areas, so that if the whole project failed, I would have only lost my investment of time, not money.
I thought I understood the risks when I planted them – hot, sunny, dry spaces; dog pooping, human tramping, car door openings and litter. What I didn’t foresee was violence committed on the plants – whether by dogs, squirrels or humans, I don’t know, but it happens every so often. Yesterday I went out to tend to these spaces and found the Bearded Iris leaves scattered all over the sidewalk, with one of the larger cosmos plants tramped down next to them.
It’s ironic, because I planted these irises specifically to try to discourage people from trampling through the space. Their sword-like leaves look sharp and pointy, and passersby are much less likely to walk into a bed edged with these plants than one that has soft mounds of flowers. Looks like someone decided to do battle with the swords today!
Such are the challenges of gardening in urban spaces.