Organic garden: Do not spray herbicides here

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July 15, 2013
By: Mary Jean Port
Mary Jean Port

Homeowner Beware: “Vegetation Management” may be coming your way soon.

The other day I got a computer-generated call from Xcel Energy saying that tree trimmers would be working in my neighborhood. The big June storm that knocked down thousands of trees and cut out power in the city may have inspired our utility to do more pruning. Preventative maintenance makes sense.

But it turns out that Xcel has the right to come into yards and remove any trees they choose to. I’m not wild about this. Our trees are clustered in the back corner of our lot, right where we hang our hammock, and we could lose our shade.

The phone message also said that the Xcel pruners would be using herbicides on the roots of woody brush, to control it. Herbicides? You gotta be kidding. This year I have put more time and energy than ever (plus compost and water) into our organic vegetable gardens. The power lines run down our alley within spitting distance of our backyard garden beds, and we have nine potted veggie plants right on the alley to catch the best sun.

The season I call “eating the yard” is well under way. First to come in were the greens. Besides making salads with them, I’ve made a pesto out of garden arugula, French sorrel, and mustard and dandelion greens (plus garlic, walnuts, lemon juice, and olive oil). We cook pasta and just load it up with this green glork. It tastes fresh, piquant, earthy — like spring, itself. The snow peas and beans have come on, and they, too, taste green and sweet.

Spray herbicide?

I’ve got tomato, pepper, and eggplant growing in pots on the alley, and these are all robust. The first of the peppers is ready to pick. I am growing an heirloom variety that I have been watching closely. It dates back 5,000 years, to the Incas, and is loaded with purple flowers and small drupes of green fruit purported to be hot on the tongue.

I stand next to my pots and look around at my neighbors’ vegetable gardens, which are on the alley, too.

Spray herbicide?

It used to be that our neighborhood was made up of people middle-aged or older, but young couples have moved in, and many babies and small children live here now. I hear squeals as kids chase each other up and down the alley on bikes, fall, roll around, hear their moms or dads calling to them, get back up, ride back home.

Spray herbicide?

My husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, which, thank God, has been dormant for years. I go to all of his appointments with him. Let me tell you, the oncology unit is a sobering place. People are there to get chemotherapy. Some have no hair. Some are too weak to stand or walk. Because of a suspected causal link, one of the questions the oncologist asked my husband was: Have you been exposed to farm chemicals?

Spray herbicide?

I grow vegetables because I enjoy doing it, and because when you grow your own you get the healthiest, best-tasting food around. But I am also concerned about climate change, and am trying to reduce my family’s carbon footprint. I was recently asked: Do you really make fewer trips to the grocery store in the summer? The answer is yes. We keep extra proteins in the freezer, and beans and grains in the cupboard. We build our meals around what is ready in the garden, and supplement our very local bounty with trips to a farmer’s market within walking distance.

I am especially concerned about Xcel spraying because we have woody shrubs outside our alley fence, just the kind of thing they will be trolling for. These have never come close to reaching the electrical wires. We prune them back a couple of times a year. Okay, sometimes we forget, and the city sends us a reminder. We use hand tools and human energy. No beings are harmed in the process. I went out there today and cut them to the ground. I’m also going to put up a sign asking Xcel not to spray.

I don’t want to sound holier than though. Like you, I am dependent on our electrical grid. But blasting toxic chemicals on lawns or gangly shrubs is hazardous to our health. We have got to move beyond that approach. We know better. Edible landscaping is catching on, and we need to encourage it.

I should say that we are allowed to call Xcel (1-800-895-4999) and ask them not to spray herbicides on our property. I have done so. But the houses on my block are close together, and today the wind speed is 14 miles an hour.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.