Recently, bending over to remove an Herb Robert from a patch of Bleeding Heart, it occurred to me that hand weeding is the very essence of backyard forest restoration — at least for idealists like myself who are trying to achieve ground covers and shrub layers comprised almost solely of native plants. Weeding can be tedious, especially during the growing season when some areas have to be weeded again and again, but weeding can also be pleasurable.
The Pleasures of Weeding
The first pleasure of weeding is simply time spent outdoors, in the forest and along its edges, breathing clean oxygen-rich air, smelling plants and soil, admiring wildflowers, listening to songs of birds and buzzings of bees. The physical aspects of weeding, the bending over, the stooping down, and the stretching to reach, provide much more interesting workouts than visits to gyms. The results of weeding are rewarding too, especially when past efforts result in areas in which native plants have filled in with such abundance that there are very few weeds to remove.
Weeding takes us to the same microhabitats repeatedly, over months and years, during which we observe nature up close and literally watch plants live and grow (and sometimes die). One result of this is being able to recognize and identify the plants in our backyard forest in all stages of their life cycles. After a while, and with help from experts (print, digital, and live), we know almost all the plants in our forest, and can recognize them at a glance, as in spotting Herb Robert amidst Bleeding Heart. We also begin to understand the plant communities on a larger scale, where certain plants thrive and how their populations change from one year to the next.
Backyard Forest Restoration for the Minimalists
For those who have neither the inclination nor the time for weeding, I would recommend the minimalist approach to backyard forest restoration, consisting of little more than keeping Ivy off of the trees and controlling the most invasive plants. Doing that much will at least help to maintain the health of the mature trees, thereby providing several of the benefits of urban forests including carbon sequestration, neighborhood cooling, slowing of surface water runoff, recharging of aquifers, and erosion control.
Forests in which the understories are dominated by invasive or non-native plants, however, do not provide the broader ecosystem benefits of biodiversity, nor do they provide the same quality of forest experience for humans. That requires the ongoing efforts of people who have learned to appreciate the pleasures of weeding.