I've put a lot of time into that patch of ground. I dug up the flat and tepid grass that used to wasted that space, pulled rock after useless rock from the dirt, and added one load of compost after another until the soil was rich and loamy more than a foot down. I've tended that space for the past eight years, trying one crop after another on it, until we finally settled on the strawberries.
The girls love the strawberries we grow there each spring. For two seasons now, it's saved us a tidy handful of dollars at the supermarket for fresh produce, and it's even convinced me, who never met a strawberry that he liked, that those little fruits are something to savor.
Still, a strawberry patch is like a marriage. If you want to keep it healthy, you have to work at it. Keep the plants covered during the chill of winter, make sure they get enough water when those dry periods come, and feed the soil where they live, and you'll be fine. But above all, you've got to watch the weeds.
Weeds are nasty little things. You don't plant them, you don't cultivate them, but they appear all the same and take for themselves all the resources you want the strawberries to have. They suck up the water, they spread their roots into the soil, and their main ambition is to take the sunlight the real plants need to survive. The longer you wait to pull them out, the bigger a problem they become.
It was last year when I really started to fall behind on the weeding. I had other things on my mind, other problems that required my attention, other issues that needed tending. I had stories and essays to write, a free-lance job to work on, questions and doubts I needed to explore, and one thing and another that occupied my attention. I had no shortage of reasons not to concern myself with the ho-hum affairs of weeding.
The worst offender in my strawberry was a weed that almost looks almost like a strawberry plant. It has similarly shaped leaves, grows tiny fruits on stalks, and spreads along the ground like its more reputable cousin. It looks too much like a strawberry plant to be told apart at first glance, while offering none of the rewards.
It's hard to say why I let it go so long. Did I think its fruits would be just as satisfying to us as real strawberries? Was I fearful of pulling up a few good plants by accident? Was I worried that, deeply entangled as they were, that I might damage the strawberry plants if I pulled up the imposters? Or was I just too lazy to be bothered? It's not as though the strawberries weren't still producing a good amount of fruit last year. We were eating fresh berries from our patch the entire season last year.
It doesn't matter. I looked at the patch two weeks ago, and realized I had neglected it for too long.
While I slept, English ivy from my neighbor's yard had crept past the hedge and wound its tendrils into the heart of the strawberry patch I'd planted. Another, inoffensive but aggressive weed had burst into the empty spaces between strawberry plants, and clover had sprawled lazily across the ground. And of course, the unraked leaves from last fall had let maple seedlings sprout by the dozens in the once-hallowed ground.
Once you've let weeds get established, they're difficult to get out, especially those strawberry pretenders. I've found from experience that if you pull the plant from the top, you're only treating the symptom and not the underlying problem. You won't see the weed anymore, now that its stem has been broken off, but as long as the taproot remains, the weed can grow back, and chances are good that when it does, it will come back in more places.
The only solution is to reach down into the soil, get your hand around the knot where stem grows from root, and yank it out. It's a time-consuming process, and when you're done, there's no guarantee you'll be proud of a job well done. A strawberry patch, like many other things, suffers when it goes untended for so long a time. Other people may not know the damage your unfaithfulness and neglect have caused, but you will -- every time you see the spaces and the emptiness where your strawberries are not growing, you'll remember.
God is gracious. Our failings can be forgiven and wiped away, and every time we make the effort to set things right, we can find a new beginning in the garden.
Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.