In the Weeds The COVID-19 Chronicles: It's the little things

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This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at

By Peter Hiller

I’m smart enough to know that the COVID–19 pandemic has not changed the number of weeds in my yard, and that weeds are nowhere near as important as the suffering that is taking place worldwide, but maybe being sheltered in place has provided a little more time to think about those weeds. If they act as a distraction during these troubling times that might not be so bad.

We live in a nice house in a working-class neighborhood, one that is perfect for trick-or-treating when the time comes around each year. Over the 37 years we have been here, we have increased the interior living space as our family grew, and thus reduced the amount of ground outside. We have an ample amount of what we jokingly call P of O pride of ownership, not to be confused with pissed off, as when the dishwasher leaks and needs replacing.

Initially, we inherited the garden that the previous owner had left, but after two floods, the two additions and some tree removal, we have slowly made the modest garden our own. It is very nice in our eyes but designed more around what we like than the deliberate intention of what a designed landscape would have offered — in other words, it is kind of eclectic.

We have a small area we call a lawn, if a lawn can be a green collection of weeds. The old-fashioned push mower that came with the house used to work just fine to manage the area until the roots of a fast growing Podocarpus tree in the same area erupted to the surface and caused the mower to hit wood instead of grass. Consequently, I use an electric, string weed- wacker on that area as need be — the frustrations of trimmers is another story.

There are enough planted areas and ground that we cannot escape having to pull weeds throughout the year. It isn’t something I always look forward to, but I do understand it must be done. Keep in mind, it is just me pulling them, trying to be organic — no sprays.

When the time comes, like the last couple of weeks, out comes the gear — the gloves, knee pad (a gift from my wife) and the five-gallon bucket. I know I should be using a hand trowel but that just seems to slow down the job and inevitably hurts my wrist. After wearing out several different types of gloves, I am currently pretty happy with a knit pair that have rubber palms and finger areas. They do really seem to help grip the weeds as advertised. The knee pad helps as well as I am down on all fours while pulling the weeds. The bucket gets dragged after me and provides a good excuse for me to get up and walk to the greens bin to empty it each time it fills up, thus stretching different muscles.

As for the weeds, they provide constant amusement. It is curious how our weeds vary from our neighbor’s. I definitely have my own familiar set, weeds that reappear all the time so I am very aware of their characteristics.

At the risk of leaving some out, there are the tall and straight grasses — probably (I did a little research before writing this) quack grass, crab grass, and nutsedge, all with their wide spreading roots. Sometimes I get lucky when one gets away from me and gets really big – ultimately a big clump makes them much easier to pull which is very satisfying. There is also the grass that has me fooled, whether it is a weed or native grass. In either case, it is pretty until it sheds its seeds which cause new clusters of the same to pop up everywhere. These I strategically let go depending on where they are located or hit them with the heat. More on that later.

You can mark next year’s calendar with when the oxalis will appear. It is as predictable as the yellow acacia blossoms of late winter and the ever-present pink naked ladies that appear so you know it is August, signaling the pending end of summer and start of school. I am a little compulsive about the oxalis as no matter how pretty the yellow flowers are, and they are when they light up yards and fields, it spreads like spilled milk. I am determined to prevent their spread in my yard so I immediately dig them out to get to the underground rhizomes that cause the weed to spread.

Then there are the clovers, sweet yellow, white clover and black medic. I don’t object to the way the clovers look, but they have a tendency to come up with multiple stems and get totally intertwined in other plants or in the wires of the gopher baskets which makes pulling them very difficult. They confuse me as they look similar to the oxalis when small but ultimately, they must all go.

One cannot ignore the dandelions. I realize one can eat the leaves but the puffs, which are almost impossible to resist blowing, often end up settling in nearby potted plants. Along with the yellow flowers on tall stems, dandelions deep tap root just knows when it is picked or just cut, as it will return flatter to the ground — it’s getting back at me for pulling its first generation.

While on my hands and knees, I usually deal with the little ivy and holly sprouts that regularly appear. They meet their demise because they take on too many characteristics of weeds. And then, back in the days before I wore gloves, there was the very little sprout that I quickly pulled without giving it much thought until, one rash later, I realized it was poison oak. I have looked before I pulled ever since.

Our front walkway is full of cracks between the row of pavers, our version of a sidewalk. This is the perfect area for weed seeds to germinate, and it is impossible to pull them from the roots. I deal with them based on an experience while visiting an organic farm outside of Watsonville where I witnessed the workers burning the weeds between the rows of apple trees. Since controlled fire is amazing, I bought a small handheld gas torch that I now use to get at those weeds. It is not perfect as again one must burn down to get to the roots, but it is a very nice change of pace when dealing with the weeds.

I had a cousin who turned to painting with watercolors when she retired. The quality of her work progressed quickly which was no surprise because she was a very accomplished and capable person. Curiously, the main subject of her paintings became weeds, often in flower. She elevated these lowly nuisances to fine art which was cause for me to reflect on, as Joni Mitchell said, looking at both sides now. That is the case with the lacy green weed that has pretty purple flowers and which is lovely in the garden, but it covers everything in its path. Fortunately, it is easy to pull once it dries out and turns brown, usually revealing hidden succulents I had forgotten about.

It is time to go as I hear my plants crying that they are being crowded out again, it never stops. If nothing else, this crawling around on my hands and knees, in the dirt, keeps me young and away from viruses.

Peter Hiller

About Peter Hiller

Living, raising a family and working in Monterey County for just 37 years has brought great joy to Peter Hiller. A former local art teacher, Peter finds retirement to be the perfect opportunity to explore his curiosity about numerous matters related to living in this paradise.