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These Weeds Aren't Made for Whacking

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There's a lot more to know about weeds than most people expect. In fact, there are quite a few surprises there if you become familiar with the plant life growing in an uncultivated field--especially on a vacant city lot.

The Detroit Urban Garden Education Series provides hands-on workshops twice a month at various locations all over the city. I came to a workshop on edible ecology for the purpose of capturing the spirit of the people involved in the community gardens.

The Hope Takes Root Garden was the scene of the workshop. It is located in North Corktown on Wabash and Temple Streets, not far from Downtown and just a few blocks away from the majestic and still used Masonic Temple. A large swath of vacant land surrounds the garden, which is enclosed by a white bar fence reminiscent of the urban renewal fences that dotted the city in the early 1970s. The only buildings around are a few houses--some lived in and some vacant--and a liquor store on the corner.

About a dozen women came to the workshop that started around 6 p.m. but only after they took a look at the garden and visited with each other. It was unclear to me whether the participants knew each other, but it was an instantly lively group that exchanged information and pleasantries before then got down to the serious business of learning about edible plants. They brought pens and paper with them for notes.

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The workshop convener eventually asked everyone to gather around in a space that had a makeshift table located on the outer edge of the garden near the apple trees. Large tree logs that had been sheared of their bark and smoothed on their tops served as chairs.

Ashley Atkinson, director of the Greening of Detroit, was there, too. She brought some bright orange five-gallon buckets which, when turned over, provided additional seating.

The workshop leaders were Patrick Crouch, manager of Earthworks, who introduced himself and Julie Cotton. Julie is a graduate student at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is writing a thesis on Detroit's community gardens and how disinvestments in the city have led to food scarcity, real estate speculation that threatens to displace residents and an increase in vacant lots where Nature has taken over.

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The first objective of the workshop was for participants to recognize edible urban vegetation and the role they play for the soil. Secondly, they would learn how human beings influence the presence of this vegetation and what effect the "weeds" have on other plants in a garden. Thirdly, in order to foster biodiversity, gardeners need to know what happens to the plants that are intentionally cultivated.

After the participants briefly introduced themselves and stated their motivations for coming to the workshop, Patrick and Julie asked us to take a walk around the garden and in the open field across the street to notice the types of weeds growing in the area and their patterns of growth. Flowers on the plants were a good clue, but participants were also advised to notice the types, size, leaves and where they found each plant.

After 15 minutes of collecting plants in the field across the street, two boys returned with their plants and layed them on the makeshift table. One of them excitedly showed Julie a plant with teeny tiny bugs crawling all over the stem.

"These are aphids," she said. "The ladybugs love them."

Aphids are one the most destructive insect pests on Earth, explained Julie. They can migrate great distances by riding on winds or by tagging along on humans. Their saliva is toxic to plants and affect their growth rates and yields, leave mottled leaves, cause yellowing, browning or wilting, and even kill them.

Another participant wandering among the tomato plants discovered a caterpillar with parasitized white wasp eggs on it.

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"What a find!" said Julie congratulating her. "These wasp eggs are taking care of your caterpillar problem." "They're doing your work for you." Caterpillars strip the leaves off the tomatoes and can ruin the plant.

Once everyone returned from collecting plants, we all took our seats. Patrick held up a Queen Anne Lace plant and began asking questions about people's observations and experience with it. Then he explained that the plant is a biennial, which means it has a life cycle of two years. The first year the plant is a vegetative and it stores sugars in its roots. The second year it develops a flower and becomes woody.

One participant had noted that near the Queen Anne's lace was another plant with leaves that resembled a carrot's. Patrick passed around the plant and had the people smell the root. It smelled like a carrot. In fact, it was a wild carrot with a small, edible knob to it.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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