Shovelling Water

Having finished my last, last-ever project, I turn my attention to the embarrassingly overgrown strips of garden flanking our community mailboxes. City property, for sure; just as surely, property on which no City employee has set foot in the last 13 years. Without *some* feet on the ground it would be a completely overgrown tangle of (ob)noxious weeds, the highly successful burdock among them.

Burdock is used for skin problems, stomach problems,
joint swelling, and other conditions,
but there is no good evidence
to support its use for any condition.

Having removed several wheelbarrows-full of burdock from this copse when we first moved in, I feel qualified to amend this statement.

There is no evidence of any sort
to support even the existence of burdock.
– IsabelG, WebGARDENER

Burdock would have to be the combined cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease to make up for its obnoxious trait of latching lamprey-like onto any fabric or hairy or furry surface. When I was still a novice in its ways, I myself pulled its burrs out of my hair, along with hair out of my head.


To be fair, some dedicated back-to-the-landers give foraging instructions for burdock. To be clear, these come with caveats.

There are three edible parts: the young central stalk, which makes excellent food but is only available during a short time in the early summer; the petioles, or leaf stalks, which have a longer season but are a great deal of work to prepare; and the root, which this article will focus on….

Burdock is a biennial…. the only roots worth gathering grow from first-year rosettes. By the time the stalk has grown, the food value has left the root.

Getting burdock roots out of the ground is challenging…. seek out places where several burdocks grow together in a tight clump. Then, dig a two- to three-foot-deep hole next to the plants.

OK, I was going along with the gag until I hit the bit about looking for a spot with several burdocks growing together: A clump like that could permanently ensnare a large dog or small human, and they don’t even give a safety warning. Something appropriate like:

There is no known safe distance from burdock.

As for digging a “two- to three-foot hole” near said clump to harvest its roots, well, no.

Luckily, the burdock, while the worst of my weedy neighbours, is not the most common. That honour might go to the dog-strangling vine, so named, apparently, for its rapid growth: seemingly fast enough to wrap around a sleeping dog’s neck.


This nine-bark shrub made the mistake of staying in one spot for too long . . .

The plant can produce up to 28,000 seeds per square metre. The seeds are easily spread by the wind, and new plants can grow from root fragments, making it difficult to destroy. The vine has invaded ravines, hillsides, fence lines, stream banks, roadsides and utility corridors.
Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program

But most weeds that I’m dealing with at least *seem* more innocuous. The majority are merely ground-hugging grasses, annuals with shallow root systems, and opportunistic tree seedlings. Even so, weeding a large area after a long absence feels like shovelling water with a fork. Cleared areas spring magically back to life within days, if not hours.

Is it that I don’t get all the sinewy roots out of the rocky, baked soil? Is it that there are seeds (maybe 28,000 per square metre), just waiting for any drop of moisture to grow grow grow? Yes. And yes.

Ripped up by the roots,
one weed seems to bite the dust.
Many charge the gap.

Nature is resilient, even inexorable: It just keeps coming. In theory, that’s a good thing. In my garden, that’s just a thing.


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12 Responses to Shovelling Water

  1. barbara carlson says:

    Life is tenacious. For the past 30 years, nothing has survived over winter in our big balcony planter. Until this year. One of the several “bind-weed”-type flowering plants I’ve planted in past years — it might be Bindweed sold as Morning Glory at Richie’s?
    — has sprouted.

    Now this year’s spring-planted Creeping Jenny & the fast growing Virginia Creeper are fighting an underground battle with it. I tend to be an equal opportunity gardener, so I watch the Virginia Creeper rise up but its leaves remaining midgets… and the C. Jenny stop growing… and wonder if the planter has now been compromised beyond “repair” — o well.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – It is amazing the places that plants will grow – from mere slits in Canadian Shield rocks that provide a spot for trees to sprout, to the crack between the asphalt and the concrete curb, where any number of weeds find their happy place.

  2. I am a country gardener (or was, I’m not sure my planters and patch by the deck “count”) with an urban or Renaissance soul. As my inability to keep up the large, formal garden quickly returned most of it to nature, I came to appreciate the persistent yucca, daffodils, peonies, and day lilies along with a no-longer-flowering rose and some fortuitous wildflowers, that continue to flourish despite the weeds and grasses. Everywhere I drive, I see masses of those orange lilies bordering ditches along with blue chicory (cornflowers), white Queen Anne’s lace, a sprinkle of scarlet poppies, and various other so-called weeds. They are splendorous borders and not less so for their spontaneity. I begin to notice cared-for gardens, such as an admirable plot of crimson,white, pink, and burgundy hollyhocks arranged near other expansive beds of flowers, while on the far side of the house, what seems to have been a vegetable garden has been taken over by a riot of equally gorgeous unintentional hollyhocks. Or, perhaps the hollyhocks were intentional while the gardener despaired! My yardstick for beauty has been bent entirely awry. How can I not appreciate both expressions of these persistent or invasive lovelies? Perhaps Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” advice would ease your labour pains?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – My mother told of visiting the site of her grandmother’s childhood home in Ohio. She had read a family record from 1937 that mentioned the bed of yellow jonquils around the house that had spread across the front lawn, down the bank, and up almost to the road. In 1983, Mom saw jonquils growing wild in the pasture grass at the same site. Descendants of ones her great-grandmother had planted? She couldn’t know, but she liked to think so.

  3. The house we occupied in the Arkansas Ozarks was served by a dirt road that disappeared into the wilderness of the valley. At its end grew a profusion of daffodils that had to have been planted by a former homeowner on that site, although no signs of a house remained. Sometimes, in that area, a chimney will remain standing for 100 years after a house has disappeared. In this case, the flowers bloomed every spring with a similar message that we were not the first to settle that land.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – It makes you wonder what we’re planting/leaving that others will chance upon, no? Something good, I hope…

  4. The neighborhood appreciate your gardening. I suspect the newcomers have no idea who keeps the mailbox area so nice. I suspect few recognize the hard work.

    Thank you for your successful work

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Many thanks. After seeing the spread of the dog-strangling vine this year, I’m being careful to keep moving myself, when I’m out there!

  5. Tom Watson says:

    You have conjured up a distant memory. On the farm where I grew up burdock weed was one of the weeds we had to hoe out of our corn rows.

    By the way, your last ever project? Hanging up the shingle?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Keeping burdock at hoe’s length sounds about right – not to mention tackling it in its first year (when it looks like rhubarb) rather than its second, when it looks like (and bites like) the Death Star. And yes, I’m officially done proposal work. This time for sure. 🙂

  6. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – “Having finished my last, last-ever project … ”

    If the “Big Guy” doesn’t hold you to this commitment, you can always count on me.

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