Where are the weeders?

Creeping bluebell invades my favorite hibiscus plant 

July 23, 2010, a stormy, hot Friday morning at 6 AM, I listed preparations for “The Lavender Infused Life” workshop. Scheduled at 2 PM that afternoon for farm visitors, I had not enough time to weed the fields.

“Where are the weeders?” I penned in my journal. Meanwhile, weed seeds rooted and sprouted in and between the rows of lavender blooming beautiful shades of blue.

            Thirteen years later, I now sometimes reach for the wrong cabinet for my spices, or forget to write a certain thank-you note. Yet, I remember the ever present dandelion, creeping Charlie, and creeping bellflower—to name three of many menaces thriving in our lawn and my flower beds.

            It’s the same old story. Never enough weeders. I rise in the morning and lay down at night with weeds and weeders on my mind.

        One lavender season, while an aspiring herbalist and hopeful farmhand and I tilled a field, the young woman panicked when she unearthed a worm.


            Please know I made mud pies as a girl and found her phobia quite singular. I dared not tell the sweet, budding herbalist that a resident garter snake named Longfellow appears in my gardens and fields on occasion.

            Later, in our private conversation at my kitchen table, I assured her, “If you want to grow and study herbs, you will encounter worms. They’re good and necessary. And all staff members must weed.”

            She wept bitterly. “I’m sorry, but I cannot.”

            “And I’m sorry,” I replied, concerned she might hyperventilate.

This incident comes to mind whenever I chance upon a wriggling earthworm while turning the soil. I hope the young woman made friends with the creatures and is realizing her dreams.

Believe me, I’d rather see earthworms in the soil than the relentless rhizome of the creeping bluebell, a grower’s nightmare to remove. I understand some human foragers consider the green shoot and leaf a delicious, nutritious salad.

And of all mysteries, this greedy plant was once grown as a culinary herb for salads. Today, some folk add the leaf to their smoothie for a dose of vitamin C.

With this in mind, could I feed the bellflower leaf to our chickens? Nope. The plant’s poisonous to poultry. Good to know!

Hmm…boil the leaves with bacon and season with vinegar, salt and pepper like collard greens? Well, I do believe what I need comes to me, so I’ll mull that over—research Campanula rapunculoides a bit more.

I conclude with good news! Tomorrow, Saturday, May 20 at 1:30 PM, I introduce a new friend and weeder to my perennial island. Yes, I’ve given her fair warning of our adversaries.

“The black flies and ants are biting, so wear long sleeves and garden gloves,” I said. “The flies aim for your eyes, the ants for your wrists.”

Dear Reader, as you see, the gardener’s goal and reward is the pleasure of creating and maintaining a groomed, blooming garden.

            Now, before I forget, there’s a few thank-you notes to write.

Kentucky Wonders


My empty KENTUCKY WONDER POLE BEAN seed package

When a child, I thought the only green bean was the Kentucky Wonder that grew up corn stalks in Granny’s and my uncles’ vegetable gardens. Wherever Dad drove us along Peter Creek on summer vacations, these Appalachian staples appeared in tidy rows nearby a house.

            I loved Granny’s delicious beans “cooked down” with a ham hock and onion in the pot, served with a slice of her hot, buttered cornbread.

Every summer when Granny called Mom in Michigan and said, “Sadie, the garden’s in,” Dad drove us south with Mom’s empty canning jars in the trunk.

Granny’s garden yielded more than enough for Poppy Roy and her, their neighbors, and our family. While Mom and Granny sat under a shade tree, stringing and snapping beans and cutting corn off the cob, my sisters and I ran in Granny’s alley with neighbor children.

When we left Granny for Michigan, Dad filled his trunk with boxes of canned corn, beans, tomatoes, and bread and butter pickles. Mom rationed their labor until Granny called the following summer and said, “Sadie, the garden’s in.”

After Mom and Dad settled our family into the first house they bought on the extended G.I. Bill, Mom planted some of Granny’s Kentucky Wonder seeds along our backyard chain-link fence. She watched closely as the vines climbed and bean pods grew.

“Now, don’t you girls bother my beans,” she’d say.

“We won’t!”

Unbeknownst to my mother, the woman who lived in the house that shared our backyard fence didn’t understand the pods were beans. When her young boys pulled off a few and nibbled them, she panicked and called the City of Warren.

“Mrs. O’Brien?” asked the City official when Mom answered our doorbell.


“Your neighbor behind you has filed a complaint about what you’re growing on the fence you share. She’s concerned the vines are poisonous.”

Shocked, Mom gripped the doorknob. “Sir, those are beans. Pole beans. I grew up on them. My children eat them.”

“Nevertheless, your neighbor has filed a complaint. I’ve orders to remove the vines.”

My mother submitted.

I knew nothing of the incident until I planted my first Kentucky Wonder seeds and shared the good news with Mom. As if my crop vindicated her loss, that summer I filled my freezer with Kentucky Wonders.

I’ve since planted Greasy and Turkey Craw bean seeds that my Uncle Tab saved and dried from his harvests. As Uncle Tab is no longer with us, last summer my husband planted string-less bean seed that didn’t produce well.

However, God knew the desire of my heart. I spied KENTUCKY WONDER POLE BEAN seed packages in the grocery store this week—$6 for two 100% certified organic packages distributed by SEEDS OF CHANGE.

Dear Reader, my cousin Barry helped Uncle Herm, my last surviving McCoy patriarch, plant Kentucky Wonder seed beside rows of corn seed along Peter Creek.  

I planted seed along a fence within a deer-proof fence in our backyard. 

I wonder who to call when the garden’s in.




L to R: Amulen, Brett, and me

I grabbed the opportunity to lay my eyes upon my grandchild, faced rush hour traffic south on I75 in the rain.

It seemed just weeks ago that my daughter Ruth and I helped move Amulen into his freshman dorm room at Wayne State University. We packed Ruth’s Jeep and my Prius.   

Now a sophomore, Amulen needed my car and dolly to move his belongings out of his dorm room. “Ruth has to work, so one of my friends will help. We’ll take several trips with your car,” he said.

Fine with me. I reserved the morning for the project, and lunch afterwards. Only the Lord knows the next time I’d see Amulen.

Mile by mile, my mind wandered back to the January day my dad drove me north on M20 to Central Michigan University. He wore his black suit and tie for the occasion.

My younger sister, Libby, and I also wore our Sunday best with our dress coats. The style January 1968.

I carried all my belongings in one suitcase, thankful Dad allowed my cocker spaniel, Sweetie, to join us.

We arrived at Woldt Hall and found my room on the ground floor, the “terrace.”

Just inside my room, Dad pointed to a colorful poster of three women on the right wall above a phonograph. “Looks like you have women of color for roommates,” he said.

Dad knew the face of every big band leader and the likes of Perry Como, but he had no interest in his daughters’ favorite Motown musicians.

Libby and I looked to each other. “Dad, they’re the Supremes,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied. He couldn’t help but know their fame.

Our college education began.

In contrast to that remarkable day, I drove to Detroit in sweat pants, long-sleeved jacket, and hiking boots for some serious lifting and loading with my grandson and his buddy.

However, Amulen and Brett, friends from Economics class, wouldn’t have it. They packed the car.

“Jaja, why don’t you go to Leo’s for a cup of tea? It’s right across the street. We’ll unload the car and be right back.”

I crossed Anthony Wayne Drive, amazed by my grandson—a Ugandan boy my California daughter and son-in-law fell in love with while working in Uganda.

Outside Leo’s, a female and male Detroit police team nodded and smiled, each holding a 7-Eleven cup.  

“I’m waiting on my grandson to return with my car for the last load of his belongings,” I couldn’t help but boast.  

“Yes, it’s rather quiet on campus when the students leave for home,” Officer Courtney said.

Officer Brian agreed. “They’ll be back fall semester.”

Dear Reader, Amulen, Brett, and I ordered the same East African meal at Baobab Fare, located on Woodward Avenue. We lifted our mugs of steamy chai tea and posed for a photo.

In my heart, I toasted to their education. To a life well lived with family, friends, significant places, and flashbacks to revive the faded glory of time past.

And someday, for grandchildren to lay their eyes upon.

A personal history of names


Lincoln High School, 1967, Speech 2 class

In April 1947, my parents named their first child Linda Lois. For two decades, the name Linda, meaning “pretty”, and Mary, meaning “beloved”, dominated the two most popular girl’s names in the United States.

 So, why in February 1949 did my parents break from fashion and sign “Iris Lee” on my birth certificate instead of “Mary Lee”?

Well, my mother, Sadie Lee McCoy O’Brien, resolved to fulfill a promise and chose Iris, meaning “promise”, although a name not famous.

According to my mother’s account, she made a vow during World War II. “When I left the McCoy homeplace to work in a factory in Kansas City, I boarded a room in Mrs. Iris Ellis’ home. In that lonely time, Mrs. Ellis was like a mother to me. That’s why I named you Iris.”

            Had I known this significant history while a teenager, I may have better brushed off the boys when they hollered in the halls, “Hey, poison iris!” or, “How’s it goin’, eyeball?”

“Boys will be boys,” my mother, the elder of four brothers, would say.

Meanwhile, I met Mary Schwartz as students in Warren Lincoln High School. One of two Marys to twelve Lindas in our class of 1967, we befriended one another in our Speech 2 class and Synchronized Swim Club.

The summer before our senior year, Mary and I boarded a bus to visit my cousins along Peter Creek, Kentucky. My cousin Kathy picked us up at the Williamson, West Virginia bus station and drove us to her home in her shiny 1966 Mustang.

I’ve since wondered what possessed my parents to allow their seventeen-year-old daughter to travel south of the Michigan border with an overnight stay in a dingy Ohio motel. My goodness, the freedom of adventure my generation enjoyed before cell phones and social media.

Since that landmark summer, several Marys continue to weave their gifts, talents, and lovingkindness throughout my life. For the past twenty-some years, I’ve sat beside Mary Merlo on Mondays in a writing group. We critique and encourage each other’s work, talk about family.

The spring of 2011, Mary Ellen Hammarland brought her daughter, Heather, to a Mother’s Day Tea I hosted in my dining room.

Within a week, Mary Ellen joined my farm staff. That’s what happens with mutual affection for tea and weeding a lavender field.

Thirteen years later, Mary Ellen remains our house and chicken-sitter, and the leader of my neighborhood Bible study.

Last but not least, two years ago in church, another Mary entered my life. During one of our conversations after service she said, “Oh, what I’d give for a good haircut.”

A daughter of a barber, I replied, “I’d be happy to cut your hair.”

Dear Reader, Mary called yesterday. “Iris, please remember to bring your scissors Monday afternoon.”

“Will do!”

After my critique group, Mary and I will sit at her kitchen table and admire the pink Easter lily the Rochester OPC delivered to her door—enjoy Panera takeout, and count our blessings.

Before I trim Mary’s hair.



My little Stonehenge

The first week of April, I surveyed the neglected tree line along our dirt road, stood akimbo, and inhaled a deep breath of reality.

“It will take weeks for me to remove the mess with my pruners and your Sawzal,” I later reported to Mel. “Let’s call James.”

He agreed.

Several days later at 8 a.m., James, tall and thin with a black beard and teeth white as the bloodroot bloom, parked his truck and machinery in our driveway. A young man assisted James as I approached and welcomed them.

“Good morning! This is Daniel,” James said.

I shook Daniel’s hand. “Thanks for helping James. Let me know if you need anything,” I said, and left them to their work.

While I returned emails at my desk, I relaxed with a sense of relief. Yet, hired help confirmed the fact my body can no longer sustain the labor of pulling up invasive vines from the earth— a new-found sport thirty-four years ago when Fritz Builders constructed our house.

I recalled the drizzly, chilly day Mel and I rented a hole digger for planting trees on our property. Mainly evergreens. Three dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, tributes to Kim, a friend who introduced me to the gorgeous attraction in her suburban front yard.

I’d forgotten how the three fiery, perfectly shaped red maples, Acer Rubrum, came to grace the hind part of our property. One, the red maple I’ve christened “Storytelling Tree” for whenever the spirit of story moves me or a visitor, stands nearby the fire pit. (Children seem to prefer chicken stories to any other.)

The red maple is native to North America and a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family. The species comes in second to the Cottonwood as the fastest-growing on our land, and in the Eastern United States. Although the wind in cottonwood leaves sounds alluring, the bothersome cotton the Populus deltoids sheds dares me to curse.

A great-great granddaughter of Larken McCoy, a logger-farmer-builder who cleared his land and built his two-story homeplace in the McCoy Bottom along Peter Creek, Kentucky, I’ve inherited a bit of his spirit. However, I’ll endure those cottonwoods, leave their fate to the owner who follows our steps on this homestead.

 By the way, James returned yesterday with his wife Ashely to complete the job.

“Where’s Daniel?” I asked.

“He had a previous commitment,” James said. “He’s working seventy hours a week because our trade can’t find enough help.”

If only I were younger, I thought.

“James, I found a fine boulder where you’re wrapping up this morning. When you’re finished, could you help me move the boulder with our dolly?”


Ashely smiled. “James’ mother would ask the same thing.”

Dear Reader, James moved not only that beautiful boulder, but three, to the entrance of our driveway.

“There’s large rock other there, do you want it?” James asked.


He set the rock atop a boulder. “There!”

I smiled. “My little Stonehenge.”

A monument to my ancestors. Loggers. Farmers. Builders.