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Agricultural teamwork

Last spring, my husband and I decided to transform part of our side yard into a meadow-like collection of wildflowers. We had a vision of a habitat that would welcome birds, butterflies and bees and provide a hangout for the critters that often crept out of the woods to pay us a visit.

We knew the plan would require a lot of work, so the first step was divvying up responsibility for chores. My husband agreed to prepare the ground, remove the existing grass, cultivate the soil and rectify some issues with grade. He also consented to plant seeds, tend them as they sprouted, and nurture the emerging shoots. His jobs required hours outside in the hot sun. When people developed the notion of investing sweat equity into a project, his toil is surely what they had in mind.

I took on other important tasks. I volunteered to offer opinions, speak words of encouragement and watch for results. Sometimes, my jobs required that I venture out during the cool of the evening, and once or twice, I even got my feet wet in the early morning dew. Afterall, teamwork is key to success.

Many proverbs suggest a link between sowing and reaping, so we took care to sow exactly what we wanted. I helped develop a list of native wildflowers that bloomed in diverse, bold colors at various times throughout the entire growing season. I suggested a source for a seed mix that seemed to contain a suitable blend.

We had doubts that we’d planted soon enough for the promised spring and early summer flowers, but we looked forward to the rest. Wild bergamot, coneflowers, milkweed and blazing star were among the expected midsummer plants. Goldenrod and asters were among the later bloomers.

My husband diligently followed the planting instructions that came with the seeds. I know he did because I watched. And waited. It wasn’t long before little plants began to emerge. The instructions suggested we’d get the best results if we removed unwanted weeds.

That’s where the trouble began. When little plants first sprout, they don’t bring with them the handy identification tags used so helpfully in botanical gardens. We had hundreds of square feet of various shapes and shades of green sprouts. They poked through the dirt as slim stalks, rounded lobes and pairs or quartets of blades.

“Which ones are the weeds?” my husband asked.

My opinion was being sought, and I had no basis for offering one. I tried several phone apps that let you upload a picture of a plant so that it can be identified. The responses were versions of the same answer: “We can’t tell what this is. Here’s a list of things that it could be.” The lists were long, varied and differed among the apps. The lists did not contain suggestions that overlapped with the seeds we’d planted.

Differentiating among plants apparently relies on clues such as details regarding stalk formation, the pattern formed by mature leaves and whether they have such structures as hairs or serrated edges and what sorts of flowers appear and when. Our baby plants needed to grow bigger, much bigger, before we could call them by name.

And grow they did. Abundantly and lushly. I tried again to learn their names, but by mid-summer, I’d had just one success. Ragweed. Not something we’d planted on purpose. Once we recognized it, my husband diligently pulled it out. By fall’s official arrival, we had only one plant with a flower. A single butterfly made a visit.

What we learned from this experiment is that if you sow something without knowing what it will look like when it emerges, there’s no practical way to cultivate it or protect it from aggressive competitors. Right now, we’re harvesting an abundant crop of miscellaneous grasses, mystery vines and assorted other plants that my phone apps still refuse to identify.

I’m eager to try again next spring. I’ve offered a new opinion that we should start with plants that come with labels. My husband is checking his supply of sunscreen. I’m lucky he’s such a willing partner. We make a great team.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.