Monday, September 16, 2013

When the Poor Can’t Garden



It has been difficult to hire real gardeners in Grants Pass, and throughout the dry interior of the West, for more than a decade.  There are many people who will mow, hedge, spray and blow, but few willing to pull weeds.  That’s because the cities have cut off the supply of poor gardeners who are not intimidated by weeds and weeding, who know the work from their youth up.
They didn’t do it on purpose; they were trying to save water.  In Grants Pass, they were probably trying to not have to build a new water plant, not trying to save water for the fish in the river, which are not endangered in our river.  Oregon mandated metered water, and Grants Pass and many other cities went further, charging higher rates for higher tiers of use, with the lowest rate covering just enough water for one person’s household use, which made the rates lowest for single people on small lots.
This is hardest on poor working families, who have to live several or more to a house, and have to pay higher rates for household use with each additional person in the household.  When people have to spend every dollar carefully, they prioritize their spending to the things that matter the most to them, and the yard that they spend relatively little time in is the first casualty.  That saves, not only the cost of the water, but the time it takes to use it, and the time one would spend mowing the grass that stops growing without watering.
That last bit of saving time and energy is temporary; in a dry climate, dry land weeds move in and take over the yard within a few years, and one has to mow even more frequently to keep the weeds down. 
A dry lawn is ugly, and no one likes to maintain ugly, so many dry lawns do not get mowed at all after a while, and send their weed seeds around the neighborhood.  Many back yards are not maintained at all; some people also disown the areas outside their fences, or areas that can’t be mowed, leaving the rest to be a nuisance to the neighbors.
This has been going on for decades.  After a generation, we no longer have many youngsters among the poor who have gardened and are not afraid to pull and dig weeds for money.  Most landscape maintenance companies don’t employ them because they cannot find them.  The notable exceptions are Mexicans who pull every plant that is not a tree or shrub.  I’ve been hearing this from customers and seeing this for the 13 years I have been gardening in this town.
To turn this around, we have to change our water rates to promote, not discourage, irrigation.  And then we have to enforce our weed and litter nuisance codes, which essentially mandate gardening, forbidding litter and mature and seeding weeds.  With a little nudging from our public nags, police and firemen, all of our residents will again learn to garden, and retirees and businesses will have once again have gardeners to pull their weeds.