War and Peace in the Garden
Even fighting off unwelcome invaders has its upside
The war commenced not a week into the new year.
This war is in my backyard’s unfinished Japanese garden, principally against a ruthless foe called star-of-Bethlehem. Lovely name, isn’t it? And quite beautiful in its own insidious way. Ornithogalum umbellatum, technically a member of the lily family, sometimes called bird’s milk or — more aptly, in my view — dove’s dung.
Either way, by any name, I loathe it.
For the record, every spring I seem to go to war against something in my garden. In recent years it was a ground offensive against English ivy or mahonia, a shrub beloved by birds and non-gardening grannies that can injure you for life if you dare to get too close, turning simple gardening into a blood sport. As for English ivy, there should be a constitutional amendment restricting English ivy to university buildings and abandoned outhouses, where it may find peace and harmony growing with kudzu, its Oriental cousin and scourge of the Southern landscape.
My first encounter with star-of-Bethlehem was two years ago when we moved into my favorite house in my childhood neighborhood. Our lovely neighbor to the west, a crack gardener, casually mentioned that she’d planted a bit of star-of-Bethlehem in a pot a few years back and neglected to contain it, whereupon the pretty little white flower spread like botanical bubonic plague through her perennial beds. If the word “plague” sounds a bit hyberbolic, please consider that the plant is seriously toxic to animals — a particular nightmare to horse and cattle farmers who fear outbreaks of it in their pastures down South.
Last year, the delicate green shoots of dove’s dung showed up among my new plantings of Japanese maples, prompting my wife and me — as instructed by my neighbor — to spend hours on our knees trying to dig up the insidiously little hairy bulbs that seem to multiply like a bad rumor.
With this year’s disturbingly warm winter — a week in the upper 70s followed by soaking rains — we suddenly had bumper crops of SOB (as I call it, shorthand) breaking out in almost every direction. When I consulted a gardening pal who is a local horticulture expert about the problem, she simply smiled sympathetically and said, “If you say its name, it grows.” Her reluctant advice: “Hate to say it, but there’s not much you can do but cut it down and bomb it with Roundup.”
Even if we didn’t have two dogs and an old cat who spend large portions of their days poking around and thinking about the meaning of life in our backyard, I would be hesitant to resort to highly toxic herbicides like Roundup. So I spent the better part of several Saturdays through January and February excavating seemingly endless piles of the wretched plant and sending the hairy little bulbs to the curb — until I got the bright idea to let nature provide assistance by using massive piles of uncollected leaves from autumn’s own bumper crop to bury the beds in hopes of starving the plant of light and nourishment.
Silly me. Like Tom Jefferson, I may be an old man but I am forever a new gardener who seems to learn an important lesson or two every year. What first seemed like a clever idea to let nature take care of my SOB infestation turned out to be a boon to star-of-Bethlehem. In the midst of an extended February thaw that seemed more like late April — cherry trees unnaturally in bloom, dogwoods budding, azaleas even showing color — I peeked beneath the rotting leaves and found, to my horror, SOB growing wildly, insanely, the leaves evidently serving as a house incubator.
Suffice to say, I removed the leaves and reluctantly resorted to the chemical approach, which may or may not yield the desired effects and still gives me pause to think about potential ramifications.
That said, for the time being at least, my warring days are over, or at least on pause until I’m able to operate with an alternative plan of attack.
On the positive front, last year’s ambitious plan was to clear out a jungle of overgrown thorns and shrubs — including the aforementioned mahonia-gone-wild — that obscured much of a swell backyard shaded by several century-old white oaks, ideally resulting in a canvas whereupon I could create a signature spring garden full of flowering azaleas and dogwoods and a Japanese shade garden where the dogs and I would both retreat to think about the meaning of life when the withering heat of summer finally arrives.
That phase of restoring my tiny piece of paradise, I am happy to report, is more or less complete, though there remain so many other tasks to do — a pair of wooden fences with gates to build, a stone walkway to construct, even a few remaining (seemingly endless) piles of leaves to bag up and curb — it sometimes seems a bit daunting to the property’s live-in gardener.
On the other hand, that’s part of the timeless allure of making one’s own garden in this world. Something is always awaiting your attention and every springtime brings a new challenge, both surprise and opportunity.
If my love of getting dirty in a garden (the best cheap therapy, I find, for whatever ails you) has taught me anything, it’s that patience really is a virtue and peace of mind can come when dreaming of dogwoods in bloom or even dealing with an SOB in your garden. h