Note: This column is rated E.G. (For experienced gardeners only). The content may be disturbing or frightening to beginners.
I lied to my husband.
Now you may be thinking this doesn’t sound like the garden page and you’ve mistakenly turned to the marriage advice column. But stick with me: This is relevant. The truth is that some gardeners have to lie sometimes. Here’s my story.
My very nice husband helped me in the yard yesterday, even though it’s not his favorite activity. I weeded and watered and he weed-whacked the very rough edges of my very large country driveway and garden beds. He dumped four heaping wheelbarrows full of my weeds into the field compost pile so that I wouldn’t hurt my back doing so. I measure a gardening day’s work by the wheelbarrow count, and after four loads I was done in. He told me to stop – and he was right of course. So I bathed and cleaned up for the second half of the day. He had planned to have a late dinner with grandsons and I said I’d take it easy and have dinner with a girlfriend.
Actually I did have dinner with my friend, but as true gardening friends do, she understood when I left at 6:30, saying “I’d really like to get a couple more hours in the garden. I’m only about two-thirds through weeding the main beds.” This was not what the dear man wanted me to do. He’s trying to save me from myself. Should I lie, clean up before he sees me and pretend it was a leisurely evening? What’s a gardener to do?
The lonely battle
Only plant geeks who collect obsessively, and gardeners with more space than sense, will really understand the joy as well as the challenge of a large yard with extensive flower and shrub beds. This is why I provided the warning above – that beginners shouldn’t read this or they may even try gardening. It truly was so much fun over the years to acquire plants and try them out in different locations, and to start a new bed any time I ran out of room for the next treasure. It is still so much fun—once I get it all under control in the beginning of each season. But I’m not there yet, and so I trudge forward ...
Yesterday it was the bedstraw that drove me to lie and to abuse myself as well. This clambering weed, with its sticky stems and clinging seeds, grows a yard per minute. Or it seems so. Think kudzu – this is the northeast equivalent (although not nearly as ecologically damaging). Because I didn’t take charge of it last year, and this year didn’t even begin to pull it out of some beds until this week, it had woven itself into thick blankets, smothering large old hostas, a forsythia, a broad bed of double peach daylilies, and a stand of snake root (Cimicifuga racemosa). This area is the last-tended part of the garden, behind the garage, where I stuck things I wasn’t sure would work, where it’s too shady for most plants but I had to put them somewhere. But still – that ‘Frances Williams’ hosta deserves to live, and the snakeroot always rises up with proud white spires even though I have cited it all wrong. (It wants to be damp; this soil is not.) So I had to steal this time and save those plants.
Now the good thing about bedstraw, if one could possibly name a good thing about the brute, is that you get a lot of satisfaction by pulling it. With a few tugs using both hands you can drag out bushels of it in a few minutes. Then you can roll it into a ball and squish it down. In ancient times it was used to stuff mattresses – explaining the term “bedstraw.” Surely I captured several mattresses’ worth tonight.
The bedstraw got even with me though. It was a hot and humid evening so I did not put on a long sleeved shirt. I should have. The vines and seeds are scratchy and now I’m all marked up, making deception that much harder.
The art of uncovering
While pulling all that bedstraw I let my usual stream-of-consciousness flow and it occurred to me that what I do in the garden a great deal of the time is “uncovering.” That is because I have mature garden beds, filled with wonderful plants that have formed large clumps that touch each other and overflow the paths. I love the full, crowded look of an English border, and enjoy the process of thinning and moving the plants around so that each plant has its space. I also like the goal of balancing them: juxtaposing equally aggressive plants and keeping timid ones where they won’t be overrun. But the reality is that all mature gardens reach a point where something is running over something. So you have to dig out the aggressor, or part of it, to save the oppressed. Or you have to pull the bedstraw off all of them.
The other uncovering job is easier, the cosmetic part: When one plant is about to flower, to have its best moment, I just cut the leaves and stems of its neighbor back a bit. Give the pretty one room in the sunshine. For instance, just today I cut back some lambs’ ears spikes – a great plant I use as a lovely front edge of some beds – in time for a short shrub rose to show off its coral flowering glory.
Finally I admitted the lie. I told the dear man what I’d done after going to dinner. As night was falling, with a flashlight, I showed him the amazingly cleared area and the two new wheelbarrows full of weeds. Also my scratched arms. He rolled his eyes. I think he understands: It is June and he married a gardener. There’s no cure. At least now I can give up the lying.
And today he emptied the wheelbarrows.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.