09 June 2013

IMBY (In My Back Yard)

I am troubled by the look of the back and side yard. Out front, a small but lush lawn boasts azalea, rose, forsythia, iris, wisteria and daffodil accents. But out back and along the side, under mature gardenia, plum, fig and pecan trees, instead of grass, a botanical patchwork of "weeds" is growing. I've counted no fewer than 20 varieties.

I am torn:  In the early Spring, I was enchanted by the variety. So many different shades of green! So many tiny flowers:  whites, blues, purples, pinks and yellows. A beautiful carpet of soft "baby" vegetation. I thought "We call these 'weeds'!? How presumptuous!" A "weed" is a plant that grows where we don't want it to be. Who are We to say what belongs where?

But as the season advanced and I watched the brick patio disappear beneath tiny shoots that became runners and vines and stalks, my enchantment dwindled. Research introduced me to the power of white vinegar. I purchased a weed sprayer, filled it with vinegar and attacked the patio. It was fun operating the sprayer -- pumping it up with air and methodically squirting between the bricks; but little by little an uncomfortable self-image came into focus:  there I was, on a beautiful day under a beautiful sky, surrounded by Life -- bugs and birds and trees and flowers and squirrels and kittens -- and my role in the scene was to kill green, growing things.

Twenty-four hours after applying the vinegar the patio bricks were visible again. And I derived a measure of prideful aesthetic satisfaction from the view out the kitchen window. Still, the carnage... The withered brown and white carcasses of once vibrant plants littered the ground.

I was reminded of a field trip to San Francisco's Presido during the Ecology module of my undergraduate program at CA Institute of Integral Studies. We were there to exterminate "invasive" plant species. Within the first hour, I developed a raging headache. I had begun to identify with the plants we were killing -- like them, I descended from stock that originated "somewhere else".

I persuaded a couple of classmates to run away with me. By the time we picked up picnic foods and a bottle of wine, my headache was gone. We spent the rest of the day at the beach, cavorting in the sand and swapping life stories.


On the east side of the house, a mysterious flowering shrub stands nearly 10 feet tall. Local gardeners who have visited the bush-tree with me over the last few weeks confess they have no idea what it is. They've never seen this species before. The hard, waxy buds resemble tiny, tightly-clenched, peach-to-tangerine colored fists. They blossom into brilliant, flaming-red   flowers with a visual texture like crepe paper.

With abundant rains this year, this plant (like everything else in the yard) has undergone riotous growth. It  has nearly doubled in size since I moved in last August. Last week I noticed one of the branches drooping beneath the weight of the sturdy buds and proliferating flowers. It extended from the center trunk nearly to the driveway gate. Thinking it could use a little support, I stopped at the hardware store for twine to anchor it. In the store, I described the plant to the salesman -- he and I often talk plants when I stop in -- and he was intrigued. "Do you mind if I stop by after work and take a look?"

He stopped by. And he couldn't identify it either. (He's going to bring his wife by next week and see if she knows what it is). As we toured the yard he delivered a horticultural tutorial. Among other things, I learned:

  • the grass in the front yard is "high grade" St. Augustine. "Very expensive stuff," he stressed. Several times. "You want to take good care of this grass. They sell this stuff for $10 a square." It produces runners that can be transplanted to bare places out back. It's a good choice of grass for this yard because it loves shade and there are lots of trees on the property.
  • there is a huge, robust spread of poison something-or-other, attached and expanding across the eastern face of the house
  • the little holes all over the back yard are snake holes

He also said that most of what's growing on the side and back yards are vigorous weed species that, left unchecked, will quickly and completely take over the entire yard, killing the "high grade" St. Augustine in the process. He recommended something he called "weed and seed" to kill off the weeds. He said it comes in a container that attaches to a garden hose and they sell it at Wal-Mart.

Well....Wal-Mart is an ongoing "issue" for me. There are so many reasons not to give them my business. So many reasons I dread entering the store.


In New Orleans, in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart was all there was -- if you wanted food or cleaning supplies or a blanket or a pair of scissors or an aspirin or.... I quickly got over elitist qualms I'd learned while living in liberal/granola strongholds like the SF Bay Area. Now I never forget that in some places in this country, you do Wal-Mart or you do without.

So I drove out to Wal-Mart this afternoon. Who knew there were so many ways to kill "weeds"? I spent a good half hour in the lawn&garden aisle, reading labels. Actually, I guess it stops being a "label" when the text runs to several pages and requires a Table of Contents, which is what I found attached to most of the products offered. Already physically weakened and polluted from last night's marathon crash-and-burn of my most recent smoking cessation attempt, my gut began to churn as I read the precautions and risks and disclaimers. I started feeling peculiarly guilty and vulnerable as I noticed that every product on the shelves of that aisle was expressly manufactured to kill something, some living thing that had the misfortune of being designated "pest" or "weed".

"I can't do this," I thought. The smell of vinegar in the air for an afternoon is one thing. Making sure no animals or humans wander onto the property before the product dries and discarding the container "properly" to avoid contaminating public drinking water is something else altogether. Felt like way more risk
than I was willing to take on as a novice gardener. Felt like way more risk than probably anyone should take on. I wondered:  who's using this stuff? Are any of my neighbors using this stuff?  I picked up a pair of hedge clippers and left the store.


knowing that for the eco-purist the whole idea of manipulating Nature into a pleasing residential space is wrong-headed, I am off to scale one more learning curve, in search of a way to balance ecological responsibility with personal aesthetic and create a comfortable, beautiful, sustainable space for all who want to cohabit peacefully here -- fur, feather, skin and scale.