• John R

The Cersei of the front garden is a cunning, ruthless, and good-looking adversary.

Vetch attempting a takeover. Image by Hans Braxmeier https://bit.ly/2ncQJu0

I've many garden nemeses (yes I had to look up the plural of nemesis and that’s all there is to it, change the i to an e. Because so many of us have multiple nemeses of various kinds it’s probably a handy word to have on hand).

My nemeses of the plant kind are ruthless in their desire not to be eliminated. These include various weeds, invasive species, and most things thorny and/or butt-ugly. On our property, that’s the preponderance of living things. At least the place has greenery.

But then there’s vetch. Perhaps the sneakiest of them all. Call it what you will—crown vetch, purple vetch, turdhead—Coronilla varia by any other name would be as devious and dastardly. It’s the Cersei of plants.

Classified in the pea family Fabaceae, crown vetch shares the family tree with some 150 different species of vetch (thank you Siri). Among these are the fava bean (here’s looking at you, Sir Anthony), and Vicia americanus, which is native to North America and used as a farmland cover crop because it’s great at fixing nitrogen in the soil.

But let’s not get distracted. I’m talking about the Coronilla varia in my yard, a plant so insidious has landed on the U.S. forest Service’s “Weed of the Week” list, which if you’re not familiar is about as severe a reprimand as a horticulturalist can mete out. In the document, USFS says a single plant will blanket 100 square feet in only four years and is “a serious management threat to natural areas,” climbing over small trees and shrubs in its eagerness to envelop and choke out native plants and crops.

Vetch seed pods or Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Enter the front gate of Shiddygarden for a case study in why crown vetch is a serious management threat (although in our yard “management” is a nuanced term). It’s proven to be impervious to extraction, curses, and weeping, all employed with various degrees of intensity.

Extraction is especially tricky because of the plant’s black ops abilities. It slithers along on creeping roots, hidden underneath a patch of phlox or canopy of lily leaves, sending up slender tendrils that emerge into the sunlight perfectly camouflaged, waiting, snickering probably, until you lean over to shut off the spigots and then the whole lot of them grows seed pods and by the time you straighten up all the seed pods have matured and blackened and broken open and scattered hundreds of fresh little nijas all over everything. Boom! Done! Suck it! says crown vetch.

Curled, blackened, empty seed pods say, "You're too late! It's over! Suck it! Just wait 'til next year, you're going to have a vetch hangover like you wouldn't believe!"

This tendency of crown vetch to secretly grow among other plants makes it impossible to eliminate by chemical means, which we wouldn’t do anyway. We're a totally organic property, which is probably why everything is such a mess.

Be that as it may, I do wage a yearly campaign against the crown vetch. In early summer I get out there on my hands and knees, searching for the tiny paired leaves that indicate the creeping roots, trying to intercept the plant before it’s had a chance to drop seeds. I slide my hand along the stem as far as I can and yank. Because the stems are long and thin, they generally break off before you can pull out the buried heart of the plant, the heart that you know is still down there, somewhere, black and beating.

This year was an incredible setback. Vetch exploded everywhere: bold, strong, hardy. It was a serious repudiation—maybe even conscious mockery—of the vetch-removal work I’d done the previous spring. This year’s plants leapt over ground cover, swirled their way through the sagging hyacinth and clambered, defiantly, to the tops of the butterfly bush (which is the sterile kind or butterfly bush and isn’t the invasive miscreant that is illegal in our state and others).

I pulled out handfuls of vetch. There was some collateral damage—not a few phlox and other nice things got ripped out as well—call me enthusiastic—but I did remove several bucketfuls of vetch from the front flower garden alone.

Ultimately, I was no match. One morning I looked out and saw I’d been outwitted—dry, blackened husks of empty seed pods littered the front garden. I hadn’t been vigilant enough. Judging by the number of open seed pods, the vetch had successfully self-seeded itself for the foreseeable future. It’s ability to outlast its opponent has become legend in our yard. Game on.

Anyway, if allowed to grow crown vetch does have sprightly pinkish flowers, and some people like it for its toughness, the way it relentlessly imposes itself on the land. During spring in our valley you can see huge swaths of purplish vetch strewn across the far greening mountainsides, and it’s a sight to behold.

Vetch colors the Bear Creek valley. (C) Sean Bagshaw, www.outdoorexposure.com

But I appreciate a good nemesis, if not a few nemeses. I like the chess match, the contest of wills, the commitment. It’s the best story plot ever—Good versus Evil—and it’s at the heart of human existence (and at the heart of the vetchism). Game on. By the way I get to be the “Good” in this allegory because I’m writing this and vetch does not have a competing blog that I know of. However, who knows if Evil may yet triumph? It's likely that after the Apocalypse the only things left will be hot lava, cockroaches, and crown vetch, and for that it has my begrudging respect.

Until then, game on indeed.

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  • John R

Industrious creepy crawlies act as if the garden is their own private domain. Well, it is.

At our house, everything is connected. Literally. Thanks to Pholcus phalangioides.

The work ethic of Pholcus phalangioides—aka the daddy long-legs spider—is impressive, especially for those of us who aren’t big fans of work ethics (hand raised here). Like a lot of creatures with itty bitty brains (hand raised here—haha just kidding; my brain’s not that small) Pholcus phalangioides is a paragon of single-minded dedication, which in this case means building webs and then spending a lifetime eating whatever flies, crawls, and blunders into them.

Actually, “brain” might be too generous—let’s revise to simple cluster of nerve cells. But don’t be fooled: daddy long-legs has plenty of guile. In fact, at this very moment a battalion of Pholcus phalangioides is planning to enclose our entire property in sticky, stringy webs.

Daddy long-legs is a gangly critter, with legs that can be a cartoonish ten times the length of its body. Perched on its spindly supports, with its multi-eyed bod pod hunkered down in the midst of all that legginess, it’s the poster child for creepy. This is the kind of spider that lurks in shadows and nooks and crannies, the kind of spider that when you see it you go, Oh shit! Spider!

Okay, not actually sticky. The webbing of daddy long-legs doesn’t have the adhesive properties that the webbing of most other types of spiders has got. Instead, daddy long-legs creates an ungainly mess of webbing that hangs loosely from whatever it’s attached to (whether this is due to a genetic Pholcus phalangioides imperative or the fact that these particular spiders are hugely uncoordinated on account of they can’t see their feet because all eight feet are way the fuck out there, we might never know).

These goofy, haphazard webs have none of the spiral elegance of the classic spider’s web. Nevertheless, they’re effective, and prey of all kinds blunder in, no doubt stupefied by the unnatural mess. Daddy long-legs have voracious appetites for all kinds of tasty morsels, including other Pholcus phalangioides, and webs are festooned with the sucked-out husks of ants, gnats, and relatives. When disturbed they bounce up and down on their webs, nobody knows why, a tendency that earns them the nickname, “bouncing spider.”

Possibly (me thinking out loud here) they bounce around because they're excited by the prospect of copulation (fun fact: males donate sperm via the ends of their feet, and probably with not a lot of grace). Hey, are those bulges in your eight tiny Adidas or are you glad to see me?

At our property daddy long-legs are prolific, and along about mid-June our house, shed, patio furniture, bicycles, the overturned wheelbarrow (which can stay that way as far as I’m concerned because there’s probably very disturbing things going on under there), and any tools that someone neglected to put away (hand raised here) are festooned with glistening threads and flaccid webbing that undulates in passing breezes.

There’s webbing that ties the shed to the house, a span of about twelve feet. Really? How do they do that? Crawl down the side of the shed, amble across the pathway, then climb up the house siding, all the while trailing a interminable thread out their ass? Climbing just high enough so that when they reel in the slack, the resulting strand is exactly at my face level? Then do they zip line back to the starting point, still trailing ass silk, and do it all over again so that the next morning as I walk innocently between the house and the shed to search for some tool I forgot to put away I walk directly through a webbing matrix (because it’s not easy to see while you’re texting), and it wraps across my nose and ears and I have that reflexive revulsion that blundering into a web seems to universally cause especially when you get it wrapped around face parts and my hands jerk up and the phone goes twirling away and falls face-down on the one prominent pebble in the pathway and cracks the glass?

Spider, one. Homeowner, zero.

A trio fo DDLs (there's a little one toward the upper right) hanging out, literally, awaiting the next tasty bug to blunder into their corner of the universe.

Pholcidae are found throughout the world (especially our property). They are fond of dark, out-of-the-way places, a tendency that gives them yet another nickname, “cellar spider.” Whatever you call them, they can scamper with maddeningly agility when you try to swat them with an old toilet brush take it on my good authority and what in the world is this old toilet brush still doing here in the garage when it was supposed to have been thrown out like years ago?

It’s not that I have an anti-spider stance per se. I have no issue with spiders doing their spidery thing. They eat bugs; they don’t necessarily want to eat humans. I get it. In fact, the world's spiders eat up to an estimated 880 million tons or more of other bugs each year. How much of that is their cannibalized fellows is difficult to say, let's just figure that the total is about equal to a baby giraffe per year per spider. They’re beneficial. They’re our friends. Applause. But for me it’s more about with whether our property is going to look like it’s been draped in cheesecloth or have a measure of self-respect, which it certainly could use.

So about mid-June I get a broom and clean away the webs until the bristle end looks like a little tornado of white cotton candy.

Let’s get real: spiders have been around for about 380 million years—all that time to develop their sneaky little neural-cluster brains. They're well-adapted to take on just about any challenge you can throw at them, which includes a homeowner flailing around with a broom or toilet brush.

So every year about end of June they come back. Bigger, stronger, more robust than before, no doubt the sudden removal of their habitat precipitates a frantic web-manufacturing backlash. They re-spin in their favorite haunts, especially under the eaves where rafter tails meet fascia. They’re just crazy for rafter tails and fascia. They moor a bicycle, garden hose, rake, and six-foot ladder to the side of the shed. They bind overturned buckets to gas meters, chairs to outdoor tables, outdoor tables to nearby trees. They catch more bugs. They eat like medieval kings, which is to say with abandon and not a high regard for table manners. Empty bug carcasses flutter in the breezes.

DLL love hanging out in the shed rafter tails.

For now, it’s détente. I got other things to do, like get that toilet brush into the garbage and peel the webbing off the end of the broom because that stuff did not make Deb a fan of my Pholcus phalangioides removal methods. Meanwhile, our yard is relatively mosquito-free, thanks in part to the diligent work of daddy long-legs.

Soon there will be warm spring days and we'll move outside into a season yet too young for webbiness where we'll enjoy a few well-deserved moments of curb appeal.

By the way, we also have black widows. But that’s another story.

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