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  • John R

Quiz: Can you tell the xenomorph from the wisteria? (Hint: wisteria is on the right)

After several unsuccessful attempts to grow vining clematis and morning glory on our backyard arbor, I finally planted a wisteria. Many friends tried to dissuade me, saying that wisteria was a close relative of the extraterrestrial xenomorph from the movie, Alien. They said it would likely devour our arbor and possibly our house. “You’ll be sorry,” they said, smugly.

How a cute little potted vine fresh out of the greenhouses could ever get so destructive was beyond our ken—okay, my ken—but at that point I was really wanting some vining action and I was willing to give wisteria a shot. So I planted one at the foot of an arbor post and pointed toward the sky. “Grow that-a-way,” I encouraged.

After several halting, unpromising years featuring stunted growth tips and renegade tendrils that flailed about in empty space, the wisteria finally managed to twist itself around the support post and work its way up to the top of the arbor. I figured it soon would spread out and add its big purple flower clusters to the backyard gestalt.

Sure enough, it began to luxuriate in the raw sun and open air, growing thick as it sprawled across the arbor like a python that had just swallowed a whole goat. In the spring of its fourth year the wisteria produced several of the big, luxurious flower clusters that wisteria is famous for. Hooray! We were on our way to wisteriastic bliss!

Wisteria attempting to strangle our smoke tree.

Flash forward another year. From my observation post on the back patio one day I noticed that wisteria tendrils had extended spectral arms across open space and had begun to weave their way into the innocent branches of our smoke tree, our zelkova, and the across-the-back-fence neighbors’ mountain ash. The wisteria had become subversive and was looking to annex the branches of nearby trees that were tantalizingly close to its arbor lair. It was engaging a covert infiltration designed to quietly extend its empire—clearly our wisteria had plans to take over the neighborhood.

I got the ladder and trimmed tendrils, quietly admonishing the plant for disrespecting other plants’ personal spaces. But from this elevated perspective, nose-to-nose with the wisteria’s leafy soul, it was clear that I’d underestimated a wisteria’s prime directive, which is to beautifully and elegantly overwhelm everything. Its twisting viney stems were thick and woody, its leaves vibrant, its relentless tendrils hunting for fresh purchase in every direction. The fact that so many trees and large shrubs had been planted so close to its clutches—perhaps human error was involved—meant frequent tendril-removal maintenance chores for moi (chores I may or may not accomplish, depending on my attentiveness which, let’s be frank, is spotty).

Keeping the wisteria in check will be an annual challenge that I’m doomed to lose by virtue of the plant’s superior cunning and will power. No doubt one day we’ll see wisteria blossoms drooping from the top of the zelkova and populating the branches of the smoke tree. Ultimately, the entire arbor, backyard fencing and several nearby houses will collapse in a kerfuffle of leaves and tendrils and overmatched lumber.

Of course, overcrowding has a solution, and judicious pruning is certainly one of them. So is digging up and relocating plants, and of course prior to purchase it wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to a plant’s pros and cons, checking to see if a particular plant has unfortunate habits, such as being predisposed to strangle arbors and neighbors.

Yeah, you're pretty. I forgive you.

A more intriguing option—and one that’s less work—is letting the plants figure it out for themselves. Survival of the fittest—which is a basic tenet of Schiddygarden and an idea that’s largely endorsed by doomsday preppers all over the world. (I’ll add with a bit of environmentalist snobbery that we garden organically, without chemicals, meaning that even if our garden is less-than-stellar, it’s organically less-than-stellar.)

Should I really let our plants duke it out, unsupervised? Good question! I’m going to sit right here in the patio sun, listen to the finches twittering in the zelkova, and keep an eye on those tendrils. I've got to admit, wisteria earns a lot of forgiveness by being good-looking, and in our garden, looks beat common sense every time. And if our wisteria’s Darwinian urges need some restraint, I’ve got my clippers at the ready.

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  • John R

Here, Reggie! Here, boy!

This is Reginald. He was the greatest pet you could ever want. First of all, he was virtually maintenance-free. That is a huge plus when it comes to having a pet. We didn’t have to feed him because he fed himself, chomping and munching all over the neighborhood. His forages included our yard, which was annoying when he would eat something we planted just two days ago, but he was self-sustaining, food-wise, and you can’t say that about many pets.

We didn’t have to teach him to poop and pee outside, either. He did that all over the neighborhood as well, including our yard, which was definitely annoying if you weren’t looking at the ground and you stepped on a bunch of blueberry-size poop pellets that deer are fond of pooping (although that is much less worse than stepping in a fresh heap of dog poop, you have that on my good authority). Furthermore, we didn’t have to groom Reggie or take him to the vet for rabies shots, all of which was a genuine money-saver.

Fertilizer or land mine—you decide. [photo by hirun]

For all his neighborhood peregrinations and his frequent forays into the surrounding forests, Reginald preferred to bed down in our yard pretty much on a nightly basis. This display of loyalty is the definition of a real pet and a contributing factor why we gave him the title of “Greatest Pet Ever,” much to the chagrin of our cat who, it should be noted, came in a distant second in the World’s Greatest Pet competition due to her demands to be fed and to have her litter box regularly cleaned.

Reggie would plunk down anywhere in our yard, but typically he’d stretch out in the corner of the garden that’s shady and woefully overgrown, a spot that probably reminded him of the ungroomed character of his natural home in the wilds. Reggie bunked at our place despite the fact that early in our pet/owner relationship I’d chase him out of our yard whenever I saw him. I reasoned that he was snacking on the hostas that were desperately trying to survive various maladies such as inattentive care and low watering, and the least I could do was defend the plants from being totally disappeared. So I’d spring into action, waving my arms and yelling clever insults like, Deer! Go! Get!

Reginald would remain cool during these histrionics, chewing contentedly on something we’d planted the other day and regarding me with disdain from the shadowed glen of his retreat. He probably knew that if it came down to fisticuffs, he’d drub me with his hooves like I was a speed bag. Plus, he could butt the living phlegm out of me with those horns.

But after a while he’d get up, shake his antlers like clearing the cobwebs after a siesta, stroll insouciantly toward the front fence, turn back to give me one last eyeroll, and leap over the 48-inch-high barrier as easy as jumping over a length of garden hose. Then he’d saunter up the street.

Next morning he’d be back, bedded down in his leafy lair, shorn hosta leaves hanging out of his mouth. Now that’s loyalty!

Reggie viewed from a back window.

Reginald was a white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus. There are many white-tailed deer in our valley, and it’s not unusual to see whole families of Odocoileus strolling the through our neighborhoods, stopping now and then to snack on somebody’s daylilies and arrogantly crossing the streets with complete disregard for painted crosswalks and charging SUVs. Deer simply adore the smorgasbord of civilized life. People will stop and gawk at these little parades as if they're witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime phalanx of centaurs marching past. Ooh! Deer!

Not every local townie approves of these roving bands of herbivores, and lots of energy and expense has been devoted to keeping deer out of folks’ properties. Eight-foot-high fences are popular, eight feet being the lawful limit around here and the theoretical vertical limit for leaping deer, although yes there are stories of deer leaping over eight-footers easy as a sneeze.

Natural deterrents are also popular. No, you can’t count firearms as “natural deterrents,” although there are plenty of people who would like to say otherwise. I’m referring more to plants that deer don’t care to eat, so even if Odocoileus invades your property, they are likely to leave your plantings alone, although they very well might leave behind piles of poop pellets.

Here are some plants that deer don’t like (but sometimes will eat anyway):

• Foxgloves and poppies. These plants are toxic to deer, which is as good a reason as any for not eating them. Deer that do eat them help prove the theory of natural selection.

• Marigolds. The deal with marigolds is that only corny people plant them, and you’re not corny, are you?

• Lamb’s ear. A deer eating lamb’s ears sounds a little cannibalistic, I think. So deer probably just don’t go there.

• Spirea. We have a spirea out front where any deer could chomp it and the plant is still there so QED.

• Lavender and other aromatics. Deer aren’t really hip to finer fragrances, you probably wouldn’t either if you never took a bath, although deer have been found luxuriating in backyard swimming pools so maybe I’ve got that one wrong.

You might have noticed that I’ve been referring to Reginald in the past tense. After being a constant in our lives for nearly three years, one day Regggie did not show up. Then weeks passed, and months, and all the seasons came and went without Reggie’s antlers peering out from the tangle of brush that passes for our side yard “garden.” Whether he’d found a mate and relocated to greener neighborhoods up north, or whether he’d been eaten by a cougar or felled by a hunter, we’ll never know. To say the cat was relieved is an understatement.

I know what you’re wondering. If Reginald was such a pet, did he come to me when I called his name? Puh-lease! Deer don’t have names!

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  • John R

Tulips, irises, phlox, alliums, hyacinth, and some other growy things compete for the last bits of open space.

There are fundamental gardening tenets that you shouldn’t ignore. In fact, they are so basic, so common sense, that you couldn’t possibly ignore them.

But you do.

I said “you” in those opening paragraphs, but I didn’t mean to imply you the reader specifically. I was just doing a little editorial ducking and covering behind the second-person pronoun “you,” rather than using the much more descriptive and accurate first person pronouns, “me” and “I.”

But me do.

It happened innocently enough. There was a huge nothing in the beds by the back fence, a yawning void of bone-dry mulch covering soil that was equally dry and compacted as hard as oak plank flooring. Nary a growing green thing. Even the invasive plants refused to populate this botanical vacuity despite the fact I’d assured them there would be water and bat guano and other perks freely provided, but they turned up their cockleburs and grew the other way. Ingrates—just when I need you. I planted stuff—bushes and some perennials and things I lost the little plastic tags to and had no idea what they were—and hoped for the best. Which would be anything living and close to green in color for at least part of the year.

It was at this stage of the game that I willfully ignored a gardening fundamental: Don’t plant plants too close together. In my defense, I couldn’t help myself. There was all this empty space just begging to be planted or more to the point, covered up.

None of what transpired was my fault. Put the blame on the greenhouse where we buy our plants. Have you seen this greenhouse? It’s roughly the size of an aircraft carrier and the far end squishes to a tiny vanishing point. You step inside (okay, Me step inside) and you’re instantly surrounded by thousands of healthy plants all screaming: Good Gaea, get me out of this tiny black plastic container! My roots are bound tighter than a nun’s asshole!

Me, being a sucker for pleading plants—especially ones that offer up discomforting metaphors—thinks: Why just two penstemon when five gets you more color sooner? And while we’re on the subject, Why just white? Why not this incredible version called Stratospheric Blue? And a couple three of those, whatever they are, because it says on this little plastic tag that they grow fast. And wouldn’t these little guys be cool although it says on the accompanying tag that they need well-drained soil and the clay soil at the back of our property has the consistency of an engine block. But, nothing ventured!

I hustled boxes of them home. Out in the Empty Space I set out the plants in their little plastic pots, arranging them in a pleasing nonsensical pattern. I kept shifting around their positions because there were so many variables, given the quantity of starts I’d selected and my deep desire to cover up bare soil as soon as possible, possibly within the next hour. I cored out holes and settled my new purchases into nests of organic planting compost. I watered those aching-to-be-free roots.

Eventually some died, sure. Well, a preponderance, actually. But some hung in there, as grim as conditions might have been—wrong pH, bad magnesium, sporadic sunlight—and managed to survive. Those that didn’t make it were quickly replaced with randomly selected, your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine experimental plantings, usually things that sounded colorful and resistant to inept and intermittent care. I didn’t care that the tags clearly instructed: Plant 18 inches apart. Why plant eighteen inches apart when by any standard of logic twelve inches apart would be even better and fuller and greener! Do I hear ten? Me do!

Cranes bill, tulips, and valerian try to stop a tsunami of Japanese maple.

And sure enough, a couple of years later the empty beds started to fill in. Things got leafy, flowery, bulky. They filled in nicely, I might even say exceptionally (taking into account that I have a low bar). And they grew. And grew.

Another year and things began to get jumbly. Branches intermingled, leaves overlapped, species intertwined. Inevitably, survival instincts took over. No more Nice Darling Plant Fresh From The Greenhouse. The evolutionary knives came out. Branches stretched and got spindly in an effort to rob neighboring plants of sunlight, roots tussled underground as they vied for water and nutrients. Organization and proportion gave way to chaos and ruthlessness.

I know all this from personal observation and the horticultural methodology I’m developing that I refer to as Gardening in Retrospect, which basically involves realizing how much you’ve screwed up and reflecting on those mistakes from the relative safety of the cement patio. Gardening in Retrospect has certain harmonies with Darwinism and Nature Knows Best. And if you don’t mind, me retrospecting while sipping a nice cold IPA.

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