Waging War in the Garden
The Pre-war Garden
It’s been nearly five weeks since I mounted an offensive campaign in the garden, declaring all-out war on Canada thistle, bindweed, and bugleweed invasion forces. These hoards of nefarious warmongers had slaughtered my iris plantings, climbing rose, and mature thyme shrubs, and were now advancing with cold deliberation into the stalwart peonies, echinacea, liatrus, clematis, and tickseed.
This was no surprise attack. These sneaky marauders had begun to execute a devious war strategy years before, when they hoodwinked me into believing that the surface precautions I exercised by spraying them with poison and yanking them out of the ground could put an end to their hostile posturing.
Two years ago, seeing that the Canada thistle advance was getting out of hand, my daughter volunteered to lead an attack with a couple of gallons of a popular weed killer. The stuff was so toxic that the manufacturer recommended removing the dead material while wearing rubber gloves and a face mask. As my daughter was in the front line on this maneuver, I was assigned clean-up detail. Despite my precautions, my arms and ankles itched for days afterwards. To add insult to injury, the thistle returned.
Thistle, One Enemy
Then last year, ironically, a dear Canadian friend volunteered to hand-dig the Canada thistle. Although she did a great job throughout the garden, her efforts cleared the path for the bindweed and bugleweed to advance.
By the end of last summer, the relentless march of bindweed and bugleweed had taken its toll on those aforementioned slaughtered plants. In addition, the opportunistic remnants of thistle, supposedly having succumbed to chemical warfare one year and brute force another, now brought up the rear with fresh recruits, infiltrating every cubic inch of garden not occupied by the other two.
Unknown to me, the thistle and bindweed had remained busy underground, sending swift and deep runners out from hidden subterranean base camps, while the bugleweed had woven thick surface mats of fibrous roots concealing their allies' sub-surface treachery throughout my 30-foot by 15-foot prize garden. I’m sure the thistle and bindweed were down there all that time, experimenting, in their secret laboratories, pushing the limits of genetic engineering and anti-toxin development.
An Army of One
Five weeks ago I bit the bullet and went to war, brandishing my eco-friendly weed-fighting weapons—a trowel, kneeling pad, pitchfork, and most important, attitude—yelling this slogan: It’s me or them!
I could have assembled my own allied forces which might have included friends and family or mercenaries in the guise of landscapers and nurserymen, but instead I chose to enlist only Me, Myself, and I. The three of us established rules of engagement, embarked on a short-course boot camp training regimen, mapped out a strategy, and, just at dawn on the first day of our offensive, knelt in the beleaguered garden and prayed for guidance, protection, and a swift end to the war.
On the Front
As the days of offensive maneuvers progressed, this army of one never succumbed to fatigue, even though knees, back, and thigh muscles screamed in pain. (Thank god for hot showers at the end of a long day.)
Most interesting, this challenge took on a spiritual dimension. The tedium of digging, hacking, and pulling, thereby tossing enemy casualties into black plastic bags, became a thing unto itself. A rhythm. A rightness with life and death. And a measure of discipline.
Being on the front reminded me of an old war story told to me by my ex-husband about practicing, over and over again, the assembling and disassembling of a weapon, blindfolded. The point being, that in the end, when the weapon was needed, the reflexes conditioned by mind-numbing practice would make the difference between shooting the enemy or shooting yourself in the foot.
The Beautifully Deceiving Bugleweed
And so, each day, I chose an area of the garden on an attack grid I’d drawn on paper, stabbed the trowel or pitchfork into the ground, and brought up clods of root-laden soil that I then meticulously picked through in order to remove the thistle and bindweed runners and the heavy masses of matted bugleweed roots.
many times I wanted to quit, to retreat. My hands became sore, my calf and
thigh muscles burned, dirt flew into my eyes, onto my hair, and down my shirt.
But after a week or so of advancing through the garden this way in blocks of
two to four hours, the work became easier and faster, and the rhythm of my now
well-practiced actions became thoughtless and thus both sure and soothing. By this time, I was confident I would not be shooting myself in the foot.
One Stalwart, Echinacea
Soon, I had to face the stark reality that there would be civilian casualties as the result of my efforts, but I did not know the losses would be so severe. As I dug and sifted, I saw that the enemy had penetrated the very fiber of even the stalwarts. Hostile roots and runners had invaded the root systems of civilians and were literally strangling them. In the end, Me, Myself, and I sent the dead to body bags and the living to triage. Some would make it; some would not.
I moved the ones to be saved into temporary quarters—plastic pots or a spare area of an adjoining garden—nursed them along with water and shade and appropriate pruning, and relinquished their fate to a stronger hand than mine. Even though I declared myself an army of one, at this point I would have jumped for joy had the nursing staff of M.A.S.H., under the leadership of Hotlips Hoolihan, run up my hill with emergency kits at the ready.
The Garden During War
The Long Siege
Unfortunately, this was no five-week campaign with a clear victory at the end. Although I may have completely eradicated the bugleweed, I have just begun the long siege with thistle and bindweed. Already, after only five weeks, I see fresh sprouts of villainous weeds popping up in the first grid areas I attacked. I am feeling that this war may be my personal Forth Rail Bridge; just as I finish a major sweep, it will be time to go back to the beginning and start over. I have great hope that the sweeps will be, each time, shorter in duration.
There is comfort, although not too much, in knowing that history is on my side, and I will prevail…eventually. Organic home gardeners have waged wars with exactly the same beasts and have come up victorious, even though it may have taken as many as ten years to declare the war done and over. And so, for this season and the next, and perhaps the next after that, the stalwarts will have to bide their time until they can be returned to their homeland by my well-honed, disciplined perseverance.
Victory in the garden! It’s me or them!
Thistle and Bugleweed Facts for Planning and Implementing Attack Strategies
- Underground thistle and bindweed runners can penetrate to a depth of eight feet or more.
- Digging deeply to extricate the runners leaves bits and pieces of them in the earth, any and all of which are likely to produce new plants and subsequent underground runners.
- Cursory yanking at visible top growth sends a signal to the runners to produce more top growth.
- As for all plants that depend on light, having their leaves stripped diligently from their stems will eventually starve them to death, in a decade perhaps.
Other Weapons in the War against Weeds
Although hand combat is the method of engagement I've chosen for eradicating bindweed, bugleweed, and Canada thistle, other weapons in the war against weeds may be worth trying, among them common household products. Or, if you know your weeds are edible, you can achieve great culinary satisfaction by turning your enemies into a bowl of weed soup.