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joan wickersham

The invasion of the garden snatcher

I’m not going to win, but I’m not going to lose either

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istockphoto/globe staff illustration

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Up until a month or so ago, if you had told me that a plant could have a personality, much less an evil one, I would have disagreed with you. That was before I tangled with bishop’s weed. In small doses, bishop’s weed is actually quite lovely, with delicate serrated leaves and white frothy flowers that resemble Queen Anne’s lace.

The problem is that there is almost no such thing as a small dose of bishop’s weed. It spreads like crazy. We’ve always managed to stay ahead of it in our garden with semi-regular weeding. But last summer we had work done on the house; the backyard was full of boards and machinery and the beds were an inaccessible mess. All it took was one season for the bishop’s weed to gain not only a foothold but a stranglehold.

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When I spoke to a professional gardener about getting rid of bishop’s weed, he shook his head. “You know those end-of-the-world scenarios where all that’s left is cockroaches?” he said. “Well, I’d amend that to cockroaches and bishop’s weed.” “Oh, come on, how bad could it be?” I thought, like the woman in the science fiction movie who doesn’t believe that the Things have been quietly breeding in the storm drains. In science fiction, this kind of arrogant innocence is always a preface to gore. In a garden full of bishop’s weed nobody dies screaming, but the gardener inevitably swears a lot.

The weed spreads via a network of matted underground roots. They don’t seem to go that deep and, with patient loosening of the soil, they lift out with deceptive ease, as if saying, “Oh, all right, if it matters that much to you, we give up.” But in the midst of that casually graceful surrender, there is a terrible, obstinate, mocking little snap, the quiet sound of the root breaking. In appearing to yield, the plant is merely humoring you. It’s giving up for today, but reserving its right to cause extensive trouble tomorrow. It’s telling you that it can afford to bide its time.

One afternoon last week I spent an hour on my knees clearing out a particularly insidious dark corner. I stood up feeling victorious and then some flash of mysterious, dreadful intuition made me turn over one of the slates bordering the foundation of our neighbor’s carriage house. There on the dark soil slept a whole new generation of bishop’s weed, pale with lack of chlorophyll but unmistakably ready to invade.

After a few weeks of battling with bishop’s weed I already see that I’m not going to win. But I’m not going to lose, either. Without going too deeply into political metaphor, I can see that there’s a big mess in my garden, which started underground and was already well advanced by the time it announced itself as a disaster. I certainly didn’t introduce this weed, but my job right now is to get down in the dirt and deal with what’s there — the stuff that is showing and the stuff that is still hidden underneath. There is a strong temptation to make the garden (and the gardener) look good in a hurry: to cover it all over with a nice blanket of mulch, or to blast it with pesticide, but either option would create future problems — a recurrent crop of weeds, unhealthy soil — for me or for some future gardener. My job is to keep weeding. Someone could look over my fence and taunt me, because there is still bishop’s weed growing in my garden. I’d be willing to bet that person has no firsthand knowledge of the tenacity of bishop’s weed.

Near the end of a science fiction movie, there is always a moment when the police chief tells the citizens that the plague or invasion is over and all is well once again — followed by a silent, ominous tracking shot deep inside a storm drain, where a single surviving young Thing is waving its feeble infant tentacles. To expect that a gardener, any gardener, can achieve a weed-free garden is naïve, a guarantee of future disillusionment. But that’s only an opinion — formed, as so many of our opinions are, in the subjective isolation of my own backyard.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.
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