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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Things in the garden I wished I'd never learned and the lies I tell myself

Our Texas heat has arrived so I got up early this Saturday to slog it out in the yard before the sun started beating down on me. We've had an unseasonably wet and cool spring this year, perfect for the weeds, and I needed to get the worst of them pulled before they set seed.

I've been particularly plagued by Torilis arvensis, known as spreading hedgeparsley. The Texas Invasives site has a description that just makes me laugh. "U.S. Habitat: 'This plant usually grows around waste areas, edges of woods, and low shady places' (Dixon 2011). 'The preference is full sun, mesic to dry conditions, and a rather heavy soil containing gravel or clay. Because this plant often grows in soil containing limestone gravel, it appears to tolerate alkaline conditions' (Hilty 2012)." Yep. That's my yard. I have battled it back pretty well in the front but the backyard got away from me. The nice rains and mild winter have stimulated it to epic proportions. The black swallowtail use it as a host plant, but I've yet to see a caterpillar on it. It likes to hide near my fruit trees and against the fence, which means that Penny the dog gets covered in burrs whenever she goes out on patrol. As I was yanking it out this morning I discovered a few new interesting things about my garden, and that made me think of all the other things I wished I'd never learned and the lies I tell myself about them. See if any of these ring true to you.
  1. Horseherb (and other weeds) are easier to pull when they are three feet tall. I guess it's all about the leverage. Plus the verdant growth means they grow up, instead of spreading horizontally, so there are less roots to pull. However, many develop tap roots that rival any tree and it's a recipe for three aspirin and a glass of wine later. Waiting to weed until they get bigger is just plain laziness on my part. 
  2. Wildflowers are not just flowers. Oh sure, they are pretty growing out in fields and along the highway. I get particular inspiration from my friend Jenny Stocker who blogs about her experiences at Rock Rose. Jenny's garden has been featured in magazines, tv shows, books, you name it. I go there and have to remind myself that the carefree way her plants grow masks a lot of hard work. I planted quite a few seeds in my gravel pathways to mimic what she does. They are stunning, but they reseed everywhere and I usually am tripping over them before I finally clear them away. Any plant out of place is a weed. I make all sorts of excuses for leaving them, but I must be ruthless and pull them out. Dandelions are pretty too (and delicious) but I don't seem to have trouble yanking them out.
  3. Bluebonnets are traitors. Lupines in general are some of my favorite plants because they are like the marines. It's their job to establish a beachhead on these alkaline soils so that other plants can land and thrive. Lupines are legumes, which means that they have bacteria on their roots (rhizobium) that fixes nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the plant. In my yard, the bluebonnets grow to about eight inches tall and then flop over to spread about a foot for each plant. That's awesome except that they harbor weed fugitives that I can't see until they outgrow the bluebonnet - often this is after they've already spread their weedy seeds everywhere.
  4. You'll never clear an area of weeds in order to put down mulch. The great thing about mulch is that it serves as a weed suppressant. For that reason, I try to clear the mulching area of weeds first before spreading the layer of whatever I'm going to use. The trouble is that I'm so exhausted from weeding that I never get around to the mulching part. I lie to myself and say that I'll do it next time. This goes along with other great lies like "I'll mow the grass when it quits raining."
  5. It's the journey, not the destination.  Plants on the edge of the garden will never get weeded. When I get overwhelmed with how overgrown things are, I play games with myself and try to prioritize the work. "I'll just work on the vegetable beds" I say to myself. Trouble is that I have to walk through a jungle to get there. This means that I weed on the way to weeding, then get tired and never even start the job I meant to. I guess this means I need staff. The other great lie I tell myself is "I'm just going out to turn the compost." Sure, but it always needs screening, which means I have compost to spread, which means I need a weed free area to add it to, which means see #4.
  6. Everything in Texas has spurs. Yee-howdy. Every single dang native plant and weed has some sort of spur, burr, thistle, or other device whose sole purpose is to extract blood meal for its community. And that doesn't even begin to include the biting insects and other varmints. 
  7. Elmer Fudd had the right idea. Yeah, that bugs bunny was a hilarious wise cracker but Elmer Fudd was totally justified in hunting down that wascally wabbit, not to mention his friends the squirrels. You know, I am a good person, I provide food for wildlife, I planted just the right shrubs and plants to contribute to the circle of life. However when those squirrels take one small bite out of a peach then throw it to the ground, or the rabbits just dig up carrots and leave them on the surface, or the mockingbirds fight each other and knock down the grapes, it just gets to be too much. This leads to the next thing I wish I never learned.
  8. Cages are for the people. The only relief from the wildlife is to cage your plants. Mere netting is not going to too the job. You need to build boxes for every edible plant, screen in your porches, and basically see the world through the fine haze of mesh. The Great Outdoors is over rated.
  9. Plants are not passive. For the inexperienced gardener, it seems that every plant is out there doing things on their own and just takes what comes. Not true. They're organized, they're manipulative, and they're arrogant. I've been spit on, stabbed, scratched, bitch slapped, and poisoned - all by plants I really like! Who needs enemies? The soil food web research and other microbiological studies show that plants communicate to each other and manipulate microbes, animals, and especially humans to work on their behalf. Don't believe me? When was the last time you ran outside to cover a plant from a freeze or gave it that special elixir to make it grow better. Sucker.
  10. Whatever pest or weed you brag about not having shows up the next growing season. It's gardening karma. I've learned to be much more sympathetic when people complain about a particular nuisance in their garden. You don't want to alienate these people because they may have the solution to the problem you are definitely going to have. It's the old "do unto others" thing.
What would you add to this list?


  1. That is one of the best posts I have read in a long time. And I'm not saying that because I got a mention. Hear me yesterday. "I'm going to ban bluebonnets next year" Spoken as I set about removing the carcasses of the spent flowers. "Oh, no you're not" Says my husband. Not sure what he meant by that-he wants them or he doesn't believe I can do it. Underneath just as you said a wiry tangle of that weed I don't know the name of. I can relate to every single thing you wrote. You forgot to mention the Maltese thistle. I think that really deserves a special mention in more than one place. Well done. Really enjoyed it.

    1. Seriously Jenny, there is nothing worse than tripping on bluebonnets and their little friends they hide like brooding hens. But lordy, I love them. Thank you so much for your kind words!

  2. Hilarious and a good dose of wisdom. So true and made me laugh.

  3. I loved this because most of it is what I'd say we're I clever enough. Especially #9, no wait - #10, or maybe #4. Oh heck, ALL of them!

    1. Thank you Vicki, you and I have the same snark meter!

  4. Preach, woman! #9 has me ROFL!

    1. That's right, we're all just handmaids to these plants. Look at us out there in our bonnets and long sleeves and exclaiming how wonderful it all is. We've been brainwashed. This is one of my favorite articles:

    2. Off to read the suggested article...looking forward to it!