Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Weed By Any Other Name

The trouble with Creeping Charlie is that it doesn't really creep, like e.g. fog moving in onto the marshland. Instead it seems to randomly hop around, landing here in the midst of a hosta bed, there along the edge of a newly formed perennial garden, and there again winding through a pile of leftover paving stones stacked in the backyard.

If it acted more like a well brought up ground cover and less like fast-moving guerilla greenery then maybe, just maybe, it might be thought as more of a flower and less of a weed.

Taxonomically it is known as "Glechoma hederacea". But like most criminals this aromatic, perennial, evergreen creeper of the mint family goes under a series of aliases many of them representing attempts to pose as a law-abiding, tax-paying, contributing member of plant society.

It was called Alehoof or Tunhoof while being used by the early Saxons to clarify their beers. "The plant also acquired the name of Gill from the French guiller (to ferment beer), but as Gill also meant 'a girl,' it came also to be called 'Hedgemaids'".

Because of the shape and size of its leaf it is a.k.a. as "catsfoot". And, for no apparent reason, it is also called "Creeping Jenny".

But most gardeners simply know it as ground ivy and expend a lot of time, energy, and an occasional shot of "Roundup" to eradicate it from their landscape. Mars and I have spent the past several years working with an organic lawn care company to eliminate it from the lawn portion of our property. It is in fact the principal reason that we began to do more for our grass that simply mowing it.

A representative of the business had spoken to my mens garden club about the dangers and downsides of chemical landscaping (which we did not do), and the benefits to both the grass and the environment of an organic approach (which was what I pretended I was doing by doing nothing).

At about the same time Mars noticed that portions of the lawn were no longer lawn, but instead medium-sized carpets of irregular green leaves and funnel shaped flowers -- not quite wall-to-wall, but getting there. A Master Gardener friend of ours identified it as ground ivy in a tone of voice that I interpreted as a horticultural death knell.

Now, after numerous applications of corn meals, glutens, foul-smelling fish byproducts, and mysterious "teas", "Charlie" has crept out of the grass and rejuvenated itself along the edges of and inside each of our perennial beds.

There, because of the density and vigor of its competition, it is no longer able to establish a carpet, or even a small area rug. Instead, like Al-Qaeda, it pops up in a seemingly random series of isolated pockets of resistance. And, like that organization, the elimination of one terrorist cell has utterly no effect on the rest.

It is a never-ending, ground-based, hand-to-hand struggle.

It is why I love gardening so much.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The More Things Change...

"The oldest reported gray catbird lived for ten years and eleven months.

"They rarely return to the same breeding site in successive years."

So the catbirds that have lived with us for the past thirty summers could not possibly be the same catbirds -- even though they look, act, and sound absolutely identically from annum to annum.

This year's edition showed up last week. Mars looked out the kitchen window and saw one of them gathering nesting materials on the border between our house and our neighbors'.

The nest will most likely be about halfway up the rhododendron tree that sits right along our east/west dividing line. The shrub is thick enough to shield the roost from voyeuristic visitors, and the little gray thrushes are active enough to make it difficult to pinpoint their home quarters.

Before the summer is over, either our neighbors or us will inadvertently invade the protective territory around the nest. This will probably occur during the ten to eleven days that the hatchlings are still altricial and the parents are at their most protective, and will set off a flurry of screams and threatening flight patterns. The intruder will quickly back off, and that portion of the foliage will remain asymmetrically untrimmed for the remainder of the season.

Other times, for no apparent reason, one or both of the birds will harangue us with a rant of feline-like howls. Nothing that we do will shut them up. Eventually, apparently satisfied that they have made their point, they will simply stop.

Sometime in early autumn we will no longer see them - no good byes.

But for now, "The catbird's back."

Both of us realized it wasn't really the same birds year after year long before we found the catbird FAQs on But we continue to act and speak as if each visit was in fact simply just another re-visit -- like the movie "Groundhog Day".

Heraclitus said: "You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." Nothing stays the same.

Heraclitus obviously never had a catbird for a houseguest.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Going Ballistic in the Garden

At our health club the other day my personal trainer Kristi told me that she had artillery fungus.

I politely backed away and hurriedly began making plans to avoid her touch during the remainder of the session. Then I realized that she was just talking about a problem in her flowerbed, in an effort to take my mind off of the inherent physical pain involved in the task at hand.

I was totally unfamiliar with this apparently evil organism. But I was aware of other unpleasant plant-versus-human interactions such as poison ivy. And years ago I read the Michael Crichton novel, "The Andromeda Strain" which, as I remember it, was about the destruction of the human race by an mutant virus from an evergreen shrub of the heath family, possibly a Japanese Andromeda bush. We have a Japanese Spirea in our side yard. That's close enough for paranoia.

So, just to be safe I looked up "artillery fungus" on the Internet and found this alarming Google headline:

"Artillery Fungus Threatens Homeowners, Mulch Industry - Penn State..."

"OMG!" I thought. "Coach Joe Paterno has it too. This is much, much worse than I realized."

"Q: So, what exactly is the artillery fungus?
A: ...a white-rotting, wood-decay fungus that likes to live on moist landscape mulch.
Q: I can't see it in the mulch -- just how big is the artillery fungus?
A: ...quite small...1/10 of an inch across and are very hard to see in the mulch.
Q: Why is it called the "artillery" fungus? Is it also called the "shotgun fungus"?
A: [It]...shoots its spore masses, sort of like a cannon or howitzer...The spores are usually shot only a short distance, several feet, but the wind can carry them for longer distances and up to the second story of a house." (

OMG! OMG! We have mulch. We have moisture. We have a second story. I even spread the stuff by hand and then get down on the ground and play in it every day of the gardening season.

The more I learn, the worse it gets.

No form of mulch, other than white stones and plastic, is immune to this fungus. If it sits on the ground for more than a year it is a likely breeding ground. Therefore the answer, for those of us who like the look and feel of an organic weed suppresser and soil improver, is "out with the old, in with the new" on an annual basis.

But what actual damage does artillery fungus do? It makes whatever surface it lands on -- plant leaves, house siding, lawn furniture, white sports cars, slow-moving gardeners -- look really icky and gross, as if it was covered with little black specks of fungal spore tar. Which it is. Yet it apparently does no real harm at all. It is classified as a "nuisance" fungus.

But that is more than enough for some of us. Particularly someone who, several times a year, has to crouch down in a severely twisted posture and hand-spread layers of mulch around his possibly potent perennials. Maybe if I just think about the inherent physical pain involved in the task at hand it will take my mind off the potential danger in my flowerbed.