march, at home, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mine is, in most respects, a suburban family with all the trimmings. We have two family cars, including a Buick handed down from my husband's grandfather. My husband and I chose our house three years ago for the good schools and for the yard, but our choice means that we each have a commute that cannot be navigated via public transportation. We have two daughters, both in elementary school, and we each coach one of their soccer teams. Our children play more computer games than I think they should. We mow our yard regularly, and we both enjoy gardening. We take family road trips on weekends.
In many other ways, including our lack of a minivan and the fact that our household has no TV, we are not quite normal for our suburb. One fact about us, however, makes us fit in perfectly with a silent majority: the property around our home has a very healthy population of weeds. Although a scattering of houses on our street bear small flags either warning of or advertising some form of herbi-cidal spring lawn service, our own yard bespeaks years of pesticide-free lawn care. Dandelions and clover, plantain and spurge call our yard home and refuge. Perhaps the only way in which I don't fit in with the majority of weed-harboring property owners is that I don't feel the least bit guilty about it.
Our back property line dissolves in a tangle of shrubs and narrow woodland belonging to the community swimming pool. This landscaping arrangement has the major advantage that in summer, leaves block our view of the parking lot; in spring and fall, our daughters have an empty flat area for riding bicycles; and in winter, the leaves are gone, but there's no one there to inhibit our privacy, and we get a bit more southern light to boot.
Perhaps my husband and I come to the idea of micromanaging a woodland naturally. His parents, incredible gardeners, left the hardscrabble rural Missouri subsistence farms of their youth and now live a life of servitude to their five-acre yard in Kentucky. This yard is perhaps half lawn, with the rest divided among woodlands and flower beds, and many of the flower beds are half hidden within the woods. I'm not the only one who appreciates it: their county extension agent included it in a local garden tour after he saw it. These gardens are what my in-laws love. When we call them in summer, we have to wait until about an hour after dark if we hope to reach them indoors. When we visit, my father-in-law manages to find his daily quotient of solitude by going to the yard to work. They have pulled out honeysuckle and poison ivy, created a network of small trails, selected trees for cutting or planting, all while maintaining what would appear at first glance to be a fairly natural looking woodland.
Their town, like much of the Southeast, has had midsummer droughts for several years straight, and this has made their lives difficult. New trees and perennials would die without watering, and established ones won't bloom without it. I've teased them that they should switch to cactus farming, though they live just outside the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, in an area that historically has had ideal rainfall for most crops. Instead, they slowly created a standing irrigation system that runs throughout the woods, providing life support for the hundreds of trees and perennials that they have planted there over their fifteen-year residence. For the visitor, the irrigation system actually increases the magic of their gardens because in hot, dry weather one suddenly smells water and hears birds chirping as the spray falls on the sheltered blooms. When my in-laws were young, a drought meant that the crops failed and money was tight; now it means that the water bill rises, but they continue to eat without worry. Their plants live.
For our family, those five acres were a lifeline during our years as city dwellers in Chicago—after a week of that yard, we were all rejuvenated. For a while after each trip, I could resign myself to the eternal watchfulness necessary to let the children play in an urban park with strangers, dogs, or cars on all sides. My husband and I married in that yard, and it is still one of my favorite places to relax. I can tease my in-laws about their irrigation system only so much, because I love walking in their cultivated woodland.
By our second year in our suburban house, the woods in the back of our yard were, thanks to my ecological sins described in later chapters, much closer to my ideal playground than they were when we bought the house. We don't have enough acreage to really emulate my in-laws, but we've made a start. With the help of a truckload—literally—of mulch, we created a path through the woods, which in summer is hidden behind goldenrod. The poison ivy, not exterminated but much reduced, was no longer a threat. I planted ferns and scattered seeds collected from my in-laws' woodland gardens. In the yard, we readied plots for vegetable gardens, and while seeds for those gardens germinated in peat pots indoors, we worked to improve the edge of the parking lot on the other side of our woods.
We have had a problem with trash in the woods. Some of it washes in with a seasonal stream, and some just goes with the territory of public spaces. We thought that if we cut the brush a bit, we might reduce the trash problem. Our logic was that if the woods looked nice, people would know that someone cared about them and would refrain from dumping. But even then we found bottles, cinder blocks, broken concrete, and an old car battery there. Ultimately the car battery was what spurred me to action, since I didn't want the metals leaching into our soil or the seasonal stream.
The trash we wanted to remove, and the path we wanted for our kids, was blocked from reach by a number of healthy multiflora rose bushes (bearing the memorable Latin name of Rosa multiflora). These bushes were taller than me and reached out with their stems easily three feet all around. I should also note that each stem was thick with substantial thorns. Once fully leafed out, these bushes bear an uncountable number of small, tooth-edged oval leaves, just like a domestic rose, but their flowers are pitifully dull white and small in comparison to their tame cousins. Even in March, without foliage, I couldn't get to the car battery without clippers and gloves — I can only assume the battery was deposited when the rosebush was considerably smaller. Someone lazy enough to leave a battery in the weeds wouldn't go to the pain and trouble of slipping it deep under a thornbush unless he was both cruel and masochistic.
I don't know if multiflora rose bushes everywhere attract trash, but I have observed that trash certainly seems to stick to it. At the nearby community center, one multiflora rose bush sheltered an errant soccer ball for about a year, before I finally remembered to take the clippers so I could get it out without being attacked by the bush. This same multiflora rose currently has any number of bottles, wrappers, and bits of newspaper in it, thanks to both its location — on a property boundary near a playground and a soccer field—and the fact that once trash goes in, few people are dressed or armed enough to get it out.
I don't always mind multiflora rose. Yes, it is spiny, and its only floral value is for pollinating insects. In addition to helping the pollinators, though, it makes great hiding places for the kinds of wildlife I like having around, bunnies and birds mostly. Rose hips — the fruit of a pollinated rose flower—are known to be high in vitamin C, and either wild or domestic versions can be made into tea or a sour, nutritious fruity syrup.
Multiflora rose was introduced to the United States in the 1800s as a possible source of healthy, disease-resistant roots for ornamental roses, but the U.S. Soil Conservation Service promoted it as a promising means of controlling erosion. Shortly before then, the wine industry in France, threatened by a pathogenic root fungus, was saved by the introduction of Concord grape rootstocks imported from the United States. The traditional, domestic French grapevines were grafted onto our hardy Yankee wild grapes and rendered disease resistant. Grafting is a kind of plant organ transplant: a healthy stem from one plant is spliced onto the stem of a rooted plant. The success of the grape project most likely made multiflora rose seem a potential magic bullet for the fragile and tame domestic roses as well. Even after being grafted onto wild stock, however, domestic roses remained vulnerable to a variety of root problems, so multiflora rose is simply a scourge rather than a solution.
At least four large multiflora rosebushes lay between us and a good clean trail, from our yard to the pool parking lot, and each required trimming in short pieces, outside to inside, because the spines made the base unreachable. Blood sacrifice was demanded, of course. The kids biked and scootered around the empty parking lot while my husband and I used hacksaws and clippers. Although we became too warm in our jackets, we kept them on for protection against thorns the size of bear claws.
I found the work really satisfying. I'd been poked by those plants enough while trying to extract trash that I already considered them enemies of sorts. Also, I enjoy working up a good sweat, especially outdoors in early spring, when I've forgotten what sweat feels like. Cutting the roses was so satisfying that when they were clipped and sawed to the ground, I went to hacking at some other poor shrubs until my husband reminded me that we wanted the leaves for privacy in summer. Oh, right. Still sweaty and dressed for more work, I went to pulling poison ivy vines. My dream for our woodland is a place where our daughters can build forts, find treasures, and come to the door needing a hose before entering, so it simply cannot be "anything goes," plant-wise. Woodland vacancy: spiny shrubs and toxic vines need not apply.
One of the plants we hoped to encourage by cutting the rose was a white birch. White birch is not common in this area, but we think fondly of it from our time living in New England, where its papery, clean-white bark brightens landscapes of dark brown tree trunks.
Once the rose was gone, this particular birch bark was clearly visible and lovely, and though the trunk was leaning precipitously, I imagined it thriving for years without the shrubby, prickly competitor at its base. The birch did appear to thrive for most of the summer, and then in August it turned brown and died, first a single lower branch, followed by the rest of the leaves within a couple of weeks. At first, when I saw the single branch dying, I hoped and assumed that we could just cut off the affected branch. By early September, though, the leaves of the whole tree were crispy and brown, and we had to admit that the tree had died despite our battle with the rosebush. There must be a reason we don't see many white birches in our area, but we don't know what it is, and losing this tree still saddens me.
I know that the ultimate solution for these woods would probably include some purchases — native trees or wildflowers, for example. This little woodland, though, has exactly the same problem shared by many weedy, underappreciated areas. For one, its position on a property boundary means that it is a bit of a demilitarized zone where neither neighbor (in this case, we and the pool management) wants to put too much into it, lest the other neighbor destroy the effort. Second, landscaping plants are expensive, and if I had a few extra thousand dollars in my pocket, I'd prefer to put that money into plants in places I see daily—the front yard or the vegetable garden. The weeds in this woodland are simply taking advantage of the absence of human management in a space where any native community of plants was probably destroyed or weakened in the construction efforts of the neighborhood fifty years ago. We must admire the weeds' resourcefulness.
If we have decided we don't want weeds, multiflora rose included, we have to answer the question of what we really expect to grow instead, especially in the property boundaries, like this one. For us, the tangle of weeds actually creates a visual and auditory block from the pool parking lot, a huge asset in the summer. Weedy spaces serve as boundaries between commercial areas and residential areas, or between houses and major roads. They thrive between the elementary school and its neighboring houses, presumably shelter ing the residents from noise and diverting the children's curiosity. One of my daughters' favorite woodlands is a weedy strip, perhaps fifteen feet wide, on the property boundary between the pool and community center's grounds. These woods aren't thick enough to be dark or scary, but the kids know they can play there, break sticks, and make shelters without disturbing anyone.
Weeds grow well in places that people ignore. For this reason, weedy spaces are often where children go when they want to escape controlling adult ways. This is one of the reasons that children cannot be saved from obesity by more soccer, swimming, and fancy playgrounds—they need time and space to find their own reasons, off our agendas, to be outdoors.
For adults, weeds also perform a number of valuable ecological services. They reduce greenhouse gases by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, and they help soak up storm water, which is a big issue in a city where a tenth of an inch of rain can lead to overflows from the combined sewage and storm water systems. Weeds also stabilize soil from erosion, which is a huge service because topsoil that took nature hundreds of years to create can, unless protected, be lost in a single day. In our woodland area, weeds may have helped slow the release of the metals from the car battery into ground or surface water; some mustards especially are adept at soaking up lead contamination. Why should we begrudge all this help, simply because we didn't pay for it?
So although my husband and I decided that the multiflora rose was more enemy than friend, we have come to see a number of other weedy plants as allies. One plant my husband ruled in favor of, still inexplicably to me, was ailanthus. Ailanthus is famous for its status as a pollution-tolerant survivor in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is also known as Tree-of-Heaven, though I refuse to use that name. Ailanthus is an invasive tree, whose seeds germinate prolifically and grow quickly, crowding out other, more desirable trees. Ailanthus offers pollution tolerance and has highly persistent roots. It has weak, brittle wood. If I'm going to be totally honest and put aside my scientific credentials to some extent, I'll admit that I dislike it, per haps unfairly, for its odor of rotten peanut butter. But my husband admires its smooth straight trunk and its fast growth. I confess, young ailanthus trunks make fantastic garden corner stakes, as I discovered last spring after cutting down a number of them with the same saw I was using on the multiflora rose. I promised that this year I would leave them for him, though this is a promise of love and compromise, not a promise of agreement on principle.
Another plant we ultimately left was privet, which is also an invasive, introduced species. We decided in this case that we could always cut it down later, but for now, privet offers food for birds, and given that so few of our woodland shrubs are native, we felt we couldn't be too picky about leaf cover. On the other hand, we both agreed on pulling garlic mustard, because it is so noticeably invasive, and we do have a number of native wildflowers we are trying to encourage in these woods. In addition, my husband studies mustards, and he is particularly fond of native wild mustards, which we hope would grow where the garlic mustard is trying to gain root-hold. This was two months before a student of mine brought to class a wickedly tasty pesto made with garlic mustard (more on that, including a recipe, in a later chapter). However, given the battery acid probably present in this soil, pesto from the garlic mustard might be too loaded with lead to be safe eating anyway.
Much later, I found out that local law is on our side with respect to multiflora rose. Town ordinance states:
No person, firm or corporation owning or occupying any property within the Township of O'Hara shall permit any grass or weeds or any vegetation whatsoever, not edible or planted for some useful or ornamental purpose, to grow or remain upon such premises so as to grow to such height as they will go to seed, nor shall any noxious weeds prohibited by the Noxious Weed Control Law (3 P.S. § 255.8) or by regulations of the Department of Agriculture be permitted to grow within the Township including:
2) Chicory, succory or blue daisy.
3) Canadian thistle.
4) Multiflora rose.
5) Johnson grass.
Perhaps all my philosophical musings about the possible benefits of multiflora rose are for naught. Clearly, trimming multiflora rose is well within our rights. I'm mostly surprised that the list isn't longer, but grateful, too. The logic of the list is eclectic: one intoxicant, one roadside salad green, two prickly perennials, and one plant toxic to cattle (bovine population of O'Hara: zero). I have personally seen chicory, Canada thistle, and multiflora rose thriving within a mile of our house, flagrant outlaws all three. The same list could easily include fifty more plants, without being fully comprehensive, or contain fewer, with no gain in enforceability. Our next-door neighbor is cultivating a multiflora rose right on our shared property line, and no citations are forthcoming.
Without knowing the law, we clipped and sawed simply for our own benefit. When the rose was cut, the garlic mustard and poison ivy pulled, and the soil smoothed with a rake, we planted grass and clover in a strip along the side of the parking lot, to make a path for the kids. I wanted them to be able to walk to the pool, in flip-flops, without crossing through the center of the parking lot traffic. Finally, I took seed heads of sumac, a tall and shrubby native plant that spreads by underground stems and turns a brilliant red in fall. The sumac was growing just a few feet away, and I scattered the seed heads all over the soil that had been covered by the multiflora rose. Sumac was the only native plant in reach, with last year's seeds still attached in early spring, which I hoped could provide our visual block. We mowed the strip a few times, and though some trash continues to land there, at least now I can pick it up without injury by thorns.
A few of the sumac seem to be coming up, and the clover-grass mixture has made good ground cover and a bit of walking space. A couple of young ailanthus are shooting up above the privet, and I have to restrain myself from cutting them every single time I see them. The hemp dogbane and goldenrod from next door seem to be thriving in the additional sunshine, although a vine or two of poison ivy has also taken advantage. If I can just keep after the rose bushes for another year or two, maybe, just maybe, the sumac will take off and thrive. If it does, we can cut down the privet. Perhaps this spring on a sunny day when it is too early to plant my vegetables, I'll go after the multiflora rose in the little woodland next to the community center. Or maybe I'll wait until late summer, go and collect some rose hips, and make some tea while I think about it some more.
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