Monday, August 30, 2004

Nature 1, Duct Tape 0

My husband and I recently bought our first house – with a yard.
For two people who have been living in student housing – dorms, apartments – for the last eight years, this is enormously exciting. My husband has something of a green thumb, and I’m quite the environmentalist, so we were ready to get dirty in the yard, planting a veritable
native-habitat paradise that would be as beautiful to behold as it would be friendly to the environment.

Alas, the best-laid plans.

We got settled in June, just at the start of what, unbeknownst to us, was about to be the best growing season in Illinois in living memory. My husband, a native of
Florida, oohed and aahed over the incredibly rich soil. I acted smug and superior, because, Illinois native that I am, I had grown up with such soil and was well aware of the glories of prairie soil. I told him about John Deere and the steel plow, about being the breadbasket of America. He seemed unimpressed and kept playing in the fabulous dirt.

Our initial enthusiasm led to window-box plantings, a mass-weeding of the back yard’s existing beds, and the laborious digging of two new beds, one of which we planted with
prairie flowers. Then we settled into the business of going to work and unpacking the house, and suddenly the yard seemed to grow 6” overnight. It constantly needed mowing, and we never had time to mow – not if we wanted to get the house unpacked before Christmas.

The yard, unfortunately, was unmoved by our plight, and continued to grow. Something our neighbor informs us is called “
creeping Charlie” began taking over the lawn – at first we liked it, as it’s a no-mow, low-grower – but then it began creeping into our freshly-dug beds.

The lovely bulb bed that existed when we moved in became overgrown with
Queen Anne’s Lace (which my husband is enchanted by – he’s never seen it before – but which I associate with weedy abandoned lots). Over the space of a weekend – a weekend! – these 6-foot anonymous weed-stalk things grew up in our prairie bed and proved impossible to destroy without a variety of garden implements. I always thought gardening would involve a lot more growing of plants and a lot less killing of them. Our prairie bed itself is a sad-looking thing: It’s impossible to tell what’s there on purpose and what’s a weed. They’re all green and have leaves, and that’s frankly as far as my horticultural knowledge extends.

And then the leaves. There are leaves falling all over the place, dead brown leaves. I thought leaves waited for autumn! We don’t yet own a rake! All the other lawns on our street are mowed and green and not suffering from leaves. Ours is covered in them.

Which is really the worst part of the whole thing. I have always decried the suburban fixation on
style over substance which leads homeowners to dump dangerous chemicals on their lawns and use precious fossil fuels in mowers just to have a pretty green yard like everyone else’s. Now every night I pray to God himself that my neighbors will not catch a glimpse of my backyard. It’s a jungle. A weedy jungle. I live in fear that they’re talking about us, saying, “Did you see that new couple’s yard? Obviously not our kind of people. What’s next, a beat-up ’67 Chevy on blocks?” (No – my husband’s more into European cars. It’ll be a beat-up ’72 Audi on blocks.)

My greatest fear is that the prior homeowners – the nicest family – will drop by. They kept a beautiful garden, which I have totally destroyed, through no fault of my own. All the things I plant on purpose die, and everything I weed grows back bigger and stronger. It’s like some sort of twisted reverse green thumb. I dread the day the former lady of the house sees what I’ve done to her rose garden. I kept weeding and weeding but the weeds got farther and farther ahead of me, so I finally did what any sane homeowner with only “
Gardening for Dummies” to guide her would do: I tarped the entire bed using black trashbags and duct tape. It’s like some mutant junkyard patchwork quilt. I’m terrified she’ll see it – or that we’ll have guests over for drinks and have to explain the make-shift tarp and why, despite my ongoing efforts, the weeds have gotten ahead of me on the brick patio as well, where there’s nothing for it but to weed them.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The worst is that I went out of town for a week to visit
my parents, and when I returned, the weeds had defeated the duct tape. Just by growing, these grasses that took over my rosebed – fragile looking things – had pushed up the trash bags and unstuck the duct tape from one side of the seam or the other.

This has thrown my entire world into
disarray. I have always believed that duct tape could conquer any job requiring stickiness. But no – nature defeated my duct tape in the space of a week.

There’s some sort of lesson here, about the resilience of nature and the
depradations of man on the environment, about how not even a force so powerful as duct tape can defeat the exquisite fragility of grass determined to reach the sun.There’s some sort of lesson, but I’m resolutely ignoring it. I’m focusing firmly on the idea that winter is coming, everything will die on its own, and I can mulch ruthlessly so it won’t come back. Until then, I have to go mow – I don’t want my neighbors to think we’re lawn delinquents.