Sep 10, 2009

Monster and Mystery Gumplants

Recently I am informed that the corner quadrant of my post-ivy yard looks, let’s see, what’s the word? Oh yes, “terrible.” Which is not what I envisioned last fall as I was swinging the pick ax and dreaming. My general idea for the corner was to anchor it with a Manzanita, place some medium-sized plants like sages in a somewhat naturalistic arrangement around it, and then line the border along the sidewalk with ground-hugging flowers that would drape gracefully over the moss-rock edging. I assigned the low-elevation task to Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla, a cute little gumplant that according to my reading would be tailor-made for the role, giving the sidewalk a gold lining with its cheery blossoms all summer. I also wanted to line the railroad-tie stairs in draping plants (mostly to cover my artfully installed visible rebar!) and I thought I’d try the gumplant along with a number of other plants there.

So I bought a half dozen of the gumplants in 4” pots in January, from a nursery whose description said, and I quote: “Stems are prostrate, forming a 6-8 inch tall plant that grows to 2 feet wide.” They ended up sitting in the driveway for a good couple of months, owing to my sloth-like pace installing the stones and railroad ties, but I finally got them in the ground some time in March, and wasn’t too worried because I know gumplants are tough cookies and would probably settle in quickly. Boy did they. By mid April, I was concerned they were getting unwieldy. By mid May, I was sure they were, and by June they were by far the dominant feature in the landscape. I started to forget what plants might be hiding behind them, save for the occasional glimpse through the odd opening in the Gumplant Thicket of Doom. I think the “6-8 inches tall and 2 feet wide” description was accurate for about one hour some afternoon in early April. The plants are now 3 to 5 feet tall and wide, with an ungovernable urge to sprawl across the sidewalk. My patient neighbors have not complained, even though my yard is located on a major evening constitutional thoroughfare, and strolling couples have had to walk single file to pass my Monster Gummies all summer. I attempted to reign them in by tying them to stakes, and that mostly made them look freakish and distorted, like zombies recoiling from a spritz of holy water. I should have just chopped them back, but the wily gumplants blackmailed me by dangling their flowering stems out over the sidewalk, so that if I cut them back, the corner border would be bloomless. Sucker for blooms that I am, I capitulated and resorted to tying, but it just looks stupid and I find myself increasingly looking forward to dispatching them with Spod (Swinging Pick of Doom) as though they were ivy.

I’m not suggesting gumplants are evil like ivy, it’s just that these were apparently mislabeled. I do have a couple real Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla that I got from
Garden Natives, and they have behaved like they are supposed to—somewhat spreading and very low. The identity of the monsters, I’m afraid, is unknown to me. In certain situations they’d be great, like if you had a vast space and needed unbelievably quick cover that required zero care and also provided sunny flowers. They have a bit of an unpleasant odor, though—sort of an eau de forgot-to-take-the-laundry-out-of-the-washing-machine-for-three-days—so would be better suited well away from the evening constitutional superhighway that is my sidewalk.

Still, I figure even a ragged thicket with some yellow flowers is better than bare ground, so I’ll leave the Monster Gummies till (re)planting time. I’ve noticed Grindelias are pretty enthusiastic about reseeding, so I anticipate pulling a whole lot of Children of the Monster Gummies over the winter. They could easily be utilized like annuals, but I don’t think this year’s look is a look I want recreated.

However, there is also some Mystery Gummy species that has behaved quite differently, and which I won’t be taking out at all, as long as it keeps looking so fabulous. I am embarrassed to say I don’t know its identity either.
I think I had some seeds of straight Grindelia stricta that I tossed about randomly (note to self, start keeping records), so it may be that, but I see that plant on hikes, and it tends to be, oh, a quarter the size. Granted, many of the plants in the corner quadrant have gone Michael Jordan on me, for some reason I’ve yet to understand, and these Mystery Gummies are over six feet high. No, for real. I can stand next to them and they tower above me. They have only a few stems each, so they’re marvelously willowy and haven’t intruded on neighboring plants at all; they’re like Grindelia trees that add a nice vertical element to the space. I adore their silhouettes against the sky as I stand on the sidewalk looking up at them, and I plan to keep them as long as they keep doing what they’re doing.

So to sum, Mystery Grindelias in, Monster Grindelias out. Once the monsters are out, I may go to a nursery and ask the real Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla to stand up, and I’ll get several, in order to fulfill my original gold-lined vision. In addition, I think I’ll mix in another sunny yellow low-grower that I’m very pleased with so far, Eriophyllum lanatum. I bought just one last year, but it’s proved very easy to propagate by cuttings, so I now have several. I quite like its daisy flowers--the center is the same sunny yellow as the rays, which I find very charming, like little suns in a kid’s drawing. It crossed my mind to also try edging with some more of the plants that have worked well lining the stairs, such as Heterotheca sessiliflora and Erigeron glaucus ‘Wayne Roderick’, but I think the heat blast from the sidewalk may prohibit their traveling too low in the yard. I also just recently realized that there are cultivars of Epilobium that are supposed to stay low, and they should be able to take the heat, so I may throw them into the border mix for a perky red-and-gold ensemble.

Please post any suggestions you might have!

Sep 1, 2009

The Ivy War

How a Brutal 40-Year Ivy Reign Was Ended
By Jess “Ken Burns” Kolman

Accounts of the precise beginning of the Ivy War differ, but most historians point to the Christmas Light Uprising of 2006. Rumors of a resistance movement had been circulating since the turnover of the yard’s human ownership in 2002, but until late 2006, the brutal Algerian Ivy regime, installed in 1966, had maintained an unchallenged stranglehold on the entire front, corner and south side sectors of the yard. Any object daring to stand in the ivy’s way, such as the house or trees, would be summarily smothered and consumed. However, in December 2006, the ivy’s ruthless repression of the human resident’s attempt to erect a ladder to put up Christmas lights sparked an anti-ivy uprising that gave the resistance courage. During the melee, several ivy strands were severed to make way for the ladder, and this may have made the ivy appear vulnerable. Emboldened, the resistance commenced a barrage of strategic attacks beginning in early 2007, focusing on the northern highlands region of the yard.

The resistance organized three major battalions. The 81st Airborne Hand-Clipper Unit launched repeated raids on the leafy portions of the ivy, with the goal of gaining access to deeper concentrations of woody material. Here the 2nd Infantry Lopper Unit moved in with full scale assaults on thick stems. Finally, the all-important Heavy Armored Pick Division, headed by a $10 pick ax recruited from Big Lots, attempted to root out the underground elements.

By the beginning of 2008, the northern highlands were believed to be mostly clear of ivy, and native settlements of woodland strawberry, snowberry, Ribes sanguineum, irises and heucheras moved in. These settlements were tenacious in the face of insurgent ivy attacks, but some succumbed to drought and insect rebellions; the heuchera settlements came under heavy fire from hostile deer forces taking advantage of the ivy’s absence, and eventually had to pull out and retreat to the back yard demilitarized zone.

In the summer of 2008, the resistance began full scale attacks on the corner quadrant. The clipper and lopper generals were seriously wounded and replaced, and as the underground fighting intensified, a battle-weary Big Lots Pick was honorably discharged, paving the way for the recruitment of General Spod (the name reputedly stood for Swinging Pick of Doom), whose wider, sharper ax blade was seen by some as a means to a swifter victory. Gen. Spod laid out a bold, some would say unrealistic, plan for Full Ivy Removal, or FIR, by November. This would allow for massive native plant migration, coinciding with the beginning of the crucial rainy season. As Operation FIR gained steam over several fronts, allied homes throughout the neighborhood sent medivac teams of green waste bins to clear the battlefields. With as many as seven jam-packed bins going out every two weeks, excess ivy carnage was still accumulating with alarming speed in the driveway region.

In October 2008, the battle front progressed to the south side territories, where the ivy forces proved increasingly ruthless. Ivy that had benefitted from decades of favorable southern conditions lashed out with stems 4 inches or more in diameter, rendering the lopper unit powerless and requiring the creation of the Japanese Chop Saw Task Force. The chop saw was effective, but agonizingly slow. Meanwhile, underground, Gen. Spod’s forces were pushed to the brink by repeated encounters with solid ivy trunks, 8 inches wide, and often only a few feet apart. The ivy also made heavy use of terror tactics, detonating dozens of improvised explosive devices, apparently contributed by generations of littering human jackasses. Glass bottles would explode when struck by Spod, and ancient, unopened aluminum cans would issue geysers of Tab Cola or Schlitz Beer upon contact. The resistance also had to contend with the possibility of collateral damage when the ivy mingled with roots of friendly trees or took hostages, such as lizards, gopher snakes, and potentially dangerous rattlesnakes. And finally, the resistance encountered a challenge that would test its will perhaps more than any other--a huge biological weapons cache concealed in the ivy, slowing the resistance to a crawl by forcing it to manage the risk of a plague outbreak while decommissioning massive quantities of lethal rat poo.

In the end, VS Day (Victory in the South), came three days after Thanksgiving 2008, after an 11 hour battle that raged well into the night. Some saw Spod’s refusal to back down and fight another day as counterproductive, with fatigue and impaired visibility causing unacceptable amounts of ivy roots to be left in place. But Spod apologists point out that by this time, legions of native plant settlers had amassed in camps crowding the driveway region, and were desperate to leave their pot-bound conditions and begin setting down roots in rain-dampened soil.

Over the course of the 2008-09 rainy season, these pioneering natives established several nation-states. Now, in addition to the Woodland Commonwealth, begun in the northern highlands the previous year, two broad new communities were in place. The United Biomes of Chaparral and Scrub was chartered in the corner territory, electing A. manzanita, a cultivar related to the famous Dr. Hurd, as its president. On the south side territory, the Democratic Republic of Grasslands was established, with a bicameral congress of Nassella and Aristida presiding over a constituency of perennials and small shrubs.

The final front, the UBB (Under Bottlebrush) precinct, was allowed to remain under ivy control until the spring of ‘09, owing to the tactical challenges of fighting under the prickly canopy. In the relative d├ętente that followed VS Day, the ivy might have regrouped and fought back in this region, if not for the politically explosive remarks of one of the human resident’s friends. Publicly praising the ivy’s “lush, glossy green leaves”, this person reignited anti-ivy sentiment and Spod’s forces marched under the bottlebrush the following weekend.

Armistice was finally declared in April of 2009, and the green bin armies returned to their distant homes, but a gruesome insurgency rages on. It is now widely agreed that the resistance underestimated the ivy’s resolve, and was not aware of its ability to survive for years underground, in the complete absence of photosynthesis, via the admittedly ingenious tactic of storing energy in rhizomes. The fledgling native nations are continually reminded that any bit of ivy left on the battlefield, even a finger-sized shred of root, can at any time resurrect and produce shoots and leaves. Ivy insurgents have been known to explode through the crowns of peaceful native plants, stirring fears that it may once again control the yard at large. This fear may have paved the way, politically, for the highly controversial decision to use chemical agents when it was discovered that ivy insurgents had camps inside and under a concrete wall, impervious to Spod. A stockpile of Roundup was deployed and though there was evidence of its efficacy, the contract with this supplier was suddenly terminated in light of intel indicating that Monsanto may be evil. An alternative supply of Ortho Brush-B-Gone has therefore been secured and is presently being deployed on all concrete wall-based insurgents.

Over the course of the war, many antiquities were recovered, including children's toys, dog collars, cat collars, golf balls, basketballs and every intermediate ball, and, curiously, aluminum root barriers and a large supply of landscape-ready river rocks. These latter items indicate to historians that the ivy may not have initially been intended to wield control over the entire yard, but was rather a tragic example of absolute power and unchecked rhizomatous invasiveness run amok.

Despite the tenacity of the ivy enemy, the various native communities are bravely thriving. Infrastructure has been restored and improved, with a full irrigation system added in July. However, the almost daily attacks by ivy insurgents has cast doubt on any initial timetables for troop draw-down, and experts acknowledge privately that the peacekeeping forces on all the former ivy fronts may in fact be needed for a hundred years.