I do not intend to garden when I get home. I intend to write. Enough time has passed since I did that to make me uneasy and ashamed, and I want to chip away at the essay that resides one-third done in my computer.
My mistake is to come in by the back door along a route that leads me by the back yard and the garden. I stop to inspect a large and exuberant peony bloom, a legacy of one of the house’s original owners. (The house is about 30 years old, and we are the third family to live in it.)
This woman was a famous gardener whose apple pies— made, incredibly, from the fruit of the same elderly and unpromising apple tree that stands in the southwest corner of the yard—continue to provoke admiring exclamations from the neighbor children; their memories still hold the flavor. She labored in the garden every morning when the weather allowed her to and had things planned so that something was in bloom all summer long in a continuous round of scent and color. The peonies, like everything else, flourished under her care, and my husband and I hope to see them flourish again.
As I bend down to sniff the white, fragrant bloom, so large and heavy it has bent its stalk almost to the ground, I notice a thin, delicate tendril corkscrewed tightly around the peony’s stem. A few leaves, small, pale green, pointed, and tender-looking, quiver with the stem’s motion. Even though I lack the original owner’s horticultural wisdom, I can see that the morning glories are back.
When we moved into the house a year ago at the end of June, the morning glories (actually, according to a landscaper I know, a sort of sub-morning glory known as lacevine) had taken over the property. This had happened during the three-year tenancy of the previous owners, who were preoccupied with the inside of the house and let the garden take care of itself. The garden accomplished that by passively letting the morning glories seize the ascendancy.
My husband, a longtime gardener (as I am not), immediately saw the morning glories as a threat and began weeding them out. I objected. Morning glories are lovely things, with their fragile-looking stems and elfin leaves and subtly shaded, bell-like flowers. My husband pointed out how our morning glories had choked almost to death our lone, stunted rose bush, and said they had to go. I reluctantly assented but refused to help him weed. Surprised by his vehemence, I watched through the plate-glass windows in the den as he filled trash cans with uprooted morning glories. Now, I thought, they are dead.
I was wrong. They are back, and they are all over. The more I look the more I see of the pale vines wrapped around the peonies—my favorite flowers. My flowers. I must protect them, so, all thoughts of writing abandoned, I go into the house, put away my purse, and soon emerge, armed with a pair of kitchen shears and ready for war.
As I crouch beside the peonies, their soft, old-fashioned scent filling my head, the June sun warm through my T shirt, I begin to see the thoroughness with which the infiltration has been achieved. There are countless morning glories, and each one winds tightly up the stem of another plant; they never invade each other, always going after their neighbors instead. So intractable is this genetic programming that you sometimes see extremely young morning glories, barely more than sprouts, twining themselves around individual blades of grass. The morning glories form dense, ropy thickets near the ground. They cross from plant to plant, too, weaving hammocks of green that tangle plants together, distorting and strangling them. Startled by the scope of the problem, I squat there, getting my bearings, then start in.
So profuse are the morning glories that at first I am unable to see what I am doing. When I try to part the peony stems I find they are woven together by alien vines, and I am in danger of rending asunder the very plants I am trying to encourage. My kitchen shears, though, cut these webs easily, giving me room to work so that I am able to trace each shoot to the ground.
At first my weeding is completely without finesse, so that I keep snapping the vines off at the ground, leaving their roots to sprout again. After some experimentation I learn to approach each morning glory carefully, teasing the root free of the ground, then severing the twining tendril every eight inches or so, which makes it easier to strip it off the plant up which it has climbed. Then I toss the whole mess onto the sidewalk to be put into the trashcan later.
Crouching near the ground I can see that the morning glories, of course, have not confined their invasion to the peonies. They have spread throughout the garden, and are in the violets, the daisies, the lilacs, the tiny, beleaguered rose bush. My task, which I had thought to be limited, has suddenly become enormous. I know myself well enough to see that, trapped by compulsion, I will remain in the garden until every visible morning glory has been eradicated. This causes me to like them even less that I already do, and I attack them with something close to revulsion.
As I weed out the morning glories I mutter to them savagely, telling them they are parasites. But am I not one, too? Obviously, I am. Though I am not cannibal enough to eat my own kind, I eat fish, and I eat animals: fellow mammals. Also, lots of plants. Nearly everything I eat once lived. And what about our two beloved cats, who have built their entire lives around doing nothing? The morning glories are only trying to survive, like everything else. I just don’t want them to do it in my garden.
There is something snakelike about these vines. They are inhabitants of the earth. They hug the shade, slipping into the light when they want to sun themselves. They twist and loop along the ground and wind agilely up plant stems. I almost feel as if they should pull back and retreat into burrows at night, going down into holes and curling around themselves to sleep after they have hunted their quota of toads and mice. I have never been overly fond of snakes, although I realize they are merely the victims of prejudice.
After a while my neighbor and her daughter come outside and talk to me over the fence between our yards. I am glad to take a break, so I straighten my back and we talk about gardens, schools, summer. We all shade our eyes from the sun and gesture expansively as we talk. We are casual friends in the process of becoming better ones; our families are gradually forming a community, knitting ourselves together with tendrils of shared interest. As my neighbors leave they wish me luck. I watch them walk down the sidewalk, and then go back to work.
When peony buds form they are sealed by a waxy coating. If left undisturbed it would prevent the buds from opening, and the peonies would not bloom. As it happens, ants have a great taste for this waxlike substance; it is a delicacy to them. So they swarm over peony plants, seeking out the buds, eating the coating, and releasing the buds into free and glorious bloom. I like to see ants scurrying purposefully over a peony bud, acting out the obscure symbiosis ordained by the Creator when he gave them a yearning for this mundane dessert.
The symbiosis between morning glories and other plants is not like that. Instead of helping other plants to bloom and procreate, morning glories sap strength from their neighbors and interfere with them, deforming and destroying. They are the supreme busybodies of the plant world. In spite of their beauty, they are up to no good. I would love to have them if only they would mind their own business.
I am aware that what I am doing is utterly futile. Morning glories are hardy; they will come back; I will end up doing this again. I also am aware that my weeding is unnatural. Morning glories, like peonies and ants, have a place in things. Who am I to decide what will be tenderly nurtured and what will be torn up by the root and thrown away? What gives me the right to these decisions? The fact that I am in my own yard? That seems a flimsy justification for such sweeping authority. In the end, it’s arbitrary. It happens that we do not want our garden to be ruled by morning glories, and so they go.
I stop philosophizing and keep weeding. After I finish with the peonies I move to the violets, which are so thoroughly mixed up with the morning glories that I end up tossing away quite a few violet leaves and even a few young violet plants along with the interlopers that are my target. A scorchedearth policy is never without consequences.
Eventually I work my way over to the lilacs. After the peonies the lilacs are my favorites among our plants, reminding me as they do of the house where I grew up. The lilacs in our back yard are old and large, reaching their top branches far above my head. Here the morning glories are firmly entrenched; my husband did not get to this part of the garden when he did his weeding last summer. The plants are, for morning glories, huge, and they are tough. The roots, though shallow, go on and on. I excavate one root that is fully a foot long. I feel an absurd sense of triumph; the root is my trophy, my ear and tail. After brandishing it talisman-like in the air, I toss it onto the sidewalk.
My mother was a gardener. She kept lilacs, violets, pansies, marigolds, lilies of the valley, and other flowers the names of which I do not know. She also grew raspberries black and red, scallions (as a small child I, to my family’s horror, used to pull those up and eat them straight from the ground), tomatoes. In the middle of her flower garden a kitchen sink was sunk in the ground; Mother grew watercress in there. Beside the garage there was a sage bush, the velvety, dusty-looking, fragrant, green-grey leaves of which flavored our turkey stuffing.
Dressed in slacks, a loose shirt, and a straw hat, Mother would go outside to do her pruning and weeding and fertilizing. If I stayed inside I could watch her gradually work her way around the three sides of the house that her garden bordered, my progress from window to window guided by the movement of her hat.
Most of Mother’s energies as a gardener went into her roses, the majority of which were hybrids. The most unusual one was titled “Angel Face,” and had a delicate, mauve-colored bloom. When that rose flowered, we would cut one bloom and float it in a brandy snifter. I considered this highly sophisticated. Mother was very fond of that plant, but through the years her favorite flowers have been yellow roses. Those and carnations, which she never grew.
As afternoon begins to flirt with evening my husband comes home. He is happy to find me working in the garden for the first time, and delighted that I now share his loathing of the morning glories. Still wearing his shirt and tie he bends down and, gripped by an ancient fever, begins to help me weed. He can no more keep from this than I can.
Finally we finish, having uprooted all the morning glories we can find. We put them (it is a great deal of foliage) in a garbage can and go into the house to scrub the dirt from under our fingernails and have supper. When I straighten from my gardener’s crouch my back is one long line of fire—even though I work out, I was not ready for this. Before I leave the garden I look it over one last time, just to be sure. There are no pale green tendrils to be seen.
As the evening progresses my back begins to stiffen. Getting up or down from the sofa requires planning. I have some misgivings about my session in the garden, but in the main I am pleased, and feel distinctly virtuous; my father always said I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. When I stand in order to climb the stairs to bed I press my hand against the muscles in the small of my back in a gesture I recognize as my mother’s.
As I said, morning glories are hardy. They will resurge, and soon. In a matter of days, or at most, weeks, I will go outside and find delicate, sinuous vines slithering among the violets, the peonies, the lilacs. I will be ready, and willing. When I received my last graduate degree the man behind the podium said, “Welcome to the community of scholars.” Now I am part, as well, of the community of gardeners. When the morning glories come back I’ll be there, and, unnatural as it may be, futile as it probably is, I will go after them again. I have to try to keep the serpents out of my garden.