washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Joel Achenbach
Joel Achenbach

Garden of Weeden

An unruly yard brings out his killer instincts

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page W17

A warm spell in February, prefiguring spring, propelled me to the garden center, where I raced to my favorite section -- the chemicals. In my yard, gardening is all about killing. Every year the ratio of killing to growing rises.

I'm in a protracted war against hostile organisms that represent all the major kingdoms of life and some not yet classified by science. In addition to the usual weeds and vines, there are grubs, slugs, aphids, canker, rust, scale and countless other scuzzy things that never had the decency to evolve into something intelligent.

(Richard Thompson)

Mostly I kill with my bare hands, by yanking, digging and hacking. I keep thinking that this is the year I will get seriously into chemicals. And so I go to the section of the garden center where they keep the jumbo bags-o-death.

The tragedy is that my yard used to be tidy and orderly, a garden in the classic sense. The previous owners had planted tea roses, camellias, forsythia, hostas, clematis and other old-fashioned, well-behaved plants. Though I never met her, I can envision the lady of the house puttering around the garden in a wide-brimmed hat, disciplining the weeds as though they were errant children and drenching her roses with chemicals so powerful we couldn't even use them in Vietnam.

Not long after I took over, the garden became a bit hairy around the edges, then deeply eccentric, then utterly deranged. The garden became a yard. With each year it gets yardier.

Meanwhile I browse magazines where people have these perfect English cottage gardens that appear to have been vacuumed, dusted and waxed. Their outdoors is cleaner than my indoors. There are no weeds, just shiny green plants and kaleidoscopic flowers, plus rustic stone pathways, urns, arbors, fountains, waterfalls, precocious Cupids peeking from the bushes, pergolas, gazebos, covered bridges, flume rides and wave pools. Here's a shot of someone's artificial backyard river. A caption notes the troll-like statue tucked beneath a rock: "Such ornaments can be real conversation starters." I'm going to get some stone trolls, because I'm tired of conversations that start, "Wow, is all that stuff crab grass?"

I have neighbors whose yards are straight out of a catalogue, and they re-sod the lawn every few months. Soon they'll re-sod weekly. Why mow when you can just throw the lawn away?

If I'm brave I'll stop at Smith & Hawken, an upscale garden store that is almost sadistically charming. For just a little over $1,200 you can buy a chaise longue that boasts of "indoor elegance for outdoors." The interior world is annexing the exterior. There's a company called WeatherPrint that will sell you framed paintings that can survive outdoors for five years. The goal is to have a yard where you feel like you're still inside the house. Eventually you'll have a yard that makes you feel like you're in a store. You'll be able to walk out the back door and start shopping.

The gap between the fantasy magazine garden and my lunatic-fringe back yard grows greater every year. Though I write this in winter, my yard is about to wake up, and by the end of May will turn riotous, the vines growing several feet a day, snagging passing dogs.

So I'm facing the death bags, pondering my options. Imidacloprid sounds wonderfully toxic. Spinosad has a nice ring. I'm drawn to the 1-(2-Methylcyclohexyl)-3-phenylene, which sounds like it could take out an entire forest.

And then there's the corn gluten. Corn gluten! Homely and harmless. It's the organic alternative to a chemical herbicide. I could use this and know that if it washes into the Potomac it won't hurt the snakefish.

I'm not pure on this issue: I've used a chemical or two before, but I'd like to have a softer tread on the world. Last year I tried the corn gluten. The results were unfavorable. For all I could tell, the stuff might have been genetically engineered to turn ordinary crab grass into giant, overmuscled, Jose Canseco-type weed mats.

The strange thing about corn gluten is that it smells like a chicken coop. It's really embarrassing when people come over, sniff the air and announce, "Your lawn smells chickeny."

The garden center dude assured me that the chemicals work better. So tempting! The yard could become a garden again! It could be a place where a stone troll could live without fear of being attacked by weeds. The chemicals sang to me as I writhed on the mast of conscience: "Buy me! No one will ever know! Poison is better! Live a little."

I bought the corn gluten, and this spring the yard will be chickeny again, and by the end of summer it will look crazier than ever, completely out of its gourd. I'm going to keep losing the war, but I'll have fought the good fight.

Joel Achenbach's e-mail address is achenbachj@washpost.com

© 2005 The Washington Post Company