Root and Branch: Why Is Weeding My Garden So Exhilarating?

Published July 26, 2017 in Warp & Woof

Root and Branch: Why Is Weeding My Garden So Exhilarating?

William Sundwick
By mid-July, it was a sad portrait of neglect and decay. Back in early Spring, it wasn’t nearly so bad. A modest amount of care had dealt with it. Something had happened to my garden in those intervening three months.
Over the winter one compacta holly bush (also known as Japanese holly) had succumbed, and on the frontier at the southwest property line, azaleas had been left to their own devices for years. Now, a new front was opening on the east property line — one azalea there also gone. Weeds were rapidly claiming squatters’ rights in empty spaces left by long since removed inkberry holly casualties.
Seven years ago, flush with optimism about the future appeal of our newly enlarged domicile, we contracted with a local landscaper. We were impressed that he had given us a credible drawing of a plan – none of the other bidders did that! One of his clever touches was to fill the median in our two-tracked driveway, not with grass, but river stones. Not so clever — this has become the bane of my existence! Grass suppresses weed proliferation, river stones do not.
While I suspect he wouldn’t have given me an honest answer even if I had thought to ask an intelligent question about the true cost of maintenance (i.e., time), I still feel I made an error in opting for those river stones. His minimum labor charges now are unreasonable for considering even a semi-annual plan. So, I’m stuck!

As I finally forced myself to deal with the unsightly situation in my driveway and backyard, I couldn’t help but think about analogizing to problems of social engineering (I have public policy wonk tendencies).  But, I’m chastened by the realization that landscaping is mostly about appearances … social engineering — health care, retirement benefits, educational opportunity, etc. — are about others’ quality of life. Those stakes are higher. 
The analogy is they share the truth that ambitious plans, like my landscaping, are often constrained far less than they would have been had one stopped to consider maintenance costs going forward!
A “root and branch” solution to my weed problem would require replacing the river stones with grass, and the unruly plants with new ones. As with social problems, a political consensus among my constituency (my wife) would be needed, but “root and branch” solutions to social problems require a political consensus far more complex. The latter is nearly impossible in any democratic society (at least ours) — the former only requires a modicum of persuasive ability, and fiscal prudence.
Was the Plan Too Ambitious?

True, my landscaping is somewhat fancier than my neighbors on the same street. During the first year, I received many compliments regarding how attractive it was. As time passed, and the weeds became more prominent, the compliments diminished. By year three or four, moss had begun to grow in the hardscape, in addition to those weeds. Conversations with neighbors deflected to other things. The two inkberry hollies died an unexplained, mysterious death — they were watered as much as the other four in their first year.
After asking our landscaper to replace them, he “forgot” and we let the matter drop. About the same time, the ancient azaleas on the western property line started looking spindly. They had been there since long before we bought the house 30 years earlier.
The initial enthusiasm for the 2010 plan began to wane. The driveway river stones were a mistake; and, what about the durability of the sand casing between the patio pavers? Upkeep was becoming an issue.
In year five, we decided to pay our landscaper over $1000 for a “Spring cleanup”! Won’t do that again, it only lasted until fall (guess that’s why it was called a “Spring”cleanup)! Year six saw a charity offer by the PhD students of Marymount University’s Physical Therapy program as a fund raiser. Again, while less of an investment by us (and tax deductible), only a temporary solution.
Year seven is proving to be a manual labor challenge. Not impossible, but a challenge.
If it weren’t for the neighbors who do a really great job maintaining their landscaping, I wouldn’t be concerned … it is all relative, after all!  The fear that they may hate me for depressing their house valuations haunts me. I felt that way when I was in the market 33 years ago: “But, what about those neighbors?”
Back to the social analogy, if it weren’t that all the countries we like to claim as our cultural heritage do a better job than we at social engineering, there would be no problem, right?
Of course, the neighbors never say anything — apparently following the rule, “If you can’t say something nice …”
“Remove and Replace,” like “Repeal and Replace,” can work in theory … but Remove only, like Repeal only, will not. Weeds would soon take over everywhere! In the meantime, it’s maintenance – get out those loppers and shears! Root and branch solutions may have to wait, to kick that metaphor further down the road.
But, It Feels So Good!

Weeding is exhilarating. Chemical warfare was not. I no longer use Round Up, conscience and social pressure caught up with me – it was effective, though! My modified rules of engagement allowed an “organic” weed killer from a spray bottle, mixed with water. It works after perhaps two applications, on some weeds. My conscience is eased, but still no exhilaration.
Exhilaration comes only from yanking those roots out of the dirt, underneath the river stones. The stooping makes me dizzy, but, hey, that probably contributes to the euphoria! My systematic advance, back to front, top to bottom of driveway, makes me feel like a general on a scorched earth campaign. When the mission is complete, and I’ve succeeded in reaching the street, like Sherman reaching Savannah, I can confidently plan the next phase of my campaign – the “branch” part of “root and branch” — those compacta hollies and azaleas. Then, by fall, I’ll attack the overgrown photinia in the backyard, after they finish blooming, thus liberating my gas grill on the patio! Not the “root and branch” of political revolution, but the “root and branch” of my gardening!
Accomplishment is key. Early on the day before trash collection, my green yard waste cart proudly sits on the curb –  brimming with the inedible fruits of my labor. God’s in His heaven, and my patio furniture can be enjoyed once again. I am no longer ashamed of what my next-door neighbors, or dogwalkers, see in my yard.  I can truly hold my head up, unafraid to engage them in banter over the fence — or take the car out, exposing the denuded fullness of the driveway river stones. 

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