For so long, gardening meant just trying to coax anything at all to grow. Our backyard in Greenpoint was essentially bare earth when we moved in–when we saw the apartment it had a lawn, but drought and neglect killed most of the grass, and we started with a beautiful empty space. Matt researched shade-friendly grass mixes, we encouraged whatever would grow, I tried every year different plants in big pots and beds, different wildflower mixes on the borders. The fight was just to get things to grow, anything to grow.
Our last year or two in that apartment, things had started to shift. Things grew in our little fairy-garden space, and then too many things grew, and I had to be selective. Mostly I encouraged the volunteer plants, but this one fast-growing leafy thing, if I didn’t cull it back every week or two it would take over entirely, and then nothing else would grow. So I pulled it out, and kept pulling it out, stalk after stalk after stalk. We had a routine–I’d pull it out over and over again all through the spring and summer, and then when school started again in the fall I’d lose track of it, and it would take over the garden through the fall, growing bushy and green just when everything else was dying. In October, when I’d given up on growing things, the whole sea of weedy things would suddenly bloom these pretty little white flowers, one last wave goodbye from the yard before it was time to cut everything back for winter.
And then we moved. This house has so much more of a yard–it’s not, like, suburban-yard big, but it’s extravagantly big for a city yard. And the previous owner clearly loved this yard–someone put a lot of thought into the plantings, and I’m trying to honor that. (As an aside, I just assumed that when we moved out of the Greenpoint apartment our landlords were going to clear the yard back to bare earth. I had good reason to think that–the landlords oversaw maintenance of the yard next door to us, and every time someone came to mow the lawn, they buzzed it all the way down to the ground. At the beginning of the summer, Declan and I were kicking around the old neighborhood running some errands, and I snuck by to spy on the old yard. Our building backed up to a school, and the schoolyard playground was open, and our old yard is visible through the fence. “Let’s just go look,” I told him, “even though it’s going to make me sad that they destroyed all of our plants.” But they hadn’t! It’s all still there! The fairy-garden border beds, the potted azalea and butterfly bush that didn’t move with us, the weird tree-of-heaven sapling along the fence line, it was all still there. And thriving! That was a nice little gift in my summer.)
Anyway, I have at points this summer started to wonder if I’ve gotten in over my head with the new yard. Most of the work this year has just been removing plants. This yard is lovely, and alive, and full of things, and some of the things are things I don’t want in the yard. I spent part of my afternoon today cutting down two big saplings–I looked them up, out of curiosity (PlantNet, which Declan and I refer to as WhatPlant, just like we say WhatBird when we mean Merlin), and they’re black locust trees. We have a gorgeous black locust in the yard, so it must be seeding little babies, an activity I don’t theoretically oppose, but I don’t want trees in that particular location. The mature black locust tree is lovely, but the sapling version is a complete jerk. Very fast-growing, and studded all over with giant sharp thorns. GIANT SHARP THORNS. There’s another place in the yard where a huge bush is growing sort of out of control, and I’m not sure what it is, but it also is a big thorny jerk. (I’d guess rose bush, but it doesn’t bloom? I have no idea. I keep trying to cut it back but it’s exhausting, wrangling all those thorns.)
The bigger problem is the vines. There’s this viny jerk that will cover everything in a thick blanket if I don’t pay close attention. (WhatPlant-ing it has been inconclusive, but based on an article in the New York Times I feel confident that my viny nemesis is a porcelainberry.) ( https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/02/nyregion/taking-the-offensive-in-westchester-against-the-vines-of-wrath.html ) (see also: https://www.bbg.org/news/weed_of_the_month_porcelain_berry or https://www.nybg.org/blogs/science-talk/2015/05/a-kudzu-impersonator-lining-new-york-area-roads ) Next year, the fight against the porcelainberry will be easier because I will know that I’m at war; this year, the enemy had covered most of the yard before I was aware we had a problem.
I did find a very satisfying rhythm to the porcelainberry battle. Spot the leaves, trace the vine back as far as I can–sometimes to the root, often just arms-length into the shrubbery–and clip the stem as far back as possible. Then grab the stem with both hands and pull, and keep pulling, until there’s a pile of ten or fifteen or twenty feet of vine lying tangled at my feet. (It can be tricky, because the stupid vine wraps tendrils around other plants.) Stuff that monster into a trash bag, find the next set of leaves, repeat as necessary. One weekend in early August, I spent an entire afternoon just stripping porcelainberry vines from the yard. Six giant trash bags stuffed completely full of fast-growing invasive weeds. Who knew?
At some point, presumably, I’m going to plant some new things, make some changes to what’s there. (I’ve already mapped out an empty space for butterfly weed, which is a milkweed variety. Sowing direct to the ground should be done in the fall; I have the seeds ready to go.) So far it’s been mostly just a story of controlling the viny jerks and the spiny jerks, though.