Guess this might be a good time to ‘fess up to my biggest garden challenge. I’ve been saving this one… because it’s so MONSTROUS. And also a bit perplexing, along with annoying, sad and even painful.
First, let’s stop to admire this amazing fiery red Bee Balm, flourishing with wild abandon in a sea of… basically death. (More on that shortly.) It’s impossible to see in this picture (or any picture), but it is growing through a crack in a giant wooden garden border that’s the size of a small log. Amazing. And once again, laughable, when you consider how I’m coddling his moldy cousin in the front yard. This Bee Balm is saying…. eff you! I don’t need you! You all KNOW I wanted to transplant him, but thought better of it. Hey, you wanna grow through a log, half smothered in black plastic and poison, knock yerself out.
Yes… poison. This is the part where I confess I have a giant, plastic-covered garden plot in my backyard, bigger than some of my former apartments. (Literally, I think it’s about 600 square feet.) Something in that bed is evil, toxic and causes me to break out in a giant rash every time I go near it. Here’s the full effect:
The sad story: the people we bought this house from almost two years ago were not gardeners. Not that I can tell anyway. But the old couple who lived here for about 40 years prior to the last family (who were only here 3 years) definitely WERE. Hence the 600-square-foor garden plot, complete with its own (now defunct ) hose hook-up and well-defined beds. Sadly, by the time we got here, it was completely overgrown and uncared for. It looked something like this. (See all that CRAZY on the left?)
No problem, we thought. Weeds. Just needs to be dug up. Our first summer (last year) my husband plowed through a couple of rows in the front (starting small, I thought) and I hopefully, ambitiously (wrongly, it turned out) planted a bunch of herb seeds. I had my little tape measure out, all nerdy, and was reading the directions on the packets, sticking little wooden stakes in the grounds with labels like “CHIVES” and “OREGANO” scrolled on them. (Nope, didn’t start any seeds inside, planted ’em right into the ground, probably in mid-June. Hilarious!)
I was hugely disappointed when nothing came up but weeds. I would go down and gaze at the empty beds, like Toad in The Garden, but nada. I even had my friend and veggie garden guru Heather take a look, but she confirmed my suspicion that none of the green sprouts popping up were herbs. Just common weeds.
But that turned out to be the least of my problems. Soon, these shiny little bastards started poking up everywhere. And I noticed that every time I worked in (or even went near) my “herb” bed, I broke out in an itchy, ugly rash. My husband, on the other hand, is immune to their evil, as is the toddler apparently. (He fell into the bed of death earlier this year and suffered not one blemish, thank God.)
So… I gave up on the “herbs” and the whole giant garden patch fantasy last summer. RETREAT! Meanwhile, it grew weeds the size of trees and filled with poison.
I did not want to “bomb” it, which was the advice I got from a few folks. My husband (bless his chemical-fearing self) said he would never eat any food grown in beds smothered with pesticides. Fair enough. But how to kill it? And what was IT exactly? We thought it was some kind of Poison Ivy. (Now I am not so sure.)
So this spring, in late April, as the weeds were starting to get ambitious after a long, snowy winter, we bought some giant rolls of very thick plastic and covered the entire bed. We also found a big piece of old rotted carpet in the back corner of the yard and laid it over some of the weeds. We hacked down all the trees trying to grow in the plot and mashed everything else down under the plastic, which we secured with heavy rocks and pieces of wood. (I am a little sad about not digging up and saving what I NOW know was a Bittersweet bush.)
The plot’s been cooking all summer. We plan to leave the plastic on all winter and pull it up next spring, to see what we’ve got. (Some NICE dirt, I am hoping, if the dirt I found under that old carpet is any indication of what smothering soil can accomplish.)
I think there are a couple of complications with our plan. First, I have read and heard a lot of differing opinions on whether Poison Ivy can really be killed naturally, in the long term. I have heard the oil lasts in the soil for seven years, whether the plants “died” or not. (We’ll call this the Bad Luck model.) Alternatively, I have read it can be pulled out by hand, using plastic bags, and that whole plots can be killed this way. I have heard our method might work, might actually kill the plants for good. And I have read a goat is a good solution. I am not sure what to make of all this. What I really want is to pull up that plastic next year, find all the poison crap dead, clear it out and create an amazing fruit and vegetable garden.
But today, the plot thickens. While documenting the striving Bee Balm, I took another picture of the “Poison Ivy.” I started thinking about it again. (It’s always on my mind, in a nagging kind of way. I have never liked how the leaves in my garden don’t look like the pictures of Poison Ivy online. Though they also “come in threes,” my leaves are much more jaggedy.) I started looking at pictures online again. And I compared my new picture:
To this picture of Stinging Nettles:
I think this just *might* be the culprit. I also read that its favorite habitat is garden borders. (In this case, the poison has both the border and garden covered.) I found this shot by Googling “poison plants Northeast rash.” So it definitely lives in New England.
I hope I have Stinging Nettles!
I read online that there is something called HDRA Organic Weed Management that kills them. And that “repeated hoeing” will exhaust the roots eventually. And also that “Seedlings may be destroyed by frequent surface cultivations in spring and autumn… Common nettle cannot tolerate regular cultivations at rhizome depth.” (Oh, I will definitely “cultivate” your ass, Nettles!)
Nothing here about oils that last seven years and plants that remain toxic, dead or alive.
Experts, please weigh in. I’m going to pass my picture around in hopes of getting some good advice and confirmation. I might just be planting veggies rash-free next summer!