June 12, 2009

Taming the Vine

Years ago a landscape artist suggested we plant a wisteria along the fence of the patio. “It will grow along the top of the fence and make a beautiful border,” she told me convincingly.

My parent’s house in South Orange, NJ, had a beautiful wisteria that climbed a back corner, past the dining room windows to my sister’s bedroom on the second floor. I envied her the sight of the purple blossoms that crowded the windows on both sides in early spring, envied her, that is, until the bees arrived. So I was skeptical of the vision.

The landscape artist soothed my worries, saying, “we’ll plant a white wisteria,” as though that made all the difference in the world.

For the first three years or so, the wisteria did nothing. It stood, about three feet tall, putting forth a few leaves—just enough to let me know it was still alive. I now realize it was putting all its energy into the ground, building a root system and fooling me into complacency. Then one spring I was ecstatic to see the first blossoms appear. I should have realized I was in for trouble as the tentative buds opened, a beautiful pale lilac in color.

That first summer the wisteria behaved. I could easily control the few vines that appeared, weaving them into the openings in the fence. How would I know that the wisteria was preparing for battle, waking its sleeping DNA and ordering it into formation.

Sure enough, next summer those compliant vines started to resist my plans. Saturday morning I’d pull down a slender light green tendril that was trying to point skyward. Sunday afternoon I’d check and find it was now as thick as a No. 2 pencil. By the following weekend, the soft green vine had turned brown, and I needed my Felco clippers to tame it.

So I devised a new plan. I’d let the wisteria grow up upon itself and I would prune an outdoor room under its branches. Anything less than five feet from the ground was destined for the compost pile while I wove new tendrils reaching for the sky around the wood vines of the year before. The next summer a lounge chair fit under the wisteria and a cool respite for a hot summer afternoon had been created.

And then she broke out in all her glory.

The roots that had been spreading unseen and unchecked for years started creating shoots. Shoots in the euonymus, between the patio bricks, in the grass and under the driveway. And above my patio’s green roof the tendrils shot forth without challenge. They grabbed the gutter and the rain pipe and threatened to tear slates off the roof; they reached out to my neighbor’s house, twining around the car antenna and licking the windows of their second floor bedroom. She was out of control and uncontrollable.

So there I was, my first week of retirement, on top of a ladder wrestling my nemesis. Saw in hand I hacked through vines two inches in diameter; using clippers I sheared mercilessly. I was ruthless and determined, once and for all, to bring this vine under control.

Pulling on the vines, trying to get them off the juniper, I gave a big tug. Nothing happened. So I took a step down, thinking the additional distance would give me greater power. Another tug. And again, no success. So I thought, okay, down one more step and I‘ll surely prevail.

And then it happened. Stepping down, I missed my mark and fell flat on my back on the hard gravel driveway. Stunned, I thought for a flash that I must be paralyzed, but then the pain set in, deep throbbing pain.

And so now, two painful weeks later, I’m facing reality on two fronts. First, I’m beginning to see that I may need to kill the wisteria if I’m going to live to enjoy my garden. And second, my body is telling me it may be already too late.

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