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Notes From the Lawn

The Weed Hound

We want gardening to seem so natural, something any of us, given a trowel, can do. But the autodidacts among us should realize that sometimes help is needed. This week: How a mail-order gardening tool saved a marriage.

In the beginning, a long series of African violets suffered and died on my childhood windowsill. Their velvety leaves hate water, but I poured indiscriminately. They responded like the Wicked Witch of the West, shrieking and shriveling away. Sturdier and altogether easier to care for, a red geranium lasted as long as it could (approximately two weeks) in the total shade of my bookshelf. I don’t know who gave me these plants or why I so glaringly neglected them; I was otherwise very careful about looking after my room. When the plants died, I carried them out to the compost pile by the garage, each gloomy procession giving me the distinct impression I did not have a green thumb.

In college, I was a willing participant in the national fall ritual of wholesale plant slaughter, buying potted schefflera and hibiscus to fill the bare corners of my dorm rooms. In four years only one of these plants, a small braided ficus, survived past Christmas. After graduation I abandoned it in the courtyard beneath a magnolia tree and headed to New York, where, for a number of years, I was too poor to eat properly, let alone spend money on killing plants. After I married and moved to London, I was given an orchid. Miracle plant, its long stem swayed elegantly with white flowers for several months though I did nothing for it. Eventually my mother-in-law killed it, pruning roots she said she mistook for dead stems. My English friends called the crime floracide and urged me to confront her. When I did, she gave me one of her French shrugs. “Get another one,” she said.

And who was I to disagree? I’d been using plants as disposable decoration for years.

But something had changed. I wanted flowers now, lots of them, and when, soon after the incident, we moved back to the States, to Virginia, into a house with a yard for the first time since my childhood, I decided to plant a garden. Charlottesville is geographically a horticulturalist’s dream, the southernmost point for tricky northern plants such as lilac, and the northernmost point for such famously southern plants as magnolia, crape myrtle, and camellias. There’s a reason Thomas Jefferson built Monticello here; he was a gardener.

I dug beds and treated the clay soil and studied perennial border design. I drew plans and bought plants. I was enthusiastic and optimistic, and if I was neglecting other aspects of my life (such as establishing telephone service, unpacking boxes, etc.), I thought the payoff would be a beautiful garden that would enrich our new life in Virginia.

The whole root comes up without fail and, with practice, I’m fairly certain the maneuver could be executed with one hand, allowing a cocktail in the other, perhaps—or a badminton racket, or what have you. But how quickly passion turns to obsession. I can barely remember those happy weeks of drawing and laying in seedlings because before long I was staying up all night searching the internet for tools to battle weeds: crab grass, dandelions, Virginia creeper. A particularly nasty broad-leaf nuisance known as plantain. Violets and clover, seemingly innocent at first, but actually shameless, able to propagate faster than rabbits. The tinkle of ice in a glass soon meant for me not cocktails, but a good hour for weeding, the sun less hot. My husband sat alone on the porch while I crawled around on hands and knees, plucking, pulling, tearing.

“The maenads were such creatures,” he called out one night.

“Then you better go inside,” I answered.

The final insult: Just because you see a weed and wish to remove it doesn’t mean you can. They are strong, tenacious, willful. They stand their ground like a recalcitrant child, the difference being that you are allowed to grab at and rip weeds to get them to behave. Satisfying to a degree, but also deceptive. Nine times out of 10, the green stuff comes away leaving the tap root behind to sprout again. Torture! To feel that root, to loosen and wiggle it, only to have the leaves snap away in your hand. It’s a sneeze that won’t come, an itch you can’t reach. It’s forgetting how to ride a bike or drinking a glass of milk you thought was orange juice. It’s dashed expectation, and it’s awful.

Searching online for something to save the garden and our marriage, my husband found the Weed Hound. This beautiful device is like a walking stick, only more useful. Stroll around the garden, and if you happen upon a weed, simply step on the Hound’s small platform, sending its tempered steel tines down around the weed like a cage, then pull up and plunge out. That’s it. Some people compost, I prefer to let the weeds wither and wilt where they fall. (Now that’s a Victory Garden, my English friends say. They live, in general, much closer to WWII than we do.) Extracting the entire weed feels wonderful, like pulling the bucket away and—every time—seeing the sand castle with all its turrets intact. The whole root comes up without fail and, with practice, I’m fairly certain the maneuver could be executed with one hand, allowing a cocktail in the other, perhaps—or a badminton racket, or what have you.

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago I didn’t have a house or a garden. I didn’t own a blender or a bagel cutter either, but these are dispensable, laughable, by comparison. The garden is not the kitchen. Things are far more serious out here, and the Weed Hound is my instrument of diplomacy.

Obviously, I’m not letting my mother-in-law anywhere near it.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane