When Juniper Attacks

July 2, 2007 at 2:24 pm (Uncategorized)

My newfound gardening hobby is beginning to border on an obsession. I can’t walk outside without yanking weeds. And then once I start weeding, I can’t stop. “Daaad. Mom’s still weeding,” my three-year old son, Andrew will bellow, a few minutes after I’ve promised I’m on my way inside from the car.

I wish the level of fussing and the numbers of bags I’ve filled with various species of thistles, dandelions, and other fuzzy-topped weeds corresponded to a better-looking yard. But after three years of active neglect (since we bought the house in late 2004, there’s been not more than two total hours of yard work done before this spring), my summer flurry of pulling and planting hasn’t really made a dent. Most of our property is seedy-looking at best, and down right derelict in other places.

Yesterday, on a hot and sunny Sunday, I decided to tackle the front of the property while Jay and Andrew were off on errands. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier essay on this blog, our yard isn’t of the standard grass and shrub variety. The previous owners painstakingly planted perennials that are deer-resistant and that require little, if any, water. We have lovely potentilla shrubs lining one side of our driveway. Sage bushes with purple flowers, flax, and bright orange poppies faithfully bloom each year. The cacti shoot up extravagant flowers. But, in the front of our house, weeds have invaded the creeping juniper ground cover. In large patches, the juniper looks almost as crummy as the waving weeds. Much of it is dried, brown, and crumbling. In the brownest spots, enough thistles to feed a herd of Eeyores have gained a foothold.

I should note that it wasn’t until our next-door neighbor stopped by with sweet pea pods picked fresh from his lush and orderly garden that I learned that the horizontal pine tree-looking stuff was juniper. My knowledge of things plant-related is close to my expertise in, say, astrophysics or vascular surgery – zip. I have no idea what plants I need to water, or when. I’m used to the animal and child style of maintenance: they let you know when they’re hungry or thirsty, instead of quietly waving in the wind before dropping dead. Most of the time, I can’t even determine what is a desirable plant and what is a noxious weed. Last week, I ripped out a bed of lavender, leaving behind knapweed. In my defense, the lavender hadn’t bloomed and looked a little hung-over, while the knapweed had blossomed into stunning purple flowers. It wasn’t like the knapweed had a tag proclaiming, “I am a noxious weed, the bane of native plants. Please kill me.” The thing looked pretty. Now, after mishaps like that, I’m learning to spy on other people’s gardens and ask them basic and idiotic questions, such as, “How long should I leave the hose on this plant?” My poor next door neighbor is the recipient of most of my stupid queries. “Am I insane?” I asked Neal, when he delivered the pea pods and the classification of the shrub in my front yard. I was red-faced and panting from the effort of trying to remove the dead and sickly parts of the juniper. “Well, that depends on what you’re talking about,” he answered without missing a beat. “But, if you’re thinking of pulling out that juniper, I’d leave it.”

I had no intention of pulling out the juniper. I simply wanted to contain it a little – and also remove the parts that looked blighted. Plus, the juniper was taking over everything. The previous owners had constructed all these arty formations of large, jagged rocks and bleached driftwood in the front yard that the juniper was devouring. The juniper was even colonizing the mulch and rocks they had dumped down. And, like I said, it wasn’t looking too snazzy. So, I seized a dead-looking piece of juniper – one little branch – and pulled. And pulled. And pulled. As I yanked, I didn’t uproot this one, single branch. No, I unearthed forty other subterranean branches. Now it looked worse with all these dead, exposed branches, so I pulled again. And pulled. And pulled. Still, nothing came out of the ground, but I did expose another forty underground roots. So, I began cutting, thinking that I could trim away all the decayed matter that I had pulled to the surface. But it was like I had uncovered a giant squid in the front yard. Everywhere I turned a tentacle-like root was up, out of the ground.

As in other global battles between two fierce opponents, the situation escalated quickly. I’m not sure how it became so dramatic. One moment, I had a cogent plan for making my front yard look better; the next, I was locked in mortal combat with a root system that I swear was armor-plated and entrenched about thirty feet deep. I hacked, and hacked, and swore, and hacked some more. All I did was expose deeper and larger juniper roots. My arms were scratched. I was down on my knees, flailing with the shears, and then standing, and pulling and grunting with all my might. The children next door had been skateboarding down the ramp of a flat-bed trailer parked in front of their house. After I was out there for a while, they gave up all pretense of skateboarding and simply stared at me. This free show had to be more entertaining. I was wearing ripped, slightly-too-tight pants, and a bright orange t-shirt. To keep the sun off my face, I donned my canvas fishing hat that says “Vietnam” in bright-red letters on the front that I bought on vacation in Hanoi a few years ago. The hat did little to keep my temperature down; within a few minutes, I was soaked with sweat and my face matched my obnoxious t-shirt.

“Wow,” Jay said, without any affect, when he and Andrew returned from their errands. “You’ve been busy. And you look awfully hot.” Because I am stubborn, and because I wanted some kind of resolution with the juniper, I refused to come inside. Jay came back out a little while later. “Uhm, sweetie,” he began. “I don’t really know how to say this, but, uhm, you’re being an idiot. Your face is red, you’re panting, and you don’t look so good.” It was almost like his words allowed something besides the network of juniper roots to enter my consciousness. I was tired. My heart was rattling precipitously in my chest. I was standing in full sun in ninety degree weather. I was soaked with sweat. And I have a heart condition. So, I went inside. “Holy mackerel, Mommy,” Andrew crowed. “Your face is as red as many beets.”

Maybe the juniper thought it had carried the day, but I was just biding my time until the sun slipped lower in the sky and the air cooled. After dinner, I went back to the yard with my black gardening garbage bags, my trusty clippers, and a whole lot of anger. At least the urchins next door had gone inside to gape at the television instead of me. My second campaign was remarkably similar to the first, with lots of pulling, swearing, ripping up my hands, and scratching my arms.

As it grew darker, I abandoned the juniper (turns out, according to some research I did last night, a truck is the recommended juniper extraction tool – as in hitch your truck to the root and gun it.) and moved on to the thistles. I pulled out forty-four last night. By the time I got to them, the juniper had so infuriated me that I didn’t even bother to dig the thistles up. I just grabbed them with my canvas gloves and yanked. Of course, they pricked my hands, but I was in a mental zone where all I cared about was ripping thistles out of the ground and smashing them into the garbage bag. The thistles oozed a milky sap; I folded them in half and stuffed them down into the bag of dead leaves, sawed-off hunks of juniper, and other thistles. And all the while, I cursed to myself. I kept my voice low, and Andrew was inside. Nevertheless, I wasn’t saying nice things to the thistles and the juniper. But it felt good to rip up these odious weeds and match their barbs with my words. It felt good to hack at the juniper, even though I was making our poor yard look worse. It was like I was a cartoon character and I could feel the steam of rage and frustration blowing out my ears. In the midst of my yanking and smashing and muttered obscenities, a woman walking her dog past the house stopped and watched (and listened) to me. I didn’t really notice her until she said, “I think you’ll need to speak up if you want the thistles to hear you.” Of course I apologized for my profanity on the mild summer evening, but she just laughed and said she took out her frustration on weeds, too. I couldn’t help but thinking that not only did we have the absolute worst and weediest yard on the street, but that now, several of the day’s witnesses would attest that I was the neighborhood loon. All my gardening had done was rile up the juniper into an ugly tangle of roots and make me act strangely. “There’s the red-faced lady,” the kids will whisper. “Stay out of her way, or she’ll call you a mother-fucking thistle and stuff you in her trash bag.”

I have been forcing myself to stay indoors today. The temperature is supposed to rise over ninety degrees, and I’m sore from doing battle with the juniper. I am also frankly ashamed at how angry I got in the yard. Jay, who (in a delightful gender role reversal) had spent the day doing laundry, hanging it on the line, going grocery shopping and making pizza, was more sanguine in his assessment of my juniper attack. “It makes sense you were pissed,” he said, as we snuggled in bed last night. “There’s a lot going on in your life, and you don’t have many outlets for your anger.” Then he told me that he thought it was good I was out there, cussing at the ground cover – as long as I stayed away from peak sun.

He’s right. I do have a lot going on. My second Remicade infusion did little to improve my health. I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling exhausted, sore, and sick – and that’s even when I stay out of the garden. I had a few good days of work, and a few days of keeping up with the work of my daily life – grocery shopping, playing with my son, sweeping the kitchen floor, and making dinner for my family – and then the weeds of this illness popped up again. Now I have the familiar sensation of a low-grade flu – what I call my everyday sarcoidosis symptoms. It makes me mad. It makes me want to rip the disease out of me. But I can’t. So I guess I’ll settle for the thistles.


  1. Lori said,

    R–you can borrow our truck…………Lori

  2. barb said,

    Rebecca..I laughed, I shook my head, I nodded in recognition of the state of mind, I REALLY admired your quality of tenacity, I was extremely glad you are staying in from the heat, and I wondered..could this Juniper be a threat to the USA? Have you considered homeland “security”, perhaps a surgical strike? Oh..and I noticed, you pulled on what appeared to be dead and guess what, it wasn’t…I wonder if you have met a mirror for your “inner juniper”..well rooted, tenacious, ready to cover a lot of territory..hmmm. I really enjoyed your rant..thanks. Peace.

  3. Tracy said,

    Dear Rebecca-

    I spent today wrestling with a juniper and as I read your story, it made me laugh out loud! I really wish I’d been so vocal instead of keeping it inside while I smiled and waved to the neighbors.

    May God bless you and give you core and “juniper root strength” as you face your medical challenges.

  4. Growing Season « Chronic Town said,

    […] blog will find this surprising. I used to think of myself as a sort of anti-gardener. (Check out “When Juniper Attacks,” “Gardening?” and “Feed Me,Seymour!” you’re interested.) Before […]

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