End of the Line

Garden Wars

Roy Blount, Jr. on tussling with a nasty vine… and losing

Photo: Barry Blitt

don’t expect plants to share my agenda. Green beans don’t want to be picked when they’re young and tender, they want to get coarse and cast robust seeds on the ground. If they have any interest at all in being delicious, it’s so they’ll be planted in the first place. Their business is to perpetuate, so they hide as long as possible among their vines and leaves. I can respect that. I can even say, “Okay, okay, you got me” to a zucchini that has grown overnight into something as big and inedible as my leg. Though what I wish zucchini would do is go on to another level, maybe learn to wriggle away, evolve into a life-form less cumbersome.

But zucchinis are ambrosial compared with Cayratia japonica, a.k.a. bushkiller, the invasive vine that wants to drive me out of my New Orleans courtyard.

“It’s like marriage,” said one man I compared Cayratia notes with. What he had in mind was commitment to a long, daunting struggle. Not what my marriage is like—yet. But Cayratia fights dirty. Cayratia wants to use my monkey grass,
my earthworms, my cat, and, yes, my marriage against me.

We learned we had Cayratia when we returned after a couple of months’ absence to find long leafy vines with wispy snagging tendrils draped over our entire cast-iron plant, whose circumference is thirty paces, and two tables, three chairs, and a bench. We pulled it all up. But it kept coming back, and spreading all over the courtyard.

The vines spring from runners underground. If you don’t get the whole runner up, it will resprout, and spread. Getting
the runner up is a little bit like fishing: You pull it in carefully, steadily, and it’s giving, and it’s giving, and then it’s all tangled in the monkey-grass roots, and it’s under the bricks and big slate slabs that I thought were so cool because no grass to mow—or it goes deep, and you dig and wrench, and
it breaks.

Meanwhile earthworms are leaping, springing, from the rich black soil. I love earthworms. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were glad to see me. But no, they are desperate to get on with loam improvement. Sometimes a runner tries to pass
itself off as an earthworm. Or as an elephant’s ear root. Cayratia knows exactly what it’s doing.

Four months ago I filled two thirty-five-gallon garbage bins with Cayratia runners. I’m still pulling up ten or twelve a day. Sprouts still pop up all around. Everybody I consulted said I could never hold my own without herbicide. So I bought a big blue container. But I couldn’t just slosh it around. Our cat, Jimmy, devotes much of his day to courtyard resting. He moves around with the sun and sometimes disappears into the cast-iron plant or the monkey grass. I couldn’t leave any herbicide where it could get on Jimmy. Nor could I get herbicide on the monkey grass or the cast-iron plant or the elephant’s ear.

And my wife hates herbicide. I made a strenuous case for it as the only way to keep the Cayratia from stealing the sun and water and natural nutrients from the plants that are part of the family. I will be very careful not to spill any, I promised. And I use it when she’s away.

She’s shopping. I half fill a cat-food can with herbicide, and I’m breaking vines off above ground and dipping the stumps into the cat-food can, and pinning the wet part to a bare patch of ground with a piece of brick, and every now and then I run over and poke Jimmy to make sure he only looks dead, and I’m racing to finish before Joan gets home, and I go for more herbicide, and when I finish pouring, the cap of the blue container is gone.

Can’t close it. Joan will freak.

I’m freaking. Running all over trying to remember…imagine where…how…and finding a bigger piece of brick to put over a damp Cayratia stump that has wrestled free, and poking Jimmy again, and improvising an unsafe-looking herbicide cap from tinfoil and rubber bands—and Joan’s home!

That guy who evoked his marriage might have yelled something angry and defensive.

What I yell is “The Cayratia stole the herbicide cap!”

“Oh well, you’ll find it,” she says.

Take that, Cayratia.