Mother's Earth

THE REAL DIRT

May 08, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I've tried to be a good son. I trimmed Mom's lawn until I ra over my foot with the mower. I bought her some mail-order ladybugs, which promptly skipped town.

I even treated Mom to a new garden shed, which arrived in a flat box marked full assembly required. I struggled with that shed for two weeks, after which a neighbor tore it down and did it right.

My intentions are noble, if the execution is lacking. But I've always tried to address Mom's gardening needs.

Until now.

What she's asking for Mother's Day, I cannot deliver. Mom wants to banish all the pesky ground ivy and dandelions from her small suburban yard. Forever.

Armed with a garden trowel, Mom will sit out there for hours, waging a ground assault on the enemy. She has dug up dandelions by the hundreds, passing time by counting her kills. She has gathered huge piles of ground ivy, a pernicious creeper which appears to have neither a beginning nor an end.

How is Mom doing? Results are mixed. She seems to be winning the war against dandelions, which are dwindling in numbers each spring. Still, she continues her vigil. Leaving one dandelion fuzzball to go to seed can produce thousands of new plants next year.

Ground ivy is a more formidable foe, sweeping down Mom's hillside in huge drifts, choking out grass and invading her gardens, not to mention her thoughts.

"They're driving me crazy," she says.

Chemical weed-killers aren't an option. A retired schoolteacher, Mom taught biology and ecology for more than 30 years. Her yard is user-friendly. One of its most frequent users is Jessie, her little Welsh Corgi dog, whose tummy scrapes the tips of the grass.

Tips that touch Jessie will never touch toxins. Hence, Mom's dilemma.

"I can't stand these weeds," she says.

Frankly, I see no cause for alarm. Dandelions and ground ivy don't bother me. My yard is awash in both, and I could care less. In fact, there aren't enough of these pretty weeds around for our 12-year-old, Beth, who loves picking the spring blossoms of the bright golden dandelions, as well as the rich purple spikes of ground ivy.

Beth even wants Mom to save her weeds, to transplant in our yard.

Despite her protestations, Mom's yard is neat, trim and prettier by far than when I maintained it 20 years ago. I'm a vegetable gardener who treats ornamentals as an afterthought. Mom does just the opposite.

Last Mother's Day, we toured her yard, walking off a chicken dinner and reliving the highlights of Mom's 40 years of gardening there.

Mom's backyard is landscaped like a bowl, creating low pockets lawn that remain wet nearly half the year. The clothesline sits in this basin, much to Mom's chagrin. It's like hanging laundry in the Everglades, she says.

Once, she determined to relandscape. She bought a truckload of topsoil, which we spread on the squishy lawn, followed by a truckload of thick sod. When we finished laying the sod -- a monstrous task -- the backyard seemed to be resting on stilts.

Then a thunderstorm struck.

When the skies cleared, the yard had sunk to its old level.

"Discouraging," was all Mom said.

Gradually, she tweaked the ground, planting everything from blueberries to boxwoods. A hemlock thrived for years in the damp, musty soil. A rosebush had its roots in the Eisenhower era; a dogwood has been there for nearly two decades. And the daffodils, perhaps Mom's favorite flower, were a knockout this spring, especially the yellow-cupped blossoms lining the gravesite of her all-time favorite dog, Murphy.

Around the side of the house, to improve the soil in one flower bed, Mom had us haul bags and bags of earth from a nearby woods -- the rich loam you find in the marrow of old fallen trees. The garden perked up immediately. It almost seemed to come alive.

"It was alive," said Mom, who took a soil sample to school, examined it under a microscope and found it teeming with termites.

That flower bed was jinxed, she said. Once, a heating oil operator filled Mom's tank to overflowing; it covered the garden with sticky black goo. Then a 20-foot pear tree toppled in a storm and flattened the flowers -- even the dandelions, which, of course, grew back. The annuals did not.

Of course, the ground ivy is too smart to grow there.

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