Guerillas in the Garden, or
Try not to Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water
Let me tell you what did staggeringly well over the winter. Lesser celandine! If you have read my post of March 2012, The Weed that can Snare a Gardener, written when I was a less-than-wise gardener (which is not to imply that the situation is much improved today), you are already familiar with my love-hate relationship with this plant.
First I couldn’t get enough of it. Carefully I tended each bright shiny plant. And when I was blessed with bounty, I shared. How I shared. Other gardeners were equally dazzled, so I gave it away freely, even sold some at our plant sales. My ego soared. My star was rising among gardening friends.
Then I learned all the bitter truths about this kissin’ cousin of the buttercup.
It’s an impostor. A doppelganger for marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, a lovely native, not particularly coveted because of where it lives. (Sigh, if only my identification had been more objective before I fell in love with this dastardly counterfeit.)
Egg on my face, betrayal, but I managed to survive that bitter truth, until. . .
I discovered the next bitter truth. Only after I was totally hooked, did these bright rosettes with their knock-your-socks off blooms take full advantage. They bounced around our garden like slinky toys embedded in boomerangs. Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect us over here…and here…and here! Oh, and over there, too!
And then the third, the cruelest indignity of all, the one that feeds heady hope, then brings utter despair. The plants fade some time in May. They are gone, all of them.
You feel triumphant, light as air. Your garden is freed from the yoke of these invaders. You don’t give them another thought. Then, next spring, your psyche is dashed by a sea of psychedelic yellow.
My daughter and I learned these bitter truths years ago after we spent one spring day on our knees, three-pronged cultivators in hand, pulling up plants and feeling very proud of our “finished” work.
At the time, we didn’t quite understand the way these guerillas operate. Their blossoms are the vanguard, spilling seeds here there and yon if you do not run the extra mile (around the garden) cutting off new flowers daily.
What a bother! Better off spending time hunting up an army of schoolkids to collect bouquets and hope they don’t get tired, thirsty, bored, cranky, hungry before the job is done.
Major warfare, we soon learned, takes place unseen, in the trenches, where masses of roots with apparently innocuous bulblets, maybe only one, maybe a hundred (slight exaggeration) to a plant, stand at attention, ready to break away and go into hiding if attacked.
One bulblet, or even a part of one, accidentally removed from the original plant, will create a new plant. I repeat, one bulblet, or even part of one, will create a new plant.
So the Defender (that’s me, in case you hadn’t guessed) must dig with finesse. One would assume that your usually-adequate-for-small-plants handy-dandy trowel would qualify as the proper tool if finesse is required.
Not so. A full-fledged shovel must be plunged deeply (little finesse here) into the soil while carefully cutting around the plant and lifting the clump to remove the invaders, or maybe not, if you didn’t aim quite right.
In which case, the troops might be scattered, reburied, or cut in two, which will, of course, bring on the slinky effect. Complicating matters, bulblets sometimes grow among heavy roots that are impenetrable fortifications against mere shovels.
In that case, you should probably consider dynamiting the garden or incorporating celandine into your garden plans for the rest of your life.
And another thing, don’t even think about salvaging that precious, composty soil you’ve been building for years. Shaking soil off a shovelful of roots guarantees another dozen plants next year. Into pickle-pail purgatory and on to landfil-oblivion they must go.
Interesting Trivia: Many years ago, the oystermen in Great South Bay, Long Island, were fed up with starfish prying open the oysters and helping themselves to the crop. To get rid of the starfish and, I suppose, vent their frustration at the same time, they engaged in a great effort to catch hundreds, maybe thousands, of starfish.
Methodically, with supreme satisfaction, they chopped the starfish up and threw them back into the Bay. Surprise! You can guess the rest of the story. Celandine has a lot in common with starfish.
If you doubt that this is guerilla warfare, take a look at the names of killer chemicals that one can use against this invader — if one is a gambler and willing to go bankrupt on such purchases, none of which have iron-clad guarantees.
Doff Knockdown Weedkiller
Scotts Fast Action Roundup Ready-to-Use
Bayer Glyphosate Ready-to-Use Kills Weeds & Roots
Roundup Gel Ready-to-Use
Resolva Lawn Weedkiller
Weedol Lawn Weedkiller
Bayer Lawn Weedkiller
We have read that a thick layer of mulch can discourage celandine, but I wonder, then, if pine voles would be tempted to tunnel in friable compost and become yet another guerilla force in the garden. I doubt that celandine bulblets would ever become a delicacy for voles when tulips and crocuses are on the menu.
If celandine plants would stick to empty spots in a flower bed, we could tolerate them, but instead, they circle prized shrubs and home in until they establish a chokehold.
Rescuing such a plant, we soon learned, is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We did just that this spring.
We decided to dig up a celandine-choked hydrangea that was failing, a favorite red that had grown and prospered from a cutting volunteered by a willing plant in New Castle, Delaware, where my sister, conveniently, was carrying a large purse in which to stash the prize. Quite cleverly, we named the acquisition New Castle Red.
Our plan was to separate hydrangea from celandine, rout the guerillas and restore the plant to its happy home in, say a couple of hours tops.
It didn’t work quite that way. To begin with, by the time we dug the plant out, we realized we were mucking in wet, heavy clay, the kind of clay that fails drainage tests, badly, but which, oddly, our hydrangeas seem to like.
By the way, anyone with a spare shovel and a yen for a sprained back can perform these high-tech drainage tests. You dig a hole (that’s the high-tech part), fill it with water, let the hole drain, then refill it and track the time until the hole is empty again.
We didn’t plan on running such a test, but we had a ready-made hole that was now filled with rain from a sudden storm, so we welcomed going off on this tangent. Watching water drain can be one of the more exciting activities in a garden. Less strenuous, too.
In this case, watching a clock would have been far more exciting. The water level never dropped. We decided to go back to rescuing the hydrangea.
We soon learned that it is difficult to work delicately when your hands are muddy and the dug-up plant is slippery and weighs a ton and you are fighting with a guerilla that has woven itself among roots.
To “save” the hydrangea we had to cut it apart. With a hatchet.
We’ve divided hydrangeas before, but usually we are in command. By the time we finished “saving” this hydrangea, we wound up with 13 sticks, each with some semblance of leaves and roots. I heeled them into a cuttings bed (early spring, soil still cold for this work, I know) and last I looked, they were all showing some semblance of shuffling off.
We happened to have a “sister” to this hydrangea in the wings, so we stirred a goop of compost, mushroom dirt and clay clods into the still-rain-filled hole and popped her in with a little moat surrounding her (to promote drainage, I can hear you laughing already).
We had to “persuade” her not to float by adding more clods, especially after the next two-incher left standing water in the moat.
So ends the celandine cliff-hanger for this year. Will the new hydrangea evade the guerillas next year? Will any of the old hydrangea survive? Stay tuned for the next installment of this thrill-a-minute saga of death-defying warfare waged by Guerillas in the Garden. PG-13
For now, let’s move on to brighter news: luscious blooms and lush growth spurred by rainy days and cool weather this spring and workaholic compost that keeps feeding our soil like that certain bunny that never quits. Despite losses, it’s been the best spring ever.
Pictured in the slide show below are atamasco lily, clematis, spirea ‘Ogon’, and native honeysuckle, lady banks rose, sinocalycanthus ‘Hartlage Wine’ and kerria, red buckeye, fringe tree, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls, sweet william, limbed-up doublefile viburnum (v. plicatum tomentosum), a sea of forgetmenots, and columbines that give sparkle to a challenged oleander.
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