by Mimi Hedl
Every summer about the first week in August, the memory of autumn creeps in. A cool breeze, dill going to glorious seed, pawpaws ripening, all signals that summer will bid us good-by. The abundance of the earth and jungle-like conditions in our gardens will not endure. Because we’ve suffered through intense heat, some of us through fires, the thought of autumn buoys us. We’ll welcome the end of mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and inferno-like conditions. Until, of course, winter arrives and we fondly remember glorious summer nights. Call us fickle.
Before the arrival of this cooler weather, we’ll have to endure more extreme heat and humidity. The cucumbers have slowed down, especially with no rain for several weeks. Instead of picking twenty cucumbers a day, I’ll find one and feel grateful. Blessedly, a summer squash plant has succumbed to squash bugs (we planted over zealously) and one melon plant up and died too. We survey our gardens and watch the changes. Everything looks a bit tired, like the head gardener, but we plod on, hoping rain will come and give the gardens their second wind.
Truly, I see myself as a gardener. My calling is to take care of this piece of earth. Now I realize we have too much earth to handle. Eighty acres for one person and a head gardener, with no machines but a push mower, hmmm – not so good. Seed drifts about the countryside. Only mowing and poisoning keep any plant in check. The homestead, the gardens on the three acres, we maintain, we watch for unwanted seedlings of all stripes and colors. It’s the big fields, the twenty-five acres, where natives have been planted that cause anxiety. My neighbors don’t have the luxury of time to think about invasive plants except my new neighbors, the young couple, who I have high hopes for. Now they’re too busy building their house to deal with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Hollis’ thistles and…
Now, sericea lespedeza. Sericea has taken center stage. I could make a list of offending plants we’ve battled. Most of them due to my enthusiasm, uncurbed by thoughtful research. In other words, being seduced by a plant’s beauty, fragrance, grace, whatever, to the point I was unable to foresee the future assault it would carry out. No offensive seed drifted to the fields, only to the gardens. And we’ve stopped their assault over the years. However, with sericea, I had no hand in its introduction to our fields.
Sericea lespedeza was initially planted at the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station in 1896. They were looking for a plant that could survive drought, control erosion and add to the soil’s fertility. After 125 years, sericea has done more than that. It’s taken over vast tracts of land, from Michigan to New Jersey, south to Texas and Florida and even in Hawaii. It has become a curse word to farmers and land owners in general. Like many non-native plants, there are no controls, no natural predator or eater of, no mite, no bug or anything to keep it in check. So now we have another catastrophe on our land, one of many I may add. It’s a bit of a nightmare, like letting the genie out of the bottle.
Until now, Strawdog has been unbothered by this legume. In fact, quite frankly, I didn’t even know what sericea looked like. But oh boy and howdy! I do now. Friends came over for dinner and as they walked around the gardens, Clayton casually looked out into the fields and said, “I see you have a healthy specimen of sericea.” He stopped me in my tracks. “What!!” I exclaimed. “No!!!” I go into crisis easily. I always think the worst will happen. So for me, he could’ve said the world is coming to an end. This seems crazy and it embarrasses me to confess, but it’s true. I slid into doomsday mode. Clayton tried to convince me to just forget it, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to confront this new menace.
I managed to put my anxiety in a box for the rest of the night. The next day, obsessed, I walked the fields. I realized our twenty-five acre field of natives had a veritable infestation of sericea. How did the seed arrive so quickly and perniciously? The extent of the infestation nearly drove me crazy. There was so much of it, I couldn’t believe it could be a bad guy. In fact, I had the folks who we bought the native seed from send me a list of all the seed they’d sent when we planted the field in 2018, just to make sure it couldn’t be something else. I scoured the internet for sericea look-alikes. I didn’t want to believe we really had this dreaded plant. I was still in denial.
I spent one to two hours, down on my hands and knees, early in the morning, snipping each woody stalk with my Felco pruners. When my friend Agnes helped for the first time, she declared “This is so rewarding, to clear a patch.” “Rewarding?” I replied. “It’s a curse. And it goes on and on.” Her company made the task more pleasant and after two weeks, maybe five of the twenty-five acres seems clear of this legume. For now. Of course it will return, just not go to seed this autumn. All the bad guys come back; the good guys just disappear. Sigh…
And that was the easy five acres. The rest of the field has big patches of 100 square feet. Each one would take me three hours to cut down only to have it come back and be ready to flower this time next year. There’s no way I or we, could cut it all down yet this fall. I was beginning to see the reality. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.
Sericea’s attractive. It has soft green leaves with a silvery back coat. No prickles, no thorns, nothing unpleasant. I can see why the pedologists in North Carolina admired this plant, not realizing its aggressive nature. (Keep this in mind in all things plant and human!) I could take up sericea eradication as my mission, neglect the homestead gardens. Such a thought made me realize maybe I had lost my good sense.
My neighbors and friends, John and his son Jeremy, came by at my bidding. I told them about my problem and asked them if they’d use their zero turn mower to cut down the big patches. I’d do the isolated plants. First they told me, “Mimi, sericea’s everywhere, you won’t get rid of it.” I said I realized this, but I signed a contract to take care of this field and I feel responsible to my neighbors too. If, I continued, after five years of continually cutting and burning, sericea returns, I will admit defeat. “I know I’m crazy, but I feel compelled to do this. I love this land.” And Jeremy, who has hunted here for twenty-five years said, “I do too.” And they also laughed and agreed I was crazy. Nice to get the small talk out of the way. They said they’d mow the patches.
A few days after this conversation I drove to Linn for our drive-through electric co-op meeting. I slowly drove the back way, noticing all the sericea in fields, along the roadsides, even in folks’ yards. If we could see Covid, it might look like sericea. I felt physically sick at the sight of so much sericea but also oddly calm. With something so common, how could I possibly expect to be a sericea-free island?
Over a week has passed and they haven’t mowed the big patches. I walked out into the field this morning, as the sun was coming up, and saw beauty as well as an unstoppable force. Maybe Jeremy saw that too. The only way to temporarily get rid of sericea, is to use poisons. After 4 or 5 years of poisoning sericea, it supposedly will die. Then birds, the wind, seed on a tractor, will reintroduce it and you’re back to square one. I will not use poisons. Period. Just like farmers with picture perfect fields, poisons become a way of life in order to maintain the perfection. That explains some of why we’re now in such trouble with the earth.
Like our Pandemic, some things can’t be eliminated, only contained, managed through clever and careful techniques. We simply have to accept that which we can’t control and learn how to live with it. We all face these challenges, with our bodies, our families, our jobs, our mental health, whatever. Part of living happily comes from accepting our limitations and moving on.
I have spent hours thinking about infestations, reading about taking care of the land, and now have admitted defeat. I simply can’t fight it. Every time I think about sericea taking the field, infecting the neighbors’ fields, I get an anxiety attack and want to cry. It will drive me crazy if I don’t accept the reality. Our fields have sericea. I will watch the battle between it and big blue stem, Canadian rye and the other lovely forbs. The bob whites call many times every day. They don’t seem concerned about sericea, nor do all the pollinators, floating above it all.
So I focus on the homestead. I think about where I want to plant an alder copse, a smoke tree. I watch the Indian pinks go to seed and calculate when the seed will be ripe. I pick the beautiful grapes and native peaches and feel grateful for the bounty of this piece of land. The earth doesn’t care what plants grow in the fields at Strawdog, along the road sides or anywhere else. The earth has millennia to sort it all out.
Only we humans care. We think we know what to do, like the soil specialists, or pedologists, did when they advocated using sericea lespedeza to solve an erosion problem. Just as we have to think about what we plant, we have to carefully consider how we will contend with plants we don’t want. It can’t be all about US. The earth, the universe has its own ways. We must respect them or bear the consequences. I feel humbled and ready to cooperate, to accept invasives and try to control them where possible. It was a painful trip, coming to this acceptance, and I feel sure I’ll have moments of backsliding.
As the days shorten and the time to plant fall crops comes, the head gardener and I bound around the gardens with a bit more vigor, though a bit ragged looking and still bearing the red splotches from one insect and another, scratches from blackberry canes, and blisters from over-use of the pruners. It’s in the job description. We welcome it all, grateful for our able bodies so we can experience this piece of land going through its changes, as willing caretakers. In fact, she and I seem to have found a place of harmony. Maybe she sees how hard I’ve worked and how devastated I feel by the presence of another invasive. Whatever, I welcome the friendly gestures, however long they may last.