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Battling the Blues

The Social Gardener, Spring 2007Battling the Blues
Copyright 2007 by J.I. Kleinberg
Previously published in The Social Gardener, The Journal of the Whatcom Horticultural Society, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2007

Except for the furious shoveling-up of the front lawn, the heavy lifting in my garden was done by the previous homeowner. Betty went to war with the blackberries and clay and nurtured a lovely sanctuary of apples and plums, rhodies and junipers, hydrangeas and hostas. Although she claimed to have abandoned her passion for bulbs and other seasonal plantings, cheerful clusters of crocus, daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips, asters and lilies still emerge each year.

The grape hyacinths, muscari armeniacum, push up their grassy fronds in mid-winter and by early February are showing their distinctive flower stalks topped with grape-like clusters of tiny blue florets. They form a dense blue understory and offer up a delicate, fruity fragrance.

As the season progresses, the flowers dry, lose their color and turn into flat, tissue-thin seedpods that open to release their payload of tiny black seeds. The greenery looks like overgrown grass until it, too, eventually dies back.

I hate them.

I didn’t start out hating them. I liked their color and fragrance, their early promise of the spring to come. But I wasn’t happy with the grassy mess of their leaves, which gave my entryway a bedraggled, untended look, so I decided to take out some of the grape hyacinths to make way for other plantings. Ha!

Kneeling on my green foam pad, I troweled into the much-amended soil, scooped out the small, white bulbs, dusted off the extra dirt, and tossed them into a bucket. Within ten minutes the bucket was full and I was still kneeling in the same spot. I got a kitchen-size plastic trash bag. Within a half-hour, I had four bags I could barely lift and had advanced only a few feet along the bed.

No stranger to the seduction of nursery catalogs, I knew that for some eager gardener, my noxious bulbs would be blue gold, so I made a sign and set the bags at the curb. They were gone before I was back on my knees.

Once I started, I realized that there were grape hyacinths everywhere. Their little grassy fronds gave them away. Summer seeds were already sending up green sprouts. Mature bulbs were starting the year over again. They had worked their way into the roots of the azaleas and cotoneaster, had crossed the walkway and nestled into the heather, had populated the margins of the vegetable garden, and had even found their way up the long driveway and into the back yard.

Every time I thought I had cleared a part of the bed, I discovered another clump of bulbs beside or beneath the one I had just unearthed. The largest bulbs were the size of Ping-Pong balls, the smallest the size of a poppy seed. Some sprouted right at the surface, but most were burrowed 4 to 8 inches into the soil. There were rogue bulbs off on their own, mother bulbs surrounded by litters of pups, and places where my trowel would unearth dense, nearly soil-less masses of pea-size bulbs that I could barely hold in two hands.

I felt like I was living a science fiction movie. My adversary — a much-beloved garden treasure with a dark side — had taken possession of my garden, multiplying rampantly by bulb and casting seed by the gazillion.

By the time the rains started in earnest, I had given up for adoption nearly 30 large kitchen bags of grape hyacinth bulbs and a good portion of my sanity. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not done. I don’t know how long it took for my garden to become a muscari hot-bed, and I know I’ll never be rid of them, but I’m determined to keep trying. The soggy winter months have allowed me to see and pry out bulbs from beneath deciduous plants and to crawl through the dripping overhang of juniper and spruce, digging as I go, muttering apologies to the plants whose roots I’ve unsettled, whose leaves and berries I pull from my hair at the end of the day.

Recently, as a friend and I were leafing through a gardening catalog, she said, “I can’t believe that people pay money for mint!” Yeah…I know exactly what she means.

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