Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Death of an Herb Garden

This has been a difficult year in our gardens, and it’s only July.

The deer have eaten the beans and the squash. The rabbit has mowed down the parsley. The oregano
Last year's healthy, beautiful herb garden.
was looking burned out and there were suspicious white spots on the sage leaves. Either the rabbit or the groundhog has enjoyed our growing honeydew melons. The deer came back and ate all the apples off the tree. And then several tomato plants seem to be dying for no reason.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Your favorite uncle and I have a small lawn crew that helps with the bigger jobs that are difficult for us. This year, it has been poison ivy. Your uncle brushed against some vines and developed second-degree burns from it. It had to go.

We told our lawn crew that we needed to pull the vines. We’ve told them in the past to avoid toxic sprays, including all variations of Roundup.

They have been working diligently and I am generally pleased with their work. I would recommend them to other local families. But…

There is a sumac growing at the edge of the main herb bed that we needed help to pull. Our new crew leader saw the sumac and that we had been struggling with it and thought he could help us out. And so, he did exactly what we told them not to do.

A good guy, a terrible mistake

The Monday before the 4th of July, we were home for the long holiday weekend. Our lawn guys came over to pull the poison ivy and meet with your favorite uncle. I looked up from my reading on the couch to see one of the young men walk past the parlor window with a container in one hand and a hose and sprayer in the other.

I was leaning out the window and calling him over so fast the cat was dizzy.

“Were you spraying?” I asked. “Did you spray in my herb garden?”

“There’s a sumac tree,” he says, pointing towards the herb garden. “I’m trying to kill it before I pull it out of there.”

“That’s my herb garden,” I say again. “Don’t do anything, I’m coming out to talk with you.”

I come out and at this point, you favorite uncle has noticed something going on and comes to join us.  The young man with the sprayer and his boss, who is working on a wasp problem, and I stand in front of the dripping sumac and the wet garden. I asked again what was just sprayed. The young man holds up the container.

The herb garden an hour after having been sprayed.
Note the wet marks on the shed wall from the sprayer.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s supposed to be safe for gardens.”

Dear readers: It’s not safe for gardens.

“There’s supposed to be nothing sprayed here,” your uncle tells them. “We’re trying to keep this as an organic garden.”

“The label says it’s safe for gardens,” the boss tells us again.

“This is food,” I stress to them both. “This is an herb garden I’ve been growing for the past four years.”

They look at each other rather blankly.

“This,” I say, touching the tall, broad leaf clump of flowering plants, “is mint. You make tea out of it. You put it in mojitos. This is lavender”—I point to the spindly plant with its second round of shoots preparing to bloom—“and this rosemary.”

“How about this plant?” the boss asks, pointing to a pale green leaf.

“That’s lemon balm,” I tell him. “It’s for making tea with the mint.”

“And over here?” he asks.

“Oregano and thyme,” I say.

He looks puzzled by the straggly little bush. “What do you use thyme for?”

I cast for a thought to explain thyme. “You use it in Italian seasoning, with the oregano.”

Your uncle is shaking his head. He’s looking at the spray pattern on side of the shed, he’s looking at the glistening leaves. “How much did you spray?”

They both swear it was just on the sumac. Which leans over the chives, the lavender, the strawberries, and the rosemary. Maybe it won’t be so bad, they say.

I looked at my herb garden. This has been a difficult season; I had to cut back my sage in an effort to save it and the leaves had just grown back in. I had several beautiful, healthy clumps of oregano that I was going to transplant in place of the older sections that had become choked out. The chives were looking really good, after having been sparse last year. The herb garden was on the edge of recovery from an early spring snowstorm.

Chives, strawberries and oregano
growing in the herb garden.
Our first spring on Edgewood in St. Denis, I had spent a month clearing the old ornamental flower bed and getting to know the space. The “landscapers” for the estate when it was for sale had just planted a few things to look pretty. They did nothing to improve the soil -- in fact, they did very little to make it look pretty. The renovating crew, we were later told, didn’t bring a dumpster to the house, but they did just chuck pieces of our 134-year-old house out the window. Including a few windows! I cleared useless mulch from the garden bed only to find a shattered window pane underneath it. Before I could plant, I had to clear glass fragments away, along with rusty nails, pieces of roofing and bits of the lathe from the walls of the house.

Once cleared, I dug out old, tired topsoil from the stone and cement basin of the garden bed and replaced it with garden soil. I mixed in peat and compost. I added organic fertilizers. I watched as three days of 12 inches of rain overwhelmed my work and washed it over the sides of the basin and in a small stream down the walkway to the woods. I started over.

Your favorite uncle and I went to the farming co-op and bought herbs. We went to the farmers market and bought herbs. We went to the local farm and bought herbs. We found the lavender and mint I couldn’t find anywhere else at the old neighborhood garden store that his family shopped at for the past 50 years. I planted. I pruned. I replanted.

For Christmas, your favorite uncle gave me beautiful garden signs that read “herb garden,” “thyme,” “parsley,” “chives.” I couldn’t wait for the snow to melt to put them beside the plants in my garden.

This spring I took a group of friends to see the herb garden and to discuss the new herb garden bed. I told them, with a mixture of affection and pride, that this was the herb garden of my dreams.

And all I could do that after was stare at my lovely herbs as they glistened from a poison.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” the young man tells me.

The boss tells your uncle that they will pay to replace any of the herbs is they’re damaged. He explains that they’ll pull out the sumac tree. They continue talking and I shake my head.

“It’s supposed to be safe for gardens,” the young man says once more.

I just look at him and quietly say, “How can it be safe for gardens if it kills trees? Why would you think spraying it there would be a good idea?’

He shakes his head. He doesn’t know. All he knows is what he was told. If he had read up on what he sprayed, if he and his boss knew what types of plants were listed and how they were related to the one growing in the garden, if they had followed the directions to prevent the spray from landing on plants that were wanted, he would never have done this.

Honestly, if they read up on what they were spraying in the first place they would be wearing masks and gloves to handle it. They would stop using it altogether.

Burned up lemon balm.
I let the men go to discuss the wasp problem. Unable to do anything but hope for the best, I went back to work in the parlor. But over the course of the next several days, the damage unfolded. Steadily, the poison did its work. Leaves wilted, then browned and crumbled. Rusty spots appeared and ate away the healthy oregano plants. The thyme lost all its tiny leaves. The lemon balm took on the appearance of charred sticks. The sage first looked like it was spared and then one afternoon wilted and didn’t stand back up. The lavender curled upon itself. The strawberries under the sumac died. And each day, it became worse.
The chives, center, are the only plant still alive.
The oregano, left, and rosemary, bottom center, are dead.
The sage, far right, wilted the day this was taken
and has not recovered.

One week later, the herb garden is dead.
Oregano, killed by glyphosate.

Is it all gone? Today it looks like the mint was spared and the chives will survive. Some of the lavender, close to the mint, might make it. But yes, the main section, and all the plants there, is gone.

Dear readers, I’ll tell you later how I will replant, what work I will do. But today, after a difficult week, all I can do is leave my grief here.

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