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Friends Don’t Let Friends Plant Mint


If “ignorance of the law” is no excuse, does that apply also to the laws of nature? Of physiology? Of reproduction? Of supply and demand? Of fine print? Of the best intentions of friends gone awry? Of creeping rhizomes and fecund root fragments and floating, flying, fluttering husks of determined seeds?

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

My partner Kathleen and I own a wonderful vacation house on the Olympic Peninsula in the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. To make a long story short, it was an impulse buy—two city folks hypnotized by the sight of mushrooms growing on trees. Okay, that and 300-foot-tall conifers in the mountains on a glacier-fed lake in a land that receives an average rainfall of over 140 inches per year and is perpetually green. We may be city slickers but even we can smell the difference between humus and concrete.

To get a sense of our early attempts to create a garden there, just think of those grainy films of early rocket flights—you know, the ones where they slowly lift off above a fiery blast, only to stop and slowly sink back down into the fiery blast and explode. We soon realized that most perennials and annuals, left to their own devices for months at a time while we were in Chicago, would be MIA when we returned. Anybody who’s ever tried to garden long distance knows what I mean.

That is, until a couple of friends from Seattle, who occasionally came to stay at the house, left in our garden a horticultural gift: Mentha piperita, or peppermint plant. We appreciated its numerous positive characteristics. Attractive to bees and birds: check. Flowering: check. Fragrance: double check (hard to miss that). Durability: check. Hey, when we showed up at the house it was still alive. Cool!

All in all, it was the perfect plant for our needs. (Hey, stop laughing.) That is, until it was necessary to do some digging in the area where it had first been planted and displace part of the garden. I don’t even remember what I did with the original clump of mint. All I know is that suddenly it was appearing everywhere in the yard. Near a drainage ditch. In random clumps in the lawn. I knew it was there. I could smell it when I mowed. In the compost pile. It was about this time that I began reading about invasive plants (oh, now you decide to do some research).

I clawed frantically at the compost pile, now vaguely aware that there might be no stopping this monster, that there would be no prisoners taken. It entered my consciousness that this insidious, aromatic villain would first take over the yard, then quickly cover the Ranger Station and the Mercantile Store, spreading along Highway 101 devouring towns like Amanda Park and Forks until it engulfed the entire Olympic Peninsula and more, smothering lawns and trees and mountains and SUVs and dogs and Seattle’s Space Needle and every Starbucks in a three-state area.

Decades later, with the entire world now under siege by the Peppermint Peril, botanical journals would espouse theories as to how the attack began. Some would attempt to pinpoint PPZ or “Peppermint Plant Zero.” Some would argue that the invasion began near a small house in the Olympic National Forest. Others would say that no one could have been that careless, that such an act would have been criminally negligent.

“It’s not my fault, uh, Your Honor, even if my learning curve is more like parallel lines that recede into infinity. Honest, Your Bio-Judgeship, I didn’t even know that plants could behave like that. I mean, I mean, how was I to know what could happen in Zone 8, Your Eco-Lordship? I’m just a poor, lowly, suburban-raised Zone 5 boy. What would I know about the ways of vegetative terrorism? Um, does it seem hot in here? I…I…ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT! I CONFESS! BUT I DIDN’T PLANT THEM! IT WASN’T MY FAULT!! I’M INNOCENT, YOU HEAR ME?! INNOCENT!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!”

And then I woke up. I looked outside. The peppermint, still in the yard, was now more benign, not quite so ominous.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not concerned about the growing pile of Lamiastrum over what used to be the garden shed.

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questions

I brought a frangipani (Plumeria) back from Hawaii last April when it was just a leafless branch. It sprouted leaves and grew over summer. Now it is losing its leaves. How can I keep it growing over winter? Will it bloom?

I have lost four 12-15 foot tall white pine trees over the last year. All had the same symptoms, browning needles at the bottom that continued up to the top. Can you tell me what pest is killing the white pines? I am also losing an Austrian pine now. It is experiencing the same symptoms.

I want to raise the level of my lawn as much as 2 feet in places. I now have a large quantity of somewhat composted wood chips and I am wondering if I can use them as fill to raise the ground level and provide a good soil in which to sow a lawn.

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