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Green and Mean

Some plants are meant to repel. Consider the “legend” of Old Man Fergeson.


Around his yard he planted a row of Chinese hollies (Ilex cornuta), lush and green, but with the meanest spiky leaves around. It’s an attractive fence, or as botanical expert Michael Dirr calls it, “a living pin cushion.” Children and animals were kept out, despite their best attempts. Old Man Fergeson also installed a female ginkgo biloba at each corner of the yard, its branches hanging out over the sidewalk. The ginkgo is a popular tree, but woe to those who choose the female: Its orange seeds would drop and decompose messily on the sidewalk, producing what Dirr calls “a rancid butter odor that is the scourge of the neighborhood.”

Anyone with the curiosity and determination to penetrate the perimeter of Old Man Fergeson’s yard would see an amazing vista. Bermuda grass swayed in the breeze beneath grand old oaks. Privet and eucalyptus stood along the garden paths, while mountain laurel flowers added color to the scene. But visitors’ eyes soon would fill with tears and their noses would run amok: All the foliage was highly allergic.

At the heart of this grandeur was a garden of delicate and intricate beauty: lilac and forsythia, a bench under a flowering dogwood. And the marigolds! His herb garden contained, among other things, lots of mint. But as with all of Old Man Fergeson’s creation, there was a reason.

While most people would not get far enough into the yard to appreciate the garden, nature’s creatures often would come in to investigate. Hence the marigolds: good for repelling beasts and bugs. Hence the lilac, forsythia and dogwood: Deer do not eat them. And though deer can generally leap over anything as tall as 7 feet, and though deer will generally eat many things, deer will not generally go near mint in a garden.

So Old Man Fergeson ensured that no one would invade his sanctuary. But there was a pleasant, but lazy, young couple living next door who asked him for some easily maintained flora. His gruff answer was Wisteria floribunda.

The couple happily planted the Japanese wisteria along their fence and near their house, and just let it grow. Wisteria is the last battlefield of the Civil War: Northerners try to grow it, while Southerners are constantly cutting it back. The young couple knew no better though, and soon the beautiful, pleasant-smelling plant devoured their fence and then their house with a vine that, in Dirr’s words, “crushes any plant or wooden structure in its path in a boa constrictorlike fashion.” And soon all the neighbors moved away.

And Old Man Fergeson was left alone in his garden of solitude, forever trapped in his own nature. And to those kids around the campfire at Gardening Camp, there was a lesson learned. … probably something about give and take, or selfishness, or something. I don’t know. I went to Square Dance Camp.


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