It’s Probably My Elephant


    Guest Rant by Joe Schmitt 

    They say a garden dies with the gardener, but mine has other plans:  Step one, reaching through my window and strangling me in my sleep.  The rest will be easy.  Consume my house, joe3head next door, finish off the rest of the block and just keep on growing.

    It’s my own fault in so many ways, and I really sealed my fate the day I brought home, and only half read, “The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand” by William H. Frederick. 

    As a plant geek and short person, I loved bizarre, obscure and preferably huge plants.  I was a sucker for J.L Hudson’s seed catalog, with his radicalizing descriptions of gems like wild dagga and giant yellow hyssop.  And as a gardener of the male persuasion, I also recognized early on the fierce cutthroat nature of the sport.  There are few moments in life more rewarding than saying to a rival, “Oh, you don’t know Agastache nepetoides ?  It’s such a weed!”

    Weed indeed.  It’s the seventh circle of my gardening hell, just before white snakeroot and just after Impatiens balfourii, Kashmiri touch-me-not, with its ballistic seed pods.  Worse yet, the Impatiens arrived unintentionally, a clear karmic smack from St. Fiacre for stealing a clump of Virginia bluebells from the public garden down the street, the Mertensia a thug in its own right.


    My yard is a living litany of very bad plants and my fate is the fruit of laissez-faire.  When the seedless table grape I trellised near the chimney sprouted from its rootstock, did I intervene?  No, I encouraged it and, quite literally, supported it.  “Deciduous awnings – what could be better?” I thought. 

    Now it’s been chosen by the others to strangle me.  That’s if the looming widow-maker hanging in the black walnut from our last tornado doesn’t get me first.  The same storm sent a chunk of my half-dead box elder through the neighbor’s window, taking frame and draperies with it.  Think I’d sit up and take notice?  I’ll bet my neighbors did.  Not sure.  For some reason they don’t talk to me.

    Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy.  This sleeping dwarf has been awakened.  I’m not going down without a fight.  We humans have some allies too, you know.  The usual intervention in these parts is goats.  That’s right, goats.  Even the University uses them to beat back rampant growth. 

    “Minimize your carbon hoofprint.” they claim, a worthy goal surely, but would they be up to the job?  My job?  A job like mine needs bigger feet.  But whose feet was the question.  The answer came quickly, just a few days ago, from the unlikeliest place ever for good garden advice, my on-line Spanish course.

    Not everything they teach me is so immediately useful, mind you.  Like the other day, “El conejo come carne.”  Well, no, the rabbit does not eat meat, so why would I say that except to lie to a small child?  But this, “Es seguramente mi elefante.”  It’s probably my elephant.  Well, brilliant!  How could it have slipped my mind?

    joe3 DSC00026Sure, it’s been fifty years since my stint in the Peace Corps in East Bengal, but having an itinerant elephant amble into your yard begging banana trees via her spokes-mahout?  That’s not the sort of thing you easily forget.  Nor the swineherds who followed up, mongoose at the ready should a stray cobra get flushed from the underbrush.  But they did the job, and did it beautifully, quickly, and best of all free.

    Desperate times call for desperate measures.  We’ll start with just the elephant and see where we go from there.  I just hope she gets along with my dogs.  Which reminds me – I’ll need a much bigger scooper.  

    Joe Schmitt grows cut flowers in Wisconsin and is often caught playing with his words.


    1. I don’t think anybody has ever caught me playing with my words, but they may have been simply too polite to let on. We adopted a cat to hunt mice, but she seemed to prefer songbirds, and now she’s unhappily cooped up in the house. If you were to acquire an elephant to help keep the grapevine in check, but it preferred the African blue basil, are you prepared to keep it as a house elephant? One must think ahead about these things; impetuous decisions are fine when we’re young, or how else would we have children, but I find it difficult to type with a cat on the keyboard. I can’t imagine the difficulties you might have with even a small elephant.

    2. Well, I will say that seeing your photos makes me feel one hell of a lot better about my own not-nearly-so-out-of-control garden. Thanks for that. I can’t answer to what you’d be in for if you adopt an elephant, but regarding the goats, I can only repeat what my dad would have told you: it’ll be all right until the neighbors get wind of it.

    3. My “elephant” is a Cecile Brunner climbing rose. I encouraged it and even tied it to my porch railing. I had to cut it down when I noticed it was pulling the railing off the porch.

      Oh, well. Next spring we plan to have the front steps rebuilt, the porch repaired and fixing the railing just be for we paint the house.

      Today I need to pull out dying tomato and pepper plants from the front yard.

      • My husband regularly chainsaws my Cecile Brunners( I have 2, one wasn’t enough) I planted one to discourage the cat pee graffiti folk from tagging my fence and the other to hide a eucalyptus tree. The tree is long gone but the rose is forever and no one has the nerve to touch my fence.

      • In the first house my husband and I rented, there was phildendron and spider plant gone wild in the rock&mortar planters on the porch. In Pomona CA, spider plants are NOT AT ALL delicate little creatures and a pain to uproot. Philodendrons? Those dendrons were philling up quite a lot of space, and they too took muscle to remove. I forget what i wanted to plant, but it was likely something pleasant smelling or edible.

        Our entire household plays with words. I had to leave the Wordplay list when I was unable to match their level of excellency and profusion.

    4. I’ve been looking forward to your guest blog after seeing it discussed in comment section earlier. I hope we’ll see even more of your garden.
      I think the best part of a lush, “overgrown” garden is the privacy it affords here in the burbs. Of course, my friend who works for the police department tells me burglars also love them, but there are risks that come with everything. I’ve been setting up some more “bones” in my front yard, shrubs and such, but am considering giving a vine a try along the front porch.

      • It’s more of a garden remnant at this point although that was actually my goal 30 years ago when I envisioned installing hints of a stone foundation and a half fallen gate in a crumbling, vine covered fence. I was a stay-at-home dad at the time and everything felt possible. Then 20 years ago I returned to commercial cut flower growing, my fields became my garden, the faux ruins never happened and the garden at home got just enough attention to keep the complaints from the City Housing Inspection down to one or two a season. In the meantime, passersby have never failed to comment positively on what little they can see and love the “wildness” of it all. I suspect that their own mental images of what they can’t see add significantly to their enjoyment.

    5. Love you uncle joey….no mater goat or elephants, everything you touch is beautiful, educational and…fun. thanks for your insite – out. and soon, real soon we hope to see you all. Maybe by then you will have a zoo too!

    6. I can’t thank you–and the friend who sent me this column–enough! When I moved to this river village in the Pacific Northwest (only eight years ago!) there were three small box woods and a medium sized yew in the front– and only a lonely rhododendron in the large back yard. Now all is a monstrous jungle and I, a lone, short, well-seasoned woman, have finally started chainsawing, slashing and (horrors!) even spraying these gargantuans that have ruined many a night’s sleep with nightmares of looming disaster. (As if the horrors of lonely penury and global warming and the crude oil trains weren’t enough…)

      What on earth was I thinking!?!!! What hubris!!!! Now, while others see beauty, I see clear evidence of dementia………. So I relish your pictures. Bless your soul. May the gods preserve us.

      And, yes, goats have been suggested by well-meaning “friends”….. One of the back boundaries is entirely Himalayan blackberries!!!! (At least I wasn’t stupid enough to plant those nasty suckers!)

    7. I have only been at this house for 5 years, and it was a blank slate when I started. It is amazing how quickly it all grows into a jungle. Some people love it, and others like my father prefer an orderly garden. I can only imagine how big my redbuds, oak, and tulip tree will be in twenty odd years. I have made promises to my neighbour that I will be pruning my Japanese Fantail willow quite drastically this winter. They are fearing it will escape into their yard.

      But the pictures of your yard makes mine look tame.

      Thank you.

    8. Ahh, Joe, thanks for this! Dare I ask for more? Ah what the hay–more! ….and I’d be willing to bet your dogs keep a tight watch over everything going on in that garden of yours, and the neighbors’ gardens too 🙂

    9. Love your word play! And this piece does give me pause, as I’m frantically planting up my new garden with shrubs and trees. Hmmm. I try to space the tall things out so big pieces of sky will remain, and vow to cut or move those fellas that take more space than they ought to. I try to pay attention to those enjoyable views across the yard and preserve them in my vision of the future garden. It might be a couple of decades before I’ll know if I succeeded. (But I do appreciate your warning.)

    10. Joe Schmitt this is a WONDERFUL piece! I am smitten! I am in the process of being crowded out of my home by a clump of Hawaiian Painted Bamboo that is politely trying to crack my foundation – but I love it still. I need an elephant, too. Send me yours after it finishes your grape vine!

      • What’s for supper? I still grow a few edible things out of some brain-muscle-memory-need even though I get a free CSA share from a farm I helped launch 20 years ago, more vegetables than any empty nest can assimilate in one week. This year I vowed to do a better job using most, and occasionally , all of the bounty of the week by creating what we have dubbed a “vegetable medley”, a creative combination of everything in the box, all held together nicely with bacon, the duct tape of the kitchen. I have so far avoided anything even approaching unpalatable glop, the credit for which I happily concede to the intrinsic tastiness of good, fresh food.


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