House Under Siege
Victoria Secunda's story of when her garden turned against her. She gives advice on how to prevent such disasters from happening.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
One fine spring morning soon after we moved into our abode in 1994, I strolled out to the backyard to get better acquainted with the place, and what I saw was not pretty. Oh, the house was a joy—bright, newly renovated, a stunner. Not so the unadorned foundation, its coarse, prison-gray underpinnings exposed below the shingles for all the world to see. This expanse of cold mortar and concrete blocks cried out for a coverup. And so, hort doofus that I was, I came up with a brilliant (to me) solution: Ivy. Boston ivy, to be exact, which in time would discreetly veil the foundation with a web of vegetative finery. A flat of the stuff was quickly installed along the entire backside of the domicile.
Fast-forward to two years later, when, while standing in our living room, my eye was caught by a spot of shiny green wedged in the corner of a windowsill. Imagine my alarm when, upon closer inspection, the green thing turned out to be a leaf of the aforementioned ivy; it had insinuated itself up the foundation, over the siding, between the glass, grout, and wood framing, and into the room, summoning shivery memories of “Audrey II,” the gluttonous plant in Little Shop of Horrors.
In a flash, I was on the phone to order a new window, then I ran outdoors and began ripping out the ivy, which clung like grim death to the house with aerial rootlets (they’re called “holdfasts,” and a truer word was never spoken; the rootlets exude weapons-grade adhesive goo). In so doing, I also stripped off streaks of paint, causing the shingles to look as if they had, well, shingles.
That was the day I began to understand the myriad ways nature can demolish a dwelling, and why, in consequence, homeowners must always be on guard in the yard, armed with at least a working knowledge of how plants think. Ivy, to return to the point, appears to be all innocence, but it’s wily. Left to run riot, it can undermine foundations by trapping moisture, leading to mold, mildew, and wood rot. It can also provide a highway for termites and assorted arachnids to gain easy entry into, and begin dining upon, the premises. When inexpertly removed, it leaves rootlets on surfaces; stains wood- and stonework; and dislodges soft brick masonry.
In the vine devilry department, however, ivy is a wimp compared, say, to a flowering walloper such as Wisteria. When unrestrained, it puts out runners up to 12 feet long over a summer; can top out at 65 feet, its woody, twining stem bulking up to a formidable 12 to 15 inches in diameter. This glorious behemoth has been known to raise roofs, tear off railings, topple fences, strangle trees, clog gutters, crack in-ground water, sewer, and sprinkler lines, and even breach basement walls—enough reasons, I do believe, to keep it off the house and, instead, to strap it onto a sturdy fence or pergola.
The same is true of climbing hydrangea, another comely brute. The vine’s main stem, also woody, grows thick hairy branches extending as much as three feet and sending out ground-level appendages that can overtake garden beds. As with Wisteria, this hydrangea, when in bloom, is magnificent—but it’s a bear to police. I used it to conceal a chain-link fence surrounding a doghouse next to the garage. The doghouse eventually buckled, the vine glommed onto the garage, and it took all my strength to wrest it off.
Other mischievous vines include Euonymus fortunei, honeysuckle, and grape, none of which would I touch with an 18-foot telescoping pruner. Let me assure you, however, that I am anything but vinous-phobic. I’m besotted by clematis—adored as much for its delicate, durable habit and astonishing shapes and colors as for its refined behavior—and seven varieties of the creeper festively festoon trellis panels in my secret garden. But obstreperous, beefy climbers have been banned from my borders.
Which leads me to other potential hort home-wreckers. Certain trees, for example, should either be shunned altogether, or properly placed and groomed, lest the homestead end in ruins. Among the “headache” trees warned against by arborists are Willows (inlanders, kiss your septic system goodbye), Silver Maple (the roots can buckle driveways), and Black Locust (seeds like crazy).
The main landscape hazard to houses, however, might decorously be termed “pilot error”—that is, well-intentioned but agriculturally challenged home-owners themselves. Indeed, I myself have learned from doleful experience the ways in which I personally have pastorally transgressed my nest:
- watering shrubs and plants that are too close to the house. Wet basements are sometimes caused by the use of soaker hoses in foundation borders (a family of garter snakes loved me for this one), and by piling up mulch against the house. Site engineers recommend laying a course of gravel, out to a width of 12 inches, along the foundation to keep borders from touching the manse;
- failing to factor in the eventual size of trees. Years ago, the local utility company gave me the choice of either allowing them to remove a maple on my property that was growing into overhanging power lines, or prune the tree in a wide arc around the wires, like a bad nose job. I chose the former, and bought another maple, which was planted 12 feet farther from the power lines. Not far enough, alas; that very maple is now mimicking its predecessor;
- allowing tree branches to hover over the roof. Ever wonder why mildew and peeling paint seem to recur in certain areas of the interior and exterior of your digs? Go outside and look up; could be that tree branches are covering that part of the house and keeping it damp. Such limbs should be trimmed back so that ultraviolet sun rays can kill mold spores and dry out the roof and siding;
- stacking logs against the house (mea maxima culpa). I’ll make this quick: rats, moles, voles, squirrels, fungi, bugs, mildew, skunks, snakes, mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and Rasputin the Woodchuck will happily take shelter amongst the firewood, especially in winter.
Bearing all this in mind, now is the perfect season for you to give the house a thorough checkup, before trees and perennials have fully leafed out. If there is evidence that certain plants have targeted your dwelling for unlawful seizure, you can cut them off, literally and figuratively, before they begin to gush new growth. Then you will truly be master of your domain.