Team Work

by Bev Wagar

Knotweed’s ruthlessness calls for a special kind of response from Hort Court.

I wrote “Team Work” in early 2022, after a long break from the Hort Court series. No longer constrained by word counts (The Point is now digital only and I no longer contribute a gardening column), this one is much longer than the first six short pieces.

Rumours spread quickly in open meadows and Frankie the mole had heard enough of them to know when to stop chomping and take notice. Even with his tiny ears he could hear the fear in Windy’s voice when she hinted that Japanese Knotweed had been spotted by the creek. Frankie’s pal Ernie the vole, tunneling nearby, also popped up his head to listen.

“Windy’s just trying to keep everyone calm” said Ernie.

“And I thank her for that. After that close call in May, the last thing we need around here is panic.”

The two decided to head up to the courtyard and share the news with the garden folk. Hort Court had just adjourned and everyone was ready for lunch. The morning case had been difficult—Cup Plant and his seeds again—but Prosecutor listened carefully to the tiny harbingers. Ernie and Frankie were well known for their keen ability to detect the faintest of scents. If Knotweed had indeed come aground near the creek, the meadow and the garden were in serious trouble.

“It was a very faint rumour,” said Frankie. “Knotweed might still be a twig. We should act now before he puts down roots.”

So Prosecutor called all the garden plants to a meeting the next day. Meadow dwellers were also welcome, but only if they could put aside their feuds and quarrels with the garden varieties and share the courtyard peacefully.

In the morning, right at dawn, Prosecutor sent scouts down to the creek to see if the rumours were true. A pair of woodland sunflowers had volunteered for the job. Sisters Heelie and Anthus were tall, fast, diligent, and always smiling. Prosecutor could count on them to return with reliable reports. True to their word, the sunny sisters returned from their mission even before the dew had dried off in the courtyard. Had the terrible Knotweed come ashore? He was known for stealth on the waterways, taking advantage of storms and floods to send roots and shoots downstream where they could come ashore and start a new colony. But with high water and a fast current, Knotweed might have lost his rooting.

“Well?” said Prosecutor? “What did your big brown eyes see down there?”

Heelie, tired from the long run back from the stream, pushed aside her drooping golden petals and announced the bad news.

“It’s true. Knotweed has landed and he’s already put roots down. We had a brief conversation, if you can call it that. I’m afraid we’re all in mortal danger.”

With the big meeting about to start, details would have to wait. Most of the garden dwellers had already arranged themselves on the courtyard benches, silent and curious as the meadow folk drifted in through the back gate and stood nervously against the stone wall. They’d been taught to mistrust these exotics and cultivated varieties.

Prosecutor stood up and cleared his throat.

“We meet today at Hort Court in the shadow of a grave threat, one that affects us all. We have reliable reports of a Knotweed colony by the creek.”

Ernie and Frankie were the first to react, but their squeaks were quickly drowned out by gasps and groans from the crowd. Sunflower drooped even further. Several Nicotiana unintentionally released VOCs but, despite attracting a few braconid wasps to the courtyard, not an anther moved. Prosecutor continued.

“Knotweed has been found guilty in every courtyard this side of the lake. He’s invaded every garden he’s touched. No sheet mulch can stop him, no jail can contain his roots. His roots and stems break off and drift down our creeks and rivers. Tiny pieces, no bigger than a PawPaw seed, come ashore, take root, and grow fast. For those of you who’ve never seen Knotweed, he’s as tall as Panicum and his roots are just as deep. He’s mean, strong, and he won’t share his space with anyone.”

Switchgrass, unused to being called by his formal name, blushed from his spot in the back row. He’d only recently been invited into the garden and was still adjusting to his role as natural heir to Karl Foerster, who had stomped off in a spat about traditional values.

Prosecutor continued, his voice deliberately calm, aware of the tension that could ignite old rivalries.

“As you know, none of us is really equipped to keep Knotweed in check. Ever since he arrived in this land he’s been confounding our efforts. We need new ideas.”

Even the crickets were silent.

“Anyone?”

Beaver, who was fidgetting just outside the courtyard gate, finally spoke up.

“This Knotweed is a dangerous criminal. He’s out to wreck the pond and the stream too, unless we can stop him. I’m worried about my family. We just won’t survive once Knotweed takes over.”

Everyone nodded. Seasons ago, beyond anyone’s memory, Beaver and his kin had built the dam that created the pond. It was a huge attraction for birds and fish, not to mention the insects, amphibians, and mammals.

“I took a nibble of Knotweed this morning when he wasn’t looking” Beaver continued. “Didn’t much like the taste, and he hurt my teeth. But I think me and the missus could chomp him down to the ground, if we got to him soon. Maybe Spicebush could help us get rid of the taste.”

“Could you do it more than once? Maybe every few days?” asked Prosecutor. “Knotweed spreads faster than any scoundrel we’ve put put on trial—even Vinca. We would need to keep at him, not let him see the light of day. He’s a plant after all. Without leaves, he’s only got what’s in the root cellar and those supplies can’t last forever.”

The roots are the main problem,” said Beaver. “I can dig, but not that deep.”

“I can help!” All heads turned in the direction of the tiny voice. It was Ernie, standing tall and puffing out his chest ever so slightly. “I’m just a little vole with bad eyesight but I can eat pretty much any root in my path.”

“I’m in, too!” cried Frankie the mole. “I can dig way deeper than Ernie. I’ll dig, and Ernie can eat.”

The courtyard erupted in cheers and petal showers as the new rodent-mammal team high-fived one another. It wasn’t a solution—yet—but there was was cause for hope.

“Thank you all,” said Prosecutor. “Beaver, can you start today? And Ernie and Frankie, can you get in there as soon as Beaver is done? Our only chance is to get Knotweed while he’s small.”

All three nodded assent. As Prosecutor adjourned the meeting and everyone headed for the courtyard gates, Heelie and Anthus took the trio aside and offered some advice.

“Be careful, fellas” said Heelie. “That Knotweed is a fast talker. Really slick. When we were down there this morning, he started harping on about how much the bees loved his flowers, how delicious his shoots are in the spring, how it wasn’t his fault that he ended up in this part of the world, and how he’s not all that bad ‘cause he doesn’t spread by seed like Buckthorn and Honeysuckle. He even tried to tell us he was—how did he put it—stabilizing the stream bank.”

They snorted in unison. These were blustery exaggerations, weasel-words, and outright lies. Knotweed had mastered them all.

“What did you and Anthus say to that?” asked Beaver.

“Nothing. We just turned around and let the sun shine on our faces” the sunflower replied. “I raised my leaves and thought about this wonderful meadow and the beautiful garden up the hill, and how well this place works even if some plants misbehave and land in hort court. I thought of Mama Nature.”

“I think I woulda dove into a burrow,” said Frankie.

“Me too,” replied Ernie.

“We’ll be okay,” Beaver said kindly. “But hey guys, let’s get going—we’ve got a lot to chew on. Knotweed might wear us down and, even if we can’t evict him, we’re gonna make him stay put.”

He laid down his tail and invited his new partners to climb aboard. Beaver’s waddling gait made it hard for Frankie and Ernie to stand, but the pair still managed to wave farewell to the sunflower sisters and the hundreds of garden plants now cheering from the courtyard. The ones in bloom had arranged themselves into a bright garland that even Frankie could see. And, to everyone’s surprise, shy little Iris joined in, waving her blue flag, leading the valiant trio through the meadow grasses to the stream.

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