Noe Valley Voice October 1998

Florence's Family Album: A Summer of Ants and Ivy

By Florence Holub

One of the joys of living in our hilltop house, with its view of the "big city" out the front window, is its country-like vista out the back. I've spent many a happy afternoon chopping vegetables or washing dishes at the sink and looking out the kitchen window at the lovely greenery that cloaks our back yard and the houses on either side.

When we moved here in 1942, the garden already boasted a wonderful variety of plants -- a snowball bush, quince, mock orange, peonies, cotoneasters, Shasta daisies, Cécile Brunner roses, bougainvillea, and at least five kinds of delightful little wildflowers. We hoped we'd be able to nurture them forever, but alas, we soon discovered that Noe Valley harbored an abundance of creepy crawly creatures, many of whom considered our garden their own private smorgasbord.

Every time a plant or flower disappeared, I'd clip a sprig of English Ivy and stick it in the ground. The ivy soon sprouted tiny yellow and then green leaves, and began to serve as ground cover.

I also planted another hardy staple -- geraniums, in several different colors. The geraniums filled the spaces left by the fuchsias, which had succumbed to a neighborhood plague of sorts. (A friend who works as a landscape gardener told me that Noe Valley's fuchsia population was almost wiped out by disease in the '70s.)

At about the same time, I noticed that our garden was being invaded by a larger, more aggressive ivy. This creeper began to take over any remnants of space between the geraniums and the English Ivy, and to climb up all the shrubs and trees, as well as the fence surrounding our property.

My man Leo and I certainly appreciated all these vibrant green plants, whose chloroplasts were busily converting water into food and releasing oxygen for us humans to breathe.

But the foliage was getting so thick and heavy that it obscured the bamboo plant at the rear of the yard and caused the fence to tilt forward at a dangerous slant. Last month, fearing that the fence might fall on one of us, Leo declared war upon the marauding ivy.

Day after day -- armed with clippers, crowbar, and a saw -- he attacked the monster, hacking the vines away with gusto. As the "sorcerer's apprentice," I carted off the piles of debris right after he created them, to ensure that the ivy wouldn't reroot somewhere else in the garden!

In order to carry the unwieldy, thorny piles through the house to the dumpster out front, I tied them into bundles using strips of fabric torn from old sheets. But after knocking some of Leo's photography supplies off the basement shelves, I began wrapping the bundles in a canvas tarp. Otherwise, I'd have been in big trouble!

My bundles consisted mainly of three vines -- the small, refined English Ivy; a larger, yellow and green variegated plant called arum ivy; and an even larger species, with leathery leaves as big as a spread hand. This last one was especially aggressive and fast-growing.

Leo and I labored four or five hours a day, every day for three weeks. Each evening we'd come into the house exhausted and not good for anything except a hot bath. Then we'd wake up each morning refreshed and ready for another round.

After clearing about five feet of space around the sagging fence, we stood there staring at the fence and wondering how on earth we were going to fix it. It was so distorted from years of abuse that fixing it appeared hopeless.

Fortunately, at just that moment, our good friend André dropped in. What looked like an impossible task to us was "a piece of cake" to him. As superintendent of a large construction company, André knew just how to restore and secure the fence, which he did in short order. It stands even straighter now than before. Our sincere thanks, André!

Now that we have removed the offending ivy, we can see all the way down the path to the bamboo. The other side of the yard remains filled with vegetation, but Leo has started to clip away at it, too. The only vine that will be spared is the wisteria, which lies draped over the railing of our deck, its green leaves weighted by deep lavender blooms.

As I inspected these blooms recently, I noticed a sooty black coating on one of the buds. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the branch and bud were teeming with life, but on such a small scale that I had to resort to a magnifying glass.

Through the lens I witnessed something that science books often talk about: an ant colony. The ants were scurrying up and down the stem, to and from some sooty-looking black specks, which were in fact tiny aphids, sometimes called "ant cows" because they are controlled and herded like cattle by the worker ants.

The ants seemed to be bumping into the tiny "cows," but after some research, I learned they were actually stroking the aphids to induce the excretion of a sweet honeydew, which the ants then took to their queen and her infants.

Ah well, I suppose our yard is big enough to share with these industrious and interesting insects, as long as they stay out of the kitchen. But if they venture inside the house, they will be met with a dose of Combat ant bait that will do them in, queen and all!

If we can summon the energy, Leo and I will try to replant our garden before the rains come. After that, we intend to remain vigilant, keeping an eye out for the slightest sign of the creeping green menace.

After all, since nothing seems to stand in its way, the ivy is a potential threat not only to us, but to all our good neighbors in Noe Valley, and even perhaps to the whole planet