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When good vines go bad

It’s a jungle out there.

Specifically, I’m talking about those near-abandoned corners of our own backyards. Stuck behind trees or shrubs, they’re impossible spots to reach without breaking branches or scratching arms. Or they could be those narrow spaces squeezed between garage and fences.

We can’t fit ourselves – or our garden equipment – into these too tight places, so we just kind of let them go. Whatever grows there can fend for itself, uncared for and pretty much unseen.

Until the vines take over.

Native to forest floors and jungle habitats, ornamental vines feel right at home in California gardens. They love our weather and can adapt to extremely challenging conditions, such as that tight spot behind the garage.

They’re tough, aggressive and opportunistic. So as other longtime landscape plants became stressed during drought, vines seize their space, robbing them of water and sun.

I witnessed the process in my own backyard. The vines came out of the shadows. They benefited from my benign neglect.

They sprouted out of nowhere and filled dry shady spaces without irrigation. Some even bloomed. If the bees were happy, I could put up with some Japanese honeysuckle and Carolina jasmine along the back fence.

The vines managed to wind their way onto fence posts and between slats. Then, a large tree fern became a trellis. Before long, jasmine and honeysuckle were blooming in the fruit trees.

But the vines didn’t stop there.

Under mulch and fallen leaves, ropelike vines wove their way to new locations. They rooted where they touched the soil – often, every few inches. With this cover of bark masking their expansion, they stretched their territory the length of the fence, then beyond into the neighbors’ yards.

When spring rain prompted a flush of new growth, the vines really attacked.

Like green monsters, they sprouted winding tentacles that twisted and turned around anything upright. Tighter and tighter they turned, squeezing life out of rose bushes and camellias. Ginger and canna stalks looked like bean poles.

The vines overwhelmed the hedges and climbed up the maples. Whole clumps of heavenly bamboo just disappeared. The hydrangeas were a tangled mess.

It wasn’t just jasmine and honeysuckle. They had lots of viney friends: Virginia creeper, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry. It was an international convention – not a native Californian in the bunch.

Before the vines swallowed everything, it was time to act. A total family project was launched. Even the dog and cat got into vine eradication. (Vines make excellent pull toys.)

What makes vines so tough also make them almost impossible to restrain. Once they claim new territory, they tend to keep it.

The distance some vines run proved amazing. Tugging at one corner of the yard, I yanked out a jasmine vine that was more than 80 feet long.

Armed with gloves, shovel and pruners, we discovered vines respond to brute strength by breaking off in sections; each piece could become its own whole new vine. In areas we had cleared, baby vines sprouted from these scraps.

Although mad and frustrated, I admired their tenacity. These are valued ornamental plants that could be beautiful in the right spots and grow so well without care or much water.

But I didn’t want a jungle anymore. I wanted my backyard back.

Several weekends later, much of the vine jungle is cleared. Large flower beds have fresh mulch that suffocate those baby sprouts. Any new sightings get shovel pruned.

It’ll be an ongoing struggle and a cautionary tale: Don’t let those good vines turn bad.

But with the morning breeze, I smell honeysuckle – again – and look out the bedroom window. Over the back shed and into the hedge, I see more flashes of white and yellow flowers. They’re so pretty and fragrant, and the bees are happy. Maybe I’ll let those stay …

Debbie Arrington, 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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