There I stood one summer day, deep inside a local home and garden center, facing a display of spray herbicides, trying to bring myself to buy a can. From the get-go, I’ve been a green gardener. No pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in my garden. Black spot on the roses? Hey, it happens. Powdery mildew on the phlox? It’ll pass. Mysterious insects on the shrubs? C’est la vie.  

I deal with weeds the old-fashioned way. I pull them. But last July, I noticed a new invader, a woody vine growing along the border of one of my flower beds. I peered down to get a closer look. Horror! I shrank back in fear, trowels of terror striking my heart. It was poison ivy, the noxious plant that ranks second only to snakes on my list of Things to Avoid in Nature Or Risk Heart Attack. I glared at the plant hard and long, trying to shrivel it with a killer stare.

We have a long and spotty history, poison ivy and me. When I was a kid, I was a magnet for the stuff. Every spring, whether I seemed to go near the reddish, pointy leaves or not, I’d get a case so searing  that my eyes would swell shut and blisters would erupt over most of my body. I’d miss days of school. I’d itch so badly I wanted to remove my skin and put it through the clothes washer with a dose of bleach. I’d soak for hours in tubs of warm water. My mother would cover me with pink Calamine lotion until I looked like a miserable stick of cotton candy. It’s strange: my husband grew up on a farm, was outside all of the time and never got poison ivy. Apparently, he’s in the minority of people resistant to urushiol, the oil in the plant that causes allergic reactions in people like me.   

So there I stood in the gigantic store, staring at a can of Super-Duper Ivy Kill. I had to get rid of the poison ivy, I thought frantically. It was going to take over, destroy me first and then move on to world domination. I mean, I love nature but I do have my limits. And it was up to me. My husband doesn’t like gardening and avoids the whole backyard scene.

I paced. Again and again, I picked up a can, only to set it back down again in a rush of guilt. I looked, no doubt, very suspicious in my indecision. Who takes 30 minutes to decide on a can of chemicals? I knew the store manager was watching me, but my little environmental soul was in crisis. The Angel of Sustainable Living was on one shoulder, whispering sweetly into my ear: “Oh, no, you don’t need chemicals. Why, you and the poison ivy can just learn to get along.” While the Devil of Quick Fixes perched on my alternate shoulder had other ideas: “Kill it with chemicals! Kill it with chemicals! Kill, kill, kill!”

Oh, and did I mention that for years I hosted a local radio program on ecological issues? You know, where I urged listeners to think green? Great, I thought, I’ll get to the checkout line and someone who knows me will approach and say, “Oh, hi there. How are you? Doing a little shopping?”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing,” I’ll stammer. “Just a little Saturday morning browsing for home fix-it stuff!”

“Oh. I see you’re buying a can of Super-Duper Ivy Kill. Isn’t that a, well, a toxic chemical?”

I’ll feel sick. I’ll feel shame. I will have to move out of town. Hey, I never said my motives were completely pure.

In the end, I left the can on the shelf. When I thought about those nasty chemicals migrating into the soil and water, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I did stop and buy a pair of clippers and some heavy gloves.

As summer peaked, the poison ivy grew long and snaky around my perennial bed. I stepped over the vines when I had to, stayed away when I could. Fortunately, I never did get a case of it.

This year, though, I’m better prepared. I’ve got my clippers out along with those heavy gloves I bought. I’m ready, all right. Ready for the day I call to my husband: “Honey? Can you take these clippers and put these gloves on? I need to ask you to do something for me…”

Story by D. Cameron Lawrence. This article originally appeard in "Plenty" in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Chemical dependency: One woman's battle with weed killer
I deal with weeds the old-fashioned way. I pull them. But last July, I noticed a new invader, a woody vine growing along the border of one of my flower beds.